This is the third in a series of 3 posts about a trip to the Holy Land. In my first post, I wrote: “My strongest initial impressions from this trip might be summarised with the words ordinary, familiar and radical.”

The ordinariness and familiarity of the land serve to highlight all the more the utterly radical nature of what God in Jesus was doing and continues to do. It was so unexpected and apparently unremarkable that those who knew God’s word best – the Scribes and the Pharisees – completely missed it. It was not just a final flourish, a cherry on the cake or a star on the tree but a root and branch transformation (“radical” comes from the word for “root”). At the same time, it was such a direct and disruptive affront to the status quo that Jesus was executed by the authorities as a radical.

Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, the birth of Jesus and his suckling as an infant are all thought to have taken place in caves. The shepherds who heard the angelic proclamation of the Saviour’s birth were not downtown but out on hillside fields, taking shelter in caves when necessary. Jesus spent his early years in exile in Egypt and most of his life in a little village that was never mentioned in the Old Testament and was so obscure that Nathaniel asked: “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). After his baptism, Jesus fasted and prayed over his calling – and was tempted to compromise or abandon it – in the wilderness. During his ministry, Jesus repeatedly told both those he healed and demons he exorcised not to tell people who he was. When crowds gathered, Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). The culmination of his work was to be ignominiously killed outside the city walls and buried in a tomb cut out of rock. This was not presiding over the systems of the world; this was completely undermining them.

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

John 12:23-24

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, below the place held by many to be where Jesus was crucified, is a fissure, believed to have been caused by a first century earthquake, where seismic activity is still monitored.

Tradition has taken this to be the burial spot of Adam, so that the work of Christ on the cross is seen to have broken open the solid rock and reached all the way down to the deepest roots of humanity’s problems. Which is to say that the Kingdom which Jesus announced and enacted is not about “Here comes the new king, same as the old king” but rather about something that goes down to the very depths of our being and ways of operating.

To the south of Jerusalem, Herod the Great had built an artificial hill which served as both a commanding fortress and a pleasure palace for the guests he wanted to impress. A marvel of engineering that was clearly visible from miles around, Herodion was an unmissable statement of ingenuity, power and authority. As Jesus ascended the east side of the Mount of Olives from Bethphage, he would have been able to see it to his left. Was this what he was looking at when he said; “If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea’ … it will be done for them.” (Mark 11:23)?

As Jesus’ disciples marvelled at the Temple which that same Herod had expanded and transformed, it looked equally immovable: some of the individual stones weighed as much as 400 tonnes. And it was not just a temple – this was the Temple of God Himself. Yet Jesus told them: “Not one stone will be left on top of another.” (Matthew 24:2) Within a generation – in AD70, under the sustained attack of the future emperor Titus – this unimaginable prediction came true.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus would have been able to look up through the olive branches at the great walls of the city, the magnificent Temple and the imposing Antonia Fortress: monuments to the pinnacles of human civilisation, religion and political power, whose representatives over the next few hours would conspire to rid themselves of God himself. As he passed by earlier, Jesus had wept over the city because the “things which make for peace … are hidden from your eyes … ” (Luke 19:41-42) “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37) “You did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:44). What a tragic indictment. Have we too allowed the wonders of civilisation, religion and power in our day blind us and harden our hearts to God himself?

So many of the problems in our world and in our lives today seem as intractable as the Roman Empire. But the solution was not and is not a bigger, better and stronger emperor. It is a king who shows both that the whole system is bankrupt and that he is making all things new. One abiding image for me is the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) on the western side of Jerusalem. This is the main term in the New Testament which is translated into English as “hell.” This foul place of horror and despair, where children were once sacrificed in fire, was abandoned by later generations and used both as a literal rubbish dump and a by-word for all that is unclean. Today it is a lush park with water fountains where children play and no fires are allowed.

Jerusalem has been flattened and rebuilt repeatedly over the last two millennia and most of the sites of Christian significance were not “identified” until the 4th century, by Helena the mother of Constantine. We cannot say with any great certainty where almost any of the events actually took place, much less see the places themselves as they would have looked in Jesus’ day. This might be a disappointment – it is after all what most pilgrims to the Holy Land are expecting to see.

But as I stood inside the hewn out rock of the Garden Tomb, the angels’ words to Mary went through my head: “He is not here.” And that, surely, is the point. We are not supposed to hold on to him where he once was – we are supposed to go with him wherever he is. The seed sown in a bricks and mortar Temple on one particular hilltop city amongst a single ethnic group with a unique covenant carved in stone and kept in a gold-covered wooden box – in Christ that seed has died, been buried and burst forth in a glorious new life to fill the whole world in ways that are exceedingly more abundant than we can think, ask or imagine.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17


This is the greatest wonder: that God himself became flesh and dwelt among us. He continues to dwell among us – in our familiar surroundings – so let us look for Jesus in everyone we meet. He continues to make the ordinary extraordinary. Will we perceive it and join him in what he is doing? There is nothing more radical than that.