It’s easy to get distracted. It’s effortless, in fact.
I’ve got two young nephews, both in toddlerhood and eager to take in the world around them. They’re wonderful, curious creatures. They explore everything in reach, thoroughly and without discrimination, and for all that discovery, they know when they’ve found something truly great. Hand a toddler something beautiful and tell them to be careful with it. Watch their eyes go wide as you hand it to them. Their mouth will go soft as reach out with reverence. As they take it into their tiny hands, they’ll strain with foreign gentleness, burdened with the effort to keep soft palms and steady hands. They know it is important and they make a truly marvelous effort.
Now leave the room and come back in three minutes. That thing will either be abandoned on the ground or in their mouth, nine times out of ten.
The difficulty is, we are just like toddlers with something fragile in our faith. We know how precious God’s grace is and we want to hold it with gentle fingers, but it’s easy for it to slip to the back of our mind. While I was in Israel, I remembered some of the most beautiful parts of God’s promises.
It was in Magdala that I became lost in Jesus’ love. That morning our bus was alive with slightly off-pitch singing. One of our group members had brought his guitar and we were all eager to worship in the Promised Land. Having only been in Israel for a few days, the energy was incredibly high and the novelty fresh. In our head was the constant mantra: We’re in Israel! We’re really here!
When we were greeted by the on-site guide, I was still jittering in place. She smiled warmly at us and our obvious enthusiasm as our tour guide Liat fought with the mic. Her voice was smooth, I remember—kind and joyous. She started in on a history lesson of the ruins of Magdala and brought us to the old synagogue. She spoke of the building’s age, approximated by a coin planted beneath the floor, and the unique artifact found within depicting the old temple. Most clearly, though, I remember her claim: “Jesus taught here.”
I felt momentarily confused. He had? Had I skipped part of the Gospels? I remembered Jesus teaching in nearby Capernaum and around the Galilee, but I couldn’t recall a sermon at Magdala. When had he been here in this synagogue? My head demanded answers.
Our guide offered only this in answer: Jesus taught throughout Galilee and close to Magdala. It said in Mathew that Jesus sailed there as well. There is no recorded sermon, but if Jesus had come to this city, would he not walked through these streets uncovered before us? Would he not have walked among the people here and talked to them? Asked after them and cared for them? Would he not have gone to the synagogue where they often gathered to be with the people he was sent for?
I was still skeptical. While it was a sensible argument, there was a lot of probability associated with it. Still, when she called us to gather around the ruined walls of the old synagogue, I followed with the rest of the group, eager for a good look and a few photos. It was then that I was instructed to close my eyes.
This was when my head really fought me. I was here to see Israel, to see the Promised Land that God had gifted his people, where He had sent Christ and where Christ had died to take on the sins of those who believed in Him. I was really set on that ‘seeing’ part. But as my eyes closed and that kind, joyous voice began to speak I lost all of it.
Imagine, she told us, Christ coming into the port. Imagine what he looks like, who’s with him. Imagine him going through the town as it was before. The synagogue is standing, erected just a few decades ago. Imagine him leaving the port and making his way through the streets. He talks to his people with kindness. Perhaps he’d make his way to the synagogue, and pass where you are standing now. Imagine his kind, knowing eyes looking at you. You cannot know what he sees, but he is looking into you and he knows your heart. You are drawn to him. It is obvious that he is more than just another man visiting the town. You stay to hear him speak in the synagogue. You sit at his feet and you know all he says to be true just by hearing his words. You are saved in him.
As she lapsed into silence, I suddenly remembered who I was. I was a college student two thousand years after Christ’s first coming, but I brought something back from that experience—something precious I already knew, from when I first believed. It was the closeness of God on Earth, truly feeling the gap between humanity and God bridged by freely given grace. It was the precious thing I had forgotten when I came to see Israel—it was that God was still at work in this land. I am not sure when I had forgotten that his perfect love was a feeling and not a fact acquired through study. Belief in Christ, knowing him, following him, is what saves.
This is the truly precious thing we hold in our hands when we accept Christ. It’s beautiful, wholly sufficient and eternally satisfying. It is God’s grace that we hold in our fingers. It is the love he holds for us that calls us closer to him. It is the truth in his voice that makes us feel that we could spend our whole lives at his feet. It is perfect.
I walked through the rest of Magdala with the feeling of Christ walking just behind me. Even now, I can still feel him nearby, when I put in the effort and strain my hands to hold, gently.