In the heat of our third day in Israel, a dozen or so people from my group donned our swimsuits and descended into the crisp waters of the Sea of Galilee for a riveting game of Marco Polo. I remember vividly the rough scrape of stones as I dove deep into the cloudy water to avoid being tagged. Of course, I held out longer than anyone. When we finished, we had time to sit on the gravelly shore and take in the beauty of the hills surrounding us. Even as I sit here and type this, it feels strange and a bit sacrilegious to come back from a 10-day journey through Israel and recall a children’s game as one of my favorite memories. However, after much deliberation and prayer, I do not believe my loves are disordered at all.
Of course, I learned more from my time in Israel than I ever could have sitting at home and reading about it. However, this Marco Polo memory taught me something I could never have learned from a book. Amid all the beautiful historical sites and monuments of ages gone by, amid the breathtaking accomplishments of modern Israel and the chutzpah of its people–the thing that truly makes Israel beautiful and holy is that it is the place which God set apart for His chosen people to live in. So many times our understanding of the Jewish people boils down to their millennia-long struggle with the rest of the world to truly inherit what God has promised them. It is hard to imagine the longing they must feel, and it is even harder to remember that God desires for all of Israel what I was allowed to experience for just a moment that day in the Sea of Galilee: a life of joy in the Promised Land.
Joy, as I imagine most Christians know, is not a feeling any more than love is an emotion.
Joy is a quiet, never-ending murmur in the soul which compels a person to praise God for the good things He has done and, indeed, has yet to do.
To live every day in joy, experiencing simple pleasures such as eating with friends and family, worshipping alongside others, and playing Marco Polo in the same waters Jesus once walked on — this is God’s desire for His people, Israel. Many times in reading scripture, I become so caught up in understanding Israel’s struggle that I forget to think about what God intended for them in the first place.
The land of Israel is a holy place; I walked around the Temple Mount as a tourist, an outsider looking in. God’s desire, throughout scripture and until today, is that the Israelites should enjoy His presence every day as they go about their lives in the land He has set apart for that specific purpose, not as outsiders, but as His chosen ones. It was a joy for me to swim in the beautiful waters of the Sea of Galilee, to value it not just for its religious and historical significance–certainly not things to be disregarded–but also because it serves as a reminder to Israel of God’s love for His people.
Indeed, it is obvious that Israel is truly loved. Surrounded on every side by those who would wish to see her destroyed, yet filled with God’s holy people, and abounding in blessings–God is still faithful to His people, even to today. My prayer for the people of Israel is that they will be able to experience a life full of the sort of joy that I was allowed to experience on my trip. That one afternoon changed how I see Israel and her people, and it made my heart ache for their struggle all the more.