February 24, 2013/Second Sunday in Lent
No matter how you go to Jerusalem, you go up. It’s just a reality of the city. It’s set on a hill, so the roads that lead there lead up. From the moment the group I was traveling with crossed into Israel, leaving Egypt in the dark of early morning and crossing the Suez Canal, we knew that we were entering a completely different land.
Israel’s green stood in sharp relief to the sparse landscape of Egypt. It was one of the differences that I noted as we made our way into the final country of our trip. Even in January, there was green, growing life. As our tour bus drove further into the countryside, I could imagine how
this arid region would have truly seemed to be a land flowing with milk and honey.
this arid region would have truly seemed to be a land flowing with milk and honey.
Another difference between Israel and the other countries I’d seen in the Middle East became apparent at customs. After we’d been duly searched, questioned and stamped, we had to go through turnstiles to actually walk into Israel. Never have I been pushed out of the way by other people so many times. I would take my place in line, all my traveling gear in hand, ready to walk through and someone would just come up and push me out of the way. It wasn’t my meekness that was causing this, because it wasn’t just happening to me. My friend and roommate Gwen was being knocked out of line too. It was happening to our fellow travelers as well. We looked to our professor and mentor and group leader, Sib Towner, for some explanation. Sib, who had spent many years traveling in the Near and Middle East said, “Ah, yes, welcome to Israel, the land of push and shove.”
Honestly, having come from Arab countries where we were greeted at every hotel with fresh juices and sweets, this was a bit of a rude awakening.
Once in Israel, we moved from place to place, town to town. We spent one night at a Kibbutz. We had another view of the Mediterranean. Then, finally, we went into Jerusalem; the city, the destination, the sacred site so many of us had been waiting for. It would be hard to imagine a group of seminarians and clergy going to the Middle East and not going to Jerusalem. What a strange and beautiful and scary and violent city it is.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of Jerusalem from a distance, you know that it looks beautiful. The Dome of the Rock literally gleams in the sun, and the buildings look whitewashed and clean. But when you go into the heart of it, it’s different. First of all it’s a city. It’s a metropolis like New York, Los Angeles, Athens, etc. So there are urban problems and realities just like in New York, Los Angeles, Athens, etc. We’d left Cairo, which was exotic and crazy and huge. In Cairo you could be stuck in traffic for 40 minutes waiting for a herd of camels to cross. I know this because it happened. And I think I expected Jerusalem to feel the same. But Jerusalem was different.
At one point in our travels around the city, I left my group to meet up with a missionary that I’d met named Greg. He was there on behalf of the Methodist church, although he didn’t advertise that too loudly, working with a Palestinian peace organization. When I departed from our bus and took off on my own, I was pretty confident. This wasn’t my first big city. I’d walked around Amman, Damascus, Cairo. I’d trekked through plenty of big cities in this country like New York and D.C. But Jerusalem was different.
Cars kept honking at me. They weren’t just randomly honking. They would drive past me and honk as loudly as they could. My friend Greg later told me that it was the taxi cabs doing that, trying to let me know that they were empty. But I was starting to get freaked out by it. I guess it must have been a lot more obvious that I was not a native than I realized, because whenever I would pass a group of men they would either stare at me suspiciously or leer at me. No matter how I kept my head down and tried to blend in, I probably looked American. Depending on who was looking at me that was a good or not so good thing.
Jerusalem was different. While we were there it was relatively peaceful. I don’t recall hearing about any skirmishes or problems while we were staying in the city. There were no bombings or terrorist attacks, but the violence that can erupt in Jerusalem in a split second was always under the surface. People went about their daily lives – working, studying, shopping, living – but there was always a wariness, always an alertness. That wariness was personified in the number of soldiers always walking around, AK 47’s always at the ready. It was a tension that I imagine if you lived there, you might not notice, but for those of us who were just passing through, you could cut its thickness with the proverbial knife.
This was also January of 1993. If you were around at that time, think back for a minute and try to remember what was happening. We were just a few years out of the gulf war. Bill Clinton was inaugurated as President of the United States while we were out of the country. Shortly before his inauguration and just as we were preparing to go to Israel, some last bombs were dropped on Iraq. Iraq tended to respond by then bombing Israel. We were hearing about all of this while we were traveling, and I remember going to Sib in a panic and saying, “Should we really be going to Israel right now? Are we going to be okay?”
But even without these extenuating circumstances, Jerusalem was different. Jerusalem is different. Every place we’d gone to so far we’d been greeted by little kids who knew that Americans were good for baksheesh, the Arabic word for tip. But the other little kids in the other countries were thrilled when we gave them the pencils and the candy that we’d brought over by the bucket loads just for this purpose. The kids in Jerusalem did not want that. They were skinnier and harder and their eyes were old. When they cried baksheesh, baksheesh, they wanted money. They needed money.
Jerusalem is different. After being there, even just a short time, I understand Jesus’ lament when he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Jerusalem, Jerusalem. A city so scary and enticing, so ancient and yet so new. A city torn apart by different loyalties. A city, a home to three of the world’s major religions, yet sliced into pieces by all of them. A city where compassion has been met by hardness of heart, peacemaking by violence, love by hatred.
Jesus laments for this city that kills the ones it needs the most. Yet he has also set his face to go there. So have we.
I bet you think you know where I’m going with this don’t you? Lent symbolizes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to Good Friday and ultimately to Easter. Our observation of Lent means that we are on this journey with him. We journey to Jerusalem carrying our own crosses on our backs, trying to imitate the one we follow.
Yes, we are doing that. But I have been warned by commentators in the last few weeks to let go of the tired, overused analogy that is the journey to Jerusalem. It’s not that it’s not helpful to our understanding of Lent, to what Jesus is about, to what Jesus is doing. It is. There’s nothing wrong with it really. But I think that Jerusalem, at least in the context of what Jesus is trying to impart to his disciples and any who would listen, is as much a state of being as it is a geographical location. Kind of like the Kingdom of God, really, which is perhaps why when we read of the Kingdom of God in other apocalyptic literature we hear it described as a New Jerusalem, a shining city on a hill.
Jerusalem is not just a place. It is a state of being, a state of existence. It is a mixture of all that is good and bad, of all that is beautiful and ugly, of all that is hopeful and dangerous. So maybe in this season of Lent we need to see Jerusalem as not just as place that we’re making our way to, but as a state of being that we are already in. Maybe the question we need to ask ourselves is not, “How long until we get to Jerusalem?” but “How are we already there?”
I think the point of Lent and Easter is not just that Jesus bore our sins, our darkness, our pain, our suffering for us, he bore it with us. When Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, he doesn’t just make a travel itinerary, he determines to go into the darkest, saddest, most violent, most dangerous, most painful places of the human condition. He doesn’t go to conquer but to redeem; he doesn’t go to overthrow but to love. He goes to Jerusalem to love, to love until death, to love into new life. He goes into the darkness of Jerusalem to bring in the light. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. He has set his face to come to us. Praise be to God for this love and grace. Just praise be to God. Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”