What the Holy Land Means to Christians
Preached at Beth Am Synagogue, Los Altos Hills, California
Rabbi Block and I agreed to speak on the same topic this weekend, from our perspectives as Jew and Christian. My topic this evening is what the land of Israel means to Christians. Sunday morning in First United Methodist Church, Rabbi Block will speak on what the land of Israel means to Jews.
Christians have long been fascinated by what we call the Holy Land. The Holy Land is essentially the modern state of Israel. Through the centuries, probably because so few Christians actually went to Israel, the names of the places have been used as allegories for the best, the beautiful, that which is beyond our imagination and dreams, that which is eternal. We have named our churches and even cities for biblical sites. When the African slaves were uprooted from their homeland, carried here to the United States against their wishes, separated from their families, gradually realizing and accepting the fact they would never again see their homeland, and finding themselves a people without a land; they adopted the religion of their white slave masters, and spiritualized their homesickness by transferring their hope of going home to heaven. In a very real sense, they put their roots down--roots that were torn from Africa against their will--in the future.
They allegorized the places of the Bible and sang about the mighty Jordan. The River Jordan became the dividing line between earth and heaven, between this life which was so cruel to them, and the life hereafter--God's heaven--where they indeed would have shoes, where they could actually walk around God's heaven in shoes, with a walking cane. They sang of the new Jerusalem, and, in fact, New Jerusalem for most Christians is the name for that time when God will reign, that time when there shall be no more tears, no more pain, no more war, no more injustice; where everyone eats, where everyone is treated with dignity. The hope for the future is identified with New Jerusalem where God is in charge, where the will of God is done on earth as it is in heaven. The holy land for Christians has been used allegorically for the best, the beautiful, that which expresses our hope, that which is eternal.
Secondly, the sites at which events of the Bible happened have held a fascination for Christians. Shrines were built by Roman Catholics. Some travelers are offended by the large stone churches that have been erected over many of the sites. But stone churches or shrines were the methods of showing respect for the sacred events that occurred there. Also it was the only way the early Christians knew to protect the sites from vandals and enemies. When you visit the church at Bethlehem over the site of Jesus' birth, you have to lower your head to get through the door. In the Middle Ages, the top of the door was lowered to prevent the Turks from riding their horses into the church!
Through the centuries, Christians have traveled to the holy land. Medieval Catholics went on pilgrimages. During the time of the Crusades, even though there may have been political reasons beyond saving the holy land, the armies were generated and motivated with the appeal: march to the holy land to save it from the infidels. Today, modern Protestants go to the holy land in tour groups! I had the privilege of visiting Israel for the first time last year, and I really was unprepared for the impact of seeing the land, of seeing the places where the biblical events occurred.
It was an unforgettable, spiritual experience for me to see the Temple Mount where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed, and God stopped the proceedings and abolished child sacrifice. From that point on, in contrast with the neighboring religions, child sacrifice, and adult sacrifice as well, was not practiced by those who worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
It was a spiritual experience for me to walk on the top of the mount where the temple once stood, the temple erected by Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt by the returned exiles, and destroyed again by the Romans in 70 A.D. which launched another dispersion of the Jews. The Jews were banished to the far corners of the earth to live as persecuted foreigners for centuries. Millions of European Jews had no place to call home until the modern state of Israel was created by the United Nations in 1948.
It was a spiritual experience for me to ride the bus down Mt. Carmel and picture Elijah running ahead of King Ahab's chariot, rejoicing in the rainfall which resulted from Elijah's challenge to the priests of Baal.
It was a spiritual experience for me to sit on the side of the Mount of Beatitudes and picture Jesus speaking to thousands, saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers."
It was a spiritual experience for me to sit by the side of the serene, calm lake of Galilee, picturing the disciples of Jesus on the fishing boats which haven't changed much in 2,000 years, to see Jesus calling the disciples, gathering them, teaching them, leading them to preach about the coming of the kingdom of God.
