It was the fourth day of our trip to the Holy Land. But only our second full day in Israel. That’s because getting there takes, essentially, two days of travel. You’re on airplanes for 14 or 15 hours. Plus getting to the airport. Plus waiting in the first airport for that first flight. Plus transferring from one plane to another in Frankfort, Germany. Plus going through customs in Tel Aviv. Not to mention that Israel is eight hours ahead of Sherman. All of which meant that we left the church a little before noon on Wednesday, and got to our hotel in Tel Aviv in time for dinner on Thursday. It was a long trip!
Our first full day in Israel was kind of just a warmup day, in my estimation. Most of it was spent on the bus, stopping at various sites as we made our way northeast to Galilee. Our guide spent the time on the bus giving us some orienting information about the history and politics of Israel, both of which are pretty complicated. We went to several interesting archaeological sites, which included some beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea. We ate some terrific falafel in the ancient crusader city of Acre (or Akko), and had our first taste of Arabic coffee, which is excellent. We even visited a church in Cana, the site of Jesus’ first miracle, a town where you can buy “Cana Wedding Wine” in the local souvenir shops (we did not).
There were interesting stops on that first full day in Israel, to be sure. But as we checked into our hotel that evening in Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, I had the distinct impression that our pilgrimage was about to begin in earnest. Sure enough, the next morning when I went down to breakfast, I looked out the window of the dining room and saw a beautiful sunrise over the Sea of Galilee. And it was in that moment, on the fourth day of our trip, on our second full day in the Holy Land, that it became real to me. That I was seeing what Jesus had once seen. That I was looking out over the place where Jesus had called those first disciples.
Now, on personality tests, I am about a 50/50 split between introvert and extrovert. Which means that I love being around people. But that I have my limits. And by the fourth day of our trip, fueled by a steady diet of unfamiliar food, still working through the early stages of serious jet lag, and half a world away from my fancy coffee maker and fresh coffee beans that I grind each morning immediately prior to brewing them, I was not in a chatty mood. So as we boarded the bus at 7:30am, I decided to put in my earbuds and listen to my music.
As we drove, the lyrics of songs that I’ve listened to so many times resonated with new meaning. But one line in particular, from a group called Hillsong in a song called Behold (Then Sings My Soul), kept repeating in my mind. “The Word became a man, that my soul should know its savior.” Because I was in the place where the Word had become a man, and walked, and taught, and did miracles, and healed people, and died, and rose again. All so that my soul should know its savior.
We drove for an hour or so north, to the Golan Heights. And as we did, I looked out over the Sea of Galilee, and at the beautiful landscape of the region of Galilee, and listened to my Jesus soundtrack. Our first stop that morning was at Caesarea Philippi, at the headwaters of the Jordan River. It’s the place where Jesus asked his first disciples the most important question that any of us ever answers on our journey of faith.
The thirty three of us got out of the bus, and we gathered together next to the water, in this beautifully wooded area, with olive trees, and crisp winter air. We read from the Gospel of Matthew. We prayed. And we stood on the very ground where Jesus and the twelve may have been standing when he asked them, as he asks us still today: “Who do you say that I am?”
It was the first moment in Israel that I was overcome, by the significance of where we were and the significance of what we were doing. The first of many such moments over the coming days of our pilgrimage. They call the Holy Land “the Fifth Gospel,” because of the way that it brings to life the stories that so many of us have heard and read so many times. It’s the reason why Christians have been making pilgrimages to the Holy Land for almost as long as there has been Christianity.
But actually, the concept of the pilgrimage goes back to the earliest roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the covenant with Moses, God commanded three pilgrimage festivals — the Festival of Booths, the Festival of Weeks, and Passover. “Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord God” (Exodus 23:14-17). Appearing before God required a journey to the Temple, where our ancestors in the faith believed that God dwelled.
But when Babylon conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 BC, the commanded pilgrimage festivals could no longer occur in Jerusalem. So theologians had to rethink some things. During the fifty years of Exile, worship shifted from a focus on the Temple to a focus on the synagogue. From a focus on sacrifice to a focus on study and prayer.
It is to this audience, God’s faithful in Exile, that the author of the middle portion of the Book of Isaiah writes. Most scholars agree that there are three distinct sections of Isaiah, written at three distinct times in Israel’s history. Our text for this morning, which is the Old Testament lectionary reading for today, is from the beginning of the second section of Isaiah, written to God’s faithful near the end of the Exile…
[Read Isaiah 40:21-31]
To a people living in Exile, to a people who were having to reinterpret what it meant to show devotion to God, to a people whose centuries-long tradition of pilgrimage to the Temple had been taken from them, Isaiah’s words are intended to comfort and to console. The closing verses of our passage are these days often read at funerals. But the entire passage is meant as an encouragement to a people living in Exile. Encouragement that no matter their lot, God is still God and we are still God’s people.
