Today, our first day in Israel, has been a day of churches and church. Which is perhaps appropriate, given where we are. We started with an Arabic Mass at the Anglican Church in Nazareth, then moved across to the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation just in time to catch a bit of chanting and incense drifting elegantly through the strikingly beautiful and austere Brutalist space.
From there, it was on to a number of the other typical tourist sites: the wee Synagogue Church of the Melkites in Nazareth, the Church of the Primacy of Peter by the Sea of Galilee, the Church of the Beatitudes, and Capernaum. We finished the day with a Church of Scotland Communion service at St Andrews, Tiberius followed by an enormous meal in the Scots Hotel with the minister Colin and some of the members.
Ecumenism in action. And, to be honest, a good transition from the busyness of parish ministry to what we are about to see and hear.
But the day left a number of us uneasy.
Last night we got into Tiberias about 1am. On the way from the airport, as we neared the hotel, we learned that it’s only 50 miles from here to Damascus. I spent the night tossing and turning in the huge bed, too exhausted to sleep, disturbed by the fact that as near to me as Hawick is to Edinburgh, there is a level of violence and destruction and terror that I can’t even begin to imagine.
I felt I had only just nodded off when a gentle light came through the window waking me. Like a gash across the sky, it was the sun rising over the Sea of Galilee.
In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
It would be so easy to travel here and not notice the conflict. To visit sites of Christian history and interest and not think too deeply about what Christ actually did. To domesticate the radical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. To ignore the darkness and the shadow of death which hovers over this stunningly beautiful, seemingly peaceful place.
But here, praying for one’s enemies and loving those who hate us must be unbearably difficult at times, not merely a polite prayer offered in the safety of intercessions.
Here, on this Feast of Christ the King, as I looked around at pristine gardens, immaculate pavements, and windows and icons of loveliness, I wondered what Jesus would think as he stood over the crowds handing them the confusing and subversive words of the Beatitudes, at the end, blessing all who suffer and are persecuted.
Here, where there is little sign of the extreme poverty or injustice or inequality that exists in this land we call Holy, I looked for the Jesus of the poor in spirit, the Jesus of the merciful, the Jesus of the peacemakers, and I couldn’t find him.
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice, says the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel.
Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me, Jesus calls.
As the sun sets on a long and exhausting day, it would be easy to fall into cliches about good shepherds or heavenly kings found in the dirt and dust and back alleyways of our world. But in a sense, starting tomorrow, that is what this trip is about. It is about meeting people who walk straight into the darkness and shadow of death to look for — and more importantly, see and serve — Christ in all who dwell there. And that is where the dawn of hope truly lies.