Add this to things I didn’t know before I went to Israel – Bethlehem is officially considered Palestine. We didn’t realize this until we woke up our first morning there (our hotel for the second half of our trip was in Bethlehem) and attempted to go to Jerusalem, which wasn’t even that far away. There’s a wall – a literal wall – that keeps Palestinians from going to Jerusalem, unless (like our tour guides) they have special permission. That wall also makes Bethany (the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus) especially difficult to get to. “It was a short distance during the time of Jesus,” our tour guide told us, “but it takes longer now.” I’m pretty sure Jesus could have made it from Jerusalem to Bethany quicker on foot than it takes to get there by bus in our modern day, y’all. And that’s not just because He’s Jesus.
Anyway, all that said, we did eventually get to Jerusalem. And, wow, did we pack a lot in once we got there. This day and the next were going to be the busiest days of our tour. Wes is doing a great job over on his blog of getting all the details of each site visited, so make sure you go over to http://www.wesfaulk.com to get the full picture.
We spent a long time on the Mount of Olives, looking over to the city of Jerusalem and learning more as our tour guide explained how the city would have been laid out during Jesus’s time. I could imagine Nehemiah, centuries earlier, coming back to Jerusalem, building the walls that have long since fallen (except for that one!), anticipating the temple that was going to be built, how the presence of God would reside with the people again. One of the pastors on our tour commented on how richly we could feel the presence of God in these places, where people had been seeking His face for centuries and centuries. I could echo that sentiment, with a slight difference, not recalling the generations who had sought Him and the words they’d prayed but the words spoken by God Himself as His eyes were toward the temple, toward the city of Jerusalem, from the very spot we stood… “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
From there, we walked the Palm Sunday path toward the Garden of Gethsemane. (When I type it out like that, it sounds like it was really no big deal, right? But we spent this whole trip with our mouths hanging open. “The Garden of Gethsemane?! I can’t believe we’re HERE!”) There in the garden is a tree that’s three thousand years old, a tree that was there the very night that Jesus was in agony, looking to the cross and submitting Himself to the will of God. Heavy stuff, walking in this place and praying, thanking Him for what He did, for who He was, for the redemptive plan of God that was as difficult as it was triumphant.
I’ll be honest with you. There was little levity on this trip. I was amazed that people were taking duck face selfies in the Garden of Gethsemane (?!) given the gravity of this site and some of the flippancy I saw connected to the places where Jesus spent His final days.
It was different at the Western Wall.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered about the Western Wall. Didn’t Jesus say that the temple would be destroyed, that no stone would be left unturned? He did, and it was. The Western Wall isn’t the wall of the temple — it’s the only standing city wall from the time of Jesus. And it’s the closest wall to the Temple Mount, a site that is, in modern times, restricted to the Jews. What?! Yes, the Jews cannot go to the Temple Mount without government permission, and on the very off chance that they’re given access, they have to be escorted and have to follow very strict rules. The Temple Mount is home to the Dome of the Rock, a site that is significant to Jews and Muslims both. Muslims believe it holds the rock where Abraham was called to sacrifice Ishmael (yes, you read that right) and where the prophet Muhammed ascended to Heaven. Jews believe it holds the rock where Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac and the place where David bought the land for the first temple. Mount Moriah. All that said, the site – the Temple Mount itself – is indeed where the temple stood. And of the Jews that are allowed to come into the area, none of them go up onto the Temple Mount out of a fear that in doing so, they will unintentionally set foot on the place where the Holy of Holies was. There’s a sense of reverence there that makes duck face selfies in the Garden of Gethsemane look like utter foolishness. (Oh, what am I saying. Duck face selfies look like utter foolishness no matter where they’re taken.)
So, for most Jews, the Western Wall is as close as they can get to what, to them, equates to God’s presence. I kept this in mind as I got to go up to the wall, walking past women reading Scripture and weeping, then standing alongside those who were praying out loud and crying, seeking God. What a tragedy, all that they as a people have been through and where they find themselves now, still unable to worship in the way their ancestors have since the beginning of the temple.
But worship… well, Jesus changed it all. He changed the rules. He told them He would, and everything He said turned out just as He’d promised. What did He tell the woman at the well? That there was a day coming when they wouldn’t worship in Jerusalem but would worship God in spirit and truth, right before He told her – flat out – that He was God. He redefined worship. He changed the rules. God would not be distant, accessible only through ritual sacrifices. God was with them, ever present because of the sacrifice that Jesus would make once and for all.
But they wouldn’t believe it. They continue to not believe it.
Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem…
They weep for the loss of God’s presence, the impossibility of it all, and the hopelessness they feel in this long season of silence, waiting for God to restore what’s been lost… when Jesus has already answered every prayer, victorious over all. I thought about this as I prayed alongside them, my hands next to theirs on the very same stones that have stood for centuries… and my mind went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where God Himself prepared to suffer and die for them. The presence of God, not in the Holy of Holies, but in flesh and blood, walking the streets of Jerusalem, redemptive and whole, a precursor to that glorious moment when the curtain in the temple would be torn in two, God with His people forever (!!!), no longer separated but with them, richer and fuller than they could contemplate, living in their hearts. I cried right along with these Jewish ladies, thanking Jesus for what He did, for who He is, and begging Him to make Himself known among those who still don’t know, who still wait for the restoration of a temple when He Himself has made His home with man once again, once and for all.
There’s no need for the temple anymore. And we stood on the Temple Mount the next day, overcome by this truth, knowing that God’s presence had been there, that it remained there even then, because His presence lives in us, because of Jesus, because of what He did.
There’s hope and healing for Jerusalem. There’s hope and healing for Israel, for Palestine, for the entire world. The plea that Jesus made from the Mount of Olives is one that He continues to answer. I thought it again as we stood at the pools of Bethesda, as we read about how He asked the man there, who had been lame for thirty-eight years, if he wanted to be made well. Jesus did it – healed his impossible hurts – with just a word. Just a word.
Just like that. Just a word. Stilling the sea, healing the lame, and whispering over Jerusalem, over those who still weep, longing for His coming.
Thank You, Jesus, that You hear. That You know. And that You are still at work, changing lives and healing hearts…
Up next… our last day in Jerusalem…