Editor’s Note: This story is a reaction to the recent article "Journey to the Holy Land"
Two years ago this past July my immediate family took a trip to Israel, the fulfillment of the proverbial “lifelong dream,” the culmination of many lofty aspirations—and my reaction too was one of open-mouthed wonderment. To go back to where so much began, to personally take in the scenes and stories of the faith, to embrace the sacred and secular in a compacted space of land; it was to be a pilgrimage of faith.
Much of our trip to Israel was spent in the city of Jerusalem itself, the Old City specifically—a mere 40 acres across. Forty acres. Much of the history of an ancient world resides in 40 acres. Ancient tensions, ancient religions and ancient stories converge in 40 acres, creating a very present and current feeling. There is a feeling of consequence on the stone streets—of modernity, as evidenced by the machine gun-wearing soldiers on the narrow roads, and of antiquity, as evidenced by the massive, fragile, weighted-by-the-prayers-of-the-desperate Wailing Wall. The Holy City is a dance of juxtapositions.
Jerusalem is a collision of cultures, of times, of religions. It is saturated with significance, overflowing in effect. But what amazed me the most was the ordinariness of it all. I expected a city, a destination, of, well, biblical proportions. I pictured grand; I imagined great. And what I got was a lot of ordinary.
This shouldn’t have surprised me. This is typical. Wasn’t this exactly what distinguished, or rather didn’t distinguish, the Israelites from surrounding peoples in the Old Testament? There weren’t many of them, they weren’t the strongest and they weren’t the biggest; they were ordinary—except that they were chosen. They were in covenant with an extraordinary God, who took this ragtag group of wanderers and made them physical and spiritual conquerors.
Sure, they appeared ordinary. But their relationship with their Maker made them everything but. Sure, much of the Holy Land looked ordinary–the desert was like most deserts. The water was like most water. The Jordan River, more a large creek, in my opinion. But it was what happened there that laced these places with meaning and magnitude. And in the end it was the ordinariness that captured my heart.
It is easy to imagine a Big God doing Big Things in a Big Land. If you want to move and shake things, make it happen someplace where it is sure to get noticed. In the present-day United States, head to Washington, D.C.; move to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. Skip the unassuming small-town USA that makes up much of the space between the coasts, and go where big things are happening and big things get detected.
I thought the same principle applied in B.C. But then I saw these small towns, these narrow avenues, these humble surroundings, and I realized that of course, of course—He would choose here. Here, where many would pass by; here, where most would move on; here, where none would suspect. And to think—it was from this town that resembled more of a small village, and this river that looked more like a creek, and this city, this 40-acre city, that the hope of the world would be born, baptized and bled, for humanity.
It all looks so ordinary. But the only thing ordinary about it is the number of people there, including myself on arrival, who missed it. Who missed the point. (The question reset and replayed in my mind: “Had I lived 2,000 years ago, would I have missed it then too? Would I have missed Him?") He never shows up like we anticipate. He never chooses the vessels we expect. He never picks the places we imagine. That is, after all, how He ended up on 40 acres … and how He ended up with us. Unassuming, unimpressive, ordinary us. Now, chosen. Now, conquerors.
On our last day in this ancient, holy city, we managed to fit in some shopping, if you can even call it that. It is more bargaining, more haggling, more dealing than shopping, and way more uncomfortable. There was one shop in the old city that sold beautifully patterned, richly ornamented quilts. My eyes gravitated toward one in particular, but the asking price was more than I wanted to pay. So the dialogue began. The conversing, the wagering, all of the things I am really terrible at. Finally, we agreed on a price. The young Israeli man relinquished the small blanket with intent in his eye. “OK,” he said, thoughtfully. “I will give it to you, but promise me something.”
“Sure …” I think, I guess.
“Promise you will pray for the peace of Jerusalem”
“Yes,” I said, nodding my head, returning the seriousness with which he asked the question. “I will.”
The peace of Jerusalem. The peace of an ordinary city that is, in actuality, far from ordinary.
Ordinary, like our hearts are ordinary. Ordinary, like our hurts are ordinary. Ordinary like our fears, our circumstances, our journeys are ordinary. They are actually everything but. We serve nothing like an ordinary God. We serve a God who dwells easily and then swells comfortably outside of the ordinary.
I believe it. I believe it more after having walked 40 ancient acres. Ordinary prayers do not fill the cracks of the Wailing Wall. Ordinary people do stand at sundown rocking in petition to the God they believe dwells just of reach. Ordinary is what Christ has come to redeem.
And He has redeemed—greatly, lavishly, extensively, inside 40 acres, and then also, every acre beyond.