It was difficult for me to feel much in modern Jerusalem except jostling by the crowds amid deafening noises of the street markets and the vendors; but Jerusalem for Christians is the site of the single most important and powerful act of God. It was in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and where he was raised from the dead. Christians believe that the power of God, revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, is the signal to humankind that God is ultimately in charge; that God will eventually overcome the forces of evil, and his will for humankind, his way for how humans should treat one another and live together on this planet, will ultimately triumph.
Jerusalem is holy to three great religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Jerusalem has always been a hotbed; the best and the worst happen in Jerusalem. It is as if the power of God is focused in Jerusalem, and the forces of evil unite to fight. The irony of human nature, the human situation in all its sin and repugnance, is illustrated by Christians in modern Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been built over the site where we believe Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. Several Christian groups have shrines within the church: Roman Catholic, EgyptianCoptic Christians, Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox. There may be more. But, because these Christians cannot agree on how the Church of the Holy Sepulcher should be managed, the Church is owned by a Muslim. A Muslim holds the keys! Isn't that a microcosm of Christians, and of human nature in general!
The reality of the human situation leads to the third meaning of the holy land for Christians. Not only have we allegorized the places to represent the eternal, and not only do the sites serve as shrines or places of inspiration for believers, but the holy land is again the focus of the world's attention. The holy land is not only important to the three great religions, but to the entire human race. Not only to Christians but to the entire world, the Middle East is once again the singularly most important and critical spot in the world. The Middle East always has been and it still is. The Middle East has played a critical role in the development of civilization as well as the three great religions. The Middle East has been the source of the greatest good in the world, and is currently the source of the greatest threat. Some fear that World War III could very well be triggered in the Middle East.
Conservative Protestant Christians, like those preachers you see on television, interpret portions of the Bible as prophecies of the future which are being fulfilled today in Israel. The return of the Jews to their homeland, they say, is the sign that we are entering the period of the last days. They say that a tremendous battle will again be fought on the plains of Megiddo, which in Hebrew is Armageddon. The forces of evil led by Satan will fight the forces of good led by Christ, and God will conquer. Most Christians do not agree with these interpretations of the Bible, but isn't it ironic that indeed there very well might be a battle of Armageddon, a battle that might ignite the world.
The solution of the Middle East crisis transcends human solutions. The solution lay in God's divine grace; yet God works through people. God works through you and me, and the leaders of nations as they let him. Today we need more than allegories, more than transferred hope to the hereafter. Today we need more than tour groups going to Israel for inspiration. Today we need real solutions for real problems in a real world.
Let us pray and work in our own ways, doing whatever we can do, to achieve not only peace in the Middle East, but create an example for the rest of the world of how people can rise above cultural, traditional, religious differences; rise above ancient prejudices, rise above bigotry and misunderstanding, to live together on this planet in mutual respect and cooperation.
This particular Christian standing before you this evening has profound sorrow for the treatment of Jews throughout the centuries. I have deep admiration and respect for the way in which Jews have handled suffering, and I rejoice in the hope the state of Israel represents. Also, I have high expectations. We look to the Jews to fulfill the role which history now places upon them as God's chosen people to save the world.
Why were the Jews chosen? Why did God choose Abraham and make a covenant with him? Not just to form a people and quit! What was God's purpose in choosing the Jews? In Genesis 12:2-3, God said to Abraham, "And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing...By you all the families of the earth will be blessed." We're talking about redemption. God chose the Jews to be his instruments in the redemption of the world. For the first time in centuries, the Jews as a people have the power and the opportunity to be God's instruments, God's means, to be the saviors of the world; to lead the way in the strategic Middle East, and thereby for the world, in peace, harmony, and justice.
What an exciting time to be alive! What an exciting time to be a Jew! The eyes of the world and the hopes of humanity are focused on the holy land. We pray for the power of the God who created and is creating, the God who can bring life out of death, the God who can bring order out of chaos, the God who can turn spears into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares. We pray God to bless the Middle East and the world with shalom. May Israel be a light to the gentiles.
© 1988 Douglas I. Norris