There are many pleasures in having adult children. One special joy I receive from my grown daughters is that frequently they can teach me something new or give me some fresh insight. Such was the case when my younger daughter Ruth came back from her first trip to Israel. The feelings she expressed tremendously opened my understanding on what I had considered a much discussed, almost trite subject.
You see, her inner emotional response was different from that of most tourists and pilgrims who visit the land of Israel. She said, I know that Israel is special because it is the homeland of our Jewish people. But I’ve often felt perplexed about its being referred to as the Holy Land. While I was there, I did not share the feeling of some who entertain the thought that they actually might be walking on paths touched by the sandals of the Savior. They express such a sense of awe and wonder at the thought of being in the very place where Jesus was. Sometimes I do experience that sense of awe and wonder, but I don’t need to be in Israel to feel it. It comes to me whenever I stop to realize that the Lord of all creation came to our planet. Just the fact that he came into this world somehow makes the whole earth holy because of his presence here.”
Still, in a few weeks people from all over the world will be making their way to Israel, and Christmas pilgrims will be thronging the streets of Bethlehem eagerly anticipating some unique experience. Spurred on by Christian songs like “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked,” and the thrilling accounts of other Christian tourists whose faith was refined and refocused by such a trip, they will come seeking spiritual refreshment. Many will probably feel renewed by that sense of somehow being closer to the Savior for having been there.
As Christians, we all need that feeling of renewal from time to time. Whether it comes as the result of a pilgrimage to the land of the Bible or in other ways, we all need that sense of awe and wonder the awareness of being lifted above our ordinary day-to-day existence. We need to allow our minds to transcend the commonplace, so that our souls can be filled with abundant life. Usually this comes as a fleeting, golden moment when we feel touched by the forces of eternity. It comes as a realization, a revitalization, an instant of knowing, believing and trusting God. That instant, though fleeting, is anchored in eternity as we realize that God is with us who have received his Spirit through faith—not just when we feel his presence, but always. Should we try to describe that experience, we reduce its meaning because it can never be confined in words, even the words of a poet.
Yes, I think that the idea of a pilgrimage is good and right and greatly to be desired. That is, in order to be closer to God, to sense his presence and to encounter that which is holy, we must “go somewhere”—move from “Point A” to “Point B,” at least figuratively in our spiritual maturity. If being in the land of the Bible triggers that spiritual exercise for us, that is good. However, we must be careful that our attitude is not the same as that of a tourist who comes to a theater on Hollywood Boulevard to see the footprints of the movie stars set in concrete slabs. We cannot “step into the footprints of Jesus” by going to the “Holy Land.” Nor can we approach God better by touching physically what we think the Savior may have touched.
I think that Ruth is right. It is not a mere pilgrimage to Israel that should produce such a feeling of holy awe. What should most grip our hearts and our imaginations and drive us to our knees in grateful reverence is the staggering, stupendous fact that the God of all creation is the one who “became a pilgrim,” and he did it for us out of his great love. He divested himself of his glory and made a pilgrimage to earth. That pilgrimage had been promised by the prophet Isaiah in a name. Telling of the Messiah who would be born of a virgin, he said, “And thou shalt call his name Emmanuel, which means God with us.”
The Advent season always reminds us of the great cost of that pilgrimage. John 1:3 tells us that all things were made by him; yet except for his infant exile in Egypt, Yeshua never went beyond the borders of Israel. The whole earth, his creation, is filled with his glory; yet he came to our world as a vulnerable infant to grow, learn and relate as a man—a humble man—to the rest of humanity. His face was an ordinary face, and his hands were undoubtedly calloused by the menial tasks he performed. For 30 years he lived the life of a common man, but that “man” was God, who came because he wanted to be with us.
The wonder of it all is that he cared enough to do that. To our finite minds, the entire human existence should seem of no more consequence to our Creator than a gnat in a field would be to one of us. Yet so immense was his love, so great his mercy, that he reduced himself to becoming a mortal—a child who could stub his toes, a man who could be hurt by insults and rejection and feel the pains and small pleasures that are part of everyday human existence. GOD BECAME A MAN! And he came here. His presence brought an aura of sanctity to the entire planet—yes, to the entire universe—for he came from beyond the universe to be Emmanuel, God with us.
Because he came, now there is no one place on earth more holy than another. Yeshua told the Samaritan woman at the well: “the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23a). Although God had manifested himself from time to time in various ways to various people and had allowed his glory to rest upon the Temple, that changed with the coming of Emmanuel. Until Yeshua came to be Emmanuel, God had no spatial dimension. Until the Almighty allowed himself to be measured by the gaze of humanity, he had no perceptible size or shape. Eternal and omnipresent, his existence filled all time and space. Yet he made our planet special—holy—by coming to live here as a man, one of us.
That coming made the Lord of Glory a pilgrim. That pilgrimage was not based on curiosity, like that of some pilgrims who go here or there to seek a unique cultural or spiritual experience. It was based on a holy purpose: to redeem us and to relate to us forever. Yeshua came to us, that we might some day go to be with him. Thus the pilgrimage will be completed—his and ours.