“God is the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28) and the ultimate sovereign, no matter what earthly rulers may do (40:23). God is not confined to any temple. Indeed, “it is he who sits above…the earth” (40:22). There will come a day when the Exile will end, when the people can return home, when the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt. But no matter where God’s people are, God is still God and we are still God’s people.
So the concept of the pilgrimage goes all the way back to Moses. One of the earliest sites venerated by Christians was the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. When the Emperor Hadrian, in the early 2nd century, learned that Christians were making pilgrimage to Bethlehem, he ordered a temple to Venus built on the site, in an attempt to cure the people of their Christianity. But two centuries later, when the Emperor Constantine converted and legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, his mother Helena went to the Holy Land to identify the sites central to the Christian faith and to build churches marking these holy sites. Thanks to Hadrian, the place believed to be the site of Christ’s birth had been preserved.
So Helena ordered Hadrian’s temple destroyed and commissioned the Church of the Nativity, which was built from 325-333 AD. When the Persians conquered the Holy Land in the 7th century, they destroyed all the Christian churches that they found. Except for the Church of the Nativity, because on its walls was a mosaic of the wise men, who were from Persia. Consequently, the Church of the Nativity is the oldest continuously functioning Christian church in the world.
When we were there, it was still the Christmas season in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. So Christmas trees were still up. Nativity sets were still out. And when we entered the Church of the Nativity, Orthodox Advent liturgies were being prayed.
In the first century, caves were dug under houses for the animals, to keep them safe and to protect them from the cold. Such was the place offered to Joseph and Mary. So when you enter the Church of the Nativity, you make your way downstairs under the altar, to the cave where tradition — since as early as the late 1st century — says Christ was born. The very spot is marked by a 14 point star, symbolizing the 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the start of the Exile, 14 generations from the Exile to Christ. Pilgrims, when they reach the very spot where we believe that the Word became a man, that our souls might know their savior, are welcome to kneel in prayer and touch the star. I mentioned on Christmas Eve that this was the very top item on my bucket list. And it did not disappoint.
Once Helena built churches over the the sites marking events from Christ’s life, the era of Christian pilgrimage began in earnest. When the Holy Land was conquered and pilgrimages there became more difficult — sometimes allowed, sometimes not over the centuries — sites in Europe emerged as pilgrimage destinations, like the Way of St. James in Spain and, of course, Rome.
The idea of pilgrimage runs deep in our souls, commanded by God when God made the covenant with Moses, and practiced by God’s faithful in some form or fashion ever since.
In our liturgy for Holy Communion in a few moments, we’ll pray what the Church has long called “the mystery of faith.” We say, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Christ is risen, we say. Not “Christ was resurrected.” Not past tense. Present tense. Christ is risen. Which is a profound theological claim.
In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul says, “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Our theology of the Resurrection is that Christ is alive, in the hearts and souls of those who call him Lord and Savior. Christ is here, right now. Working in and through you, and in and through me. When we gather together for worship and study, Christ is here. When we serve our fellow children of God, Christ is here. As we allow ourselves to grow in love and service to the world, Christ is here. As we raise our families in the faith, Christ is here.
Which means that, even though it is a deeply moving and meaningful experience to journey halfway around the world and walk where Christ walked, and read the gospels in the place those gospels are set, and ask ourselves the question Christ asked those first disciples almost two thousand years ago on the very ground where he asked it.
Even though going to the Holy Land was an amazing journey of faith that, God willing, I’ll do again some day. And that, God willing, Whitney and I will take our children to experience with us.
Even though a pilgrimage to there is a transformational experience that I’m so very grateful to have had, with memories that I’ll cherish until the day that I die, and that I recommend to everyone to experience for themselves.
Ultimately, our lives here are the true pilgrimage. Our journeys right now are a pilgrimage of faith and devotion and love. Our faith ancestors learned from the prophet Isaiah that they didn’t have to travel to God, because God was always with them. Our faith in the Resurrected Christ assures us that Jesus dwells within us all along our journey through life.
Christ is within us — pilgrims — as we seek to live faithful and meaningful lives. May we be always aware of that gospel truth.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.