People leave imprints. Their stories leave imprints. As I write this, I look at a small box on my desk. It is rather ordinary. Yet, I prize that box. I often pick it up when my mind wanders or I come across a difficult situation. This box has a story. When my finger feels the surface of this box, I feel the hand of the man who gave it to me a decade ago; I know he rejoices in heaven still! Anyone who knows the man’s story sees the beauty of that ordinary box. For me, this box keeps his story alive. It also keeps him close.
People’s stories linger. The charred remains of a barn in the deep south can ring with familial history. A third-generation immigrant can see the stories he heard on his grandpa’s knee by visiting the land of his ancestral home. For Christians, the land of Israel carries similar heritage. When a Christian is wrapped into God’s story, Israel becomes the land of her family. The stories surrounding Israel are ancient and dear. The place is the ancestral home of our faith, even of its author! There, my feet felt Jesus’ story come alive. The man from heaven left an imprint on this earth, felt stronger in Israel than anywhere. The story of Jesus leaps to life in Israel’s breeze.
As the plane touched down after over ten hours of flight, I looked across the aisle. “We’re in Israel!” I said with a grin, but was met with no shouts of exclamation. The next ten days felt like we were constantly flipping through TV channels. We unloaded the bus, looked around and listened carefully, and, right as the magic lightbulb moment happened and the site’s significance clicked in our minds, we had a bus to catch! For such a small nation there was a lot to see.
As much as “smallness” characterized the nation, it characterized the region of Galilee even more. In fact, the “Sea of Galilee” was the smallest sea I ever saw! Maybe it is better to think of it as a lake? Jury is still out. What I do know is that there are amazing things to see in Galilee. Galilee was just north of the Decapolis with all its progress and Hellenization. It was also north of Jerusalem, the political and religious capital of Israel. Jesus spent most his days on earth in the Jewish outskirts, so to speak. Though Galilee did not contain a modern metropolis, nor was it ever like the bustling Roman Empire, Jesus ministered here, traveling from town to town. The place is beautiful, fresh, and… mundane. By coming to Galilee, Jesus really did come to earth. It is an earthy place that would have had earthy people (the farmer and fishermen types).
The real magic of the place rests in the stories Jesus left behind. That simple steep hill leading into the Sea of Galilee vivifies the story of Jesus casting out the Legion. Standing on the rocky shore looking across the slightly misty lake, one can almost hear the splash as Peter dives from the boat, earnest to see his Lord who called him from the shore.
Farther around the sea sits the freshly uncovered town of Magdala. You can see its synagogue, in which Jesus most surely taught. There are remains of mosaic floors, plastered pillars, and ornate Jewish carvings bearing designs from the Jerusalem Temple. There a small stone table has two ruts cut to hold the bars of a scroll. Did Jesus read from Isaiah here just as he had in Nazareth? His listeners would have locked eyes with Jesus after he read as he sat back down not twenty-five feet from the farthest person. Heaven really met earth; he locked eyes in the close confines of the synagogue! Here he would cast demons out of Mary Magdalene: heaven fighting hell to save a woman in a small fishing town. The stones help tell this story. Jesus was not just heaven touching earth; he was heaven touching humans. He even was human. This human Jesus could be touched by a bleeding woman, crowded into Peter’s house, and shoved toward a cliff-edge in Nazareth. All the time, Jesus would have had his audience at eye level. This is a place of normal people; it always has been. That is really the story that Israel tells: heaven embracing humanity. Feeling this place hits home how close Jesus really was—how close he is! My mind flits between thinking of my faith as cold and distant and thinking of Jesus as an ethereal quasi-human, but the rocks shout, “He walked here!” It is warm, close, and very real. I feel like Thomas when he felt Jesus’ scars.
Seeing Israel helped defibrillate my imagination. This place has no residual holiness lingering in its hillsides, nor are its pillars miraculous, yet the land of Israel is a part of Jesus’ story. I did not find magic in the rocks, but I found stories coming alive. As the stories spring to life, a life of another kind becomes more apparent. The stories are Jesus’ and knowing him is my life. The land gives insight into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; it gives insight into the salvation of every Christian. In this sense, the land of Israel blooms with eternal life as it tells my Savior’s story. For me, the land keeps his story alive. It also keeps him close!