When I announced my recent trip to Israel, reaction included comments such as, “Is it safe over there?” or simply, “Why?!?” One of my favorites was, “Other than sand and camels, what’s there?”
I decided to go for several reasons, the foremost being the opportunity to travel to a place I’d never seen in person. Since our radio stations were preparing similar trips for listeners this fall, it was also a chance to experience a “sneak preview.”
There’s more, of course, considering the crucial current events going on in that region, and plenty of archeology dating back thousands of years. More than anything it was a way to be immersed in biblical history, while gaining a broader perspective about what really matters in life.
In his fascinating book, “Jerusalem: The Biography,” author Simon Sebag Montefiore notes that the city “has a way of disappointing and tormenting both conquerors and visitors. The contrast between the real and heavenly cities is so excruciating that a hundred patients a year are committed to the city’s asylum.”
While he may overdo it in his analysis it’s true that people are often surprised by what they see in places they’ve only dreamed about.
Part of the perception problem for many Americans is due to being blessed to live in the USA. Unless a person gets a chance to travel internationally, it’s easy to assume other places are just like home. Rarely does something we have cultivated in our fertile imagination match reality.
Jerusalem is historic, yes, and yet at the same time a thriving, busy and hard-to-comprehend place. Famous locations are often crammed in the midst of urban development. Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Muslims all live together in a region riddled with daily challenges and tension due to centuries of conflict.
At the same time families and communities thrive, business expands and increasing numbers of people move to Israel, especially those of the Jewish faith escaping red-hot persecution elsewhere.
Despite all of that, I felt very safe when traveling in the Holy Land… more than in some American cities. Security is tight and not always easy to spot, but it’s there. Israel knows what to do to keep its people safe.
I was impressed with how small the region is, and how so many places of tremendous significance are so near. Standing on the Golan Heights, in the snow (an unusual occurrence) I noted that Damascus was only about 25 miles away. On a clear day it’s possible to see civil war battles in the distance. I was standing next to minefields from the 1973 and 1967 wars.
In the course of just one day we were at the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
It’s all so tightly packed. Gaza is not far south from Tel Aviv, and when sandstorms come the sand is from the Sinai in Egypt.
We visited Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jericho… all now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, with more fences, walls and checkpoints.
The itinerary included the Sea of Galilee, Tiberius, Caesarea by the Sea, Capernaum, the Dead Sea and Masada. There was also the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, City of David, Mount of Olives and the Garden Tomb (still empty).
Suddenly those maps in the back of my Bible came to life for me.
There was our meeting with a very bold Palestinian Christian pastor who has a Baptist church in Bethlehem.
And we spent midday at one of the largest Messianic Jewish congregations in the region, a place where they also house women from Africa who have been victims of human trafficking, and where Sudanese orphans find refuge.
As I think about all of the sights and sounds and issues, and give thanks for new friends made along the way, I remember the impact of the Western Wall and its underground tunnels. As I stood there and gazed into a very deep archeological pit, it was clear.
In layer of layer of rubble, back to the time of King Herod and beyond, there are remains of the big rulers of their day.
In their time, they each felt like “King of the World”… and often proclaimed that they were. Yet as the centuries marched on, new leaders piled on the previous regimes with their own.
And now, their empires are all in the heap of history. Fame is indeed fleeting. But Jerusalem stays essential, living on and more important today than ever.
And God’s not finished with the neighborhood yet.
— by Mark Larson
Larson is a longtime Southern California radio/television personality. His voice is heard on KPRZ 1210AM and his weekday talkshow airs 6 to 9 a.m. on AM 1170 “The Answer.” He’s also a news analyst on KUSI TV. Learn more at marklarson.com