I have just spent ten days touring the land of Israel – my first trip. It was a very enjoyable and insightful time. We based in Jerusalem for half the time, visiting many sites around the city and also venturing out to visit Masada, En Gedi, the Valley of Elah (where David fought Goliath) and Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered). The rest of the time we stayed in Tiberius right on the Sea of Galilee. From there we visited Capernaum, Nazareth (loved the Nazareth Village display), Cana, Mt Carmel (where Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal) and Ceaserea. We also visited ancient Joppa where Jonah boarded a ship headed away from God's call and where Peter had a vision about God's call for him to reach the Gentiles.
I saw a quote on a tour guide book while in Israel: "Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and one you will find in the land they call holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you." I think there is a lot of truth to that statement.
In many ways, visiting Israel turns your Bible from black and white into colour. The cultural and geographical contexts comes alive. Suddenly you know what it feels like to "go up to Jerusalem" which is high up in the mountains and to "go down to Jericho" which is down by the Dead Sea, many hundred of metres below sea level.
Of course, there is a lot of religiosity too. There are two supposed sites where Jesus was transfigured. In Cana there are two different churches each claiming to have the jars that Jesus used to turn water into wine. There are two different locations where he was supposed to have been crucified and then buried. No one knows for certain. After all, there were many hundreds of years after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 before Jews or Christians came back into the city and started to re-trace some of these locations. In fact, it was Emperor Constantine's mother, after his supposed conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, who officially tried to establish some of these holy sites In Jerusalem. Since that time, thousands of people have come to the holy land on some sort of pilgrimage – out of interest or looking for an extra blessing. We saw people kissing stones and relics, buying crosses and making sure that they touched various so-called holy places. Superstition is alive and well in Israel.
One thing we know for sure is that we as believers in Jesus are now his temple, his dwelling place. God is now at work in all the world and every place where he is at work is sacred. Visiting Israel can enhance our understanding of the biblical world and what God did in past times … but we don't worship the past. We appreciate it, we learn from it … and we move on … seeking to live each moment with an awareness of God and what he is doing .. right here … right now … wherever we are.