Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

What the Church Can Learn From Israel

The route map says we’re 35000 feet above Greenland, headed due west at 573 miles per hour. We’re approximately seven hours from the destination. Can’t this plane go any faster? I should be grateful, but I am cursed with a body that refuses to sleep on planes—and that’s a problem on a 14.5-hour flight.

It is the middle of the night and everyone around me seems to be blissfully asleep—or engrossed in some movie played on a tiny screen with cheap headphones that require subtitles if things are to make any sense.

But wait, I am in a good place. There’s a quietness in this darkened cabin to take advantage of. No distracting emails, phone calls, or texts. No narcissistic canines panting at my feet for attention. The only passing interruption is the flight attendant wanting to know if I have generated any more trash.

The writer Parker Palmer finds that the best writing focuses on that which bewilders and mystifies. Write about things that feel like bottomless mysteries. It shouldn’t be hard. What’s not bewildering about ourselves, let alone the world around us?

For the past week, I have been perplexed over the world God has brought me to—Israel. Every time I come here, I can’t help but ask questions—

what is God up to in this place in these days with these people? Here is a nation whose history goes back to the time they alone were the apple of God’s eye, the instrument of his mission.  What is God doing? I am guessing that it is far more than we think.

-why does Israel always feel like a spiritual epicenter? Perhaps because it is. It does lie over powerful forces that are at work.  In the seven days I have been here, a young man has attacked a synagogue, Palestinians have died in the sporadic conflict, the US and Israel have shared in war games, the Temple Mount is on edge, and Israel fired on an Iranian position. There is always a feeling one is living on the brink of something.

In the classroom, I hear my students’ stories, and I ask–how would my faith handle living in this environment? I see them full of determination. They have to be. They are surrounded by an immediate group of nations that threaten their country’s destruction. They live in a culture that hopes for the demise of anyone who identifies with Jesus. We all face a spiritual war, but it is more intense here. Betrayal from within, intimidation from without.  I listen to the stories, and I realize those who lead the college face excruciating tests—some of it intensely personal. The most recent elections and the forces that have gained power add to the tension. We could learn from their tenacity.

Here’s another mystifying question I find myself asking–why do so many tourists ignore the church? Most mornings I sit in the hotel lobby surrounded by the ubiquitous tour groups who come to the Holy Land to be inspired (as they should). They take endless pictures of Masada and the Sea of Galilee and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But will images of the body of Christ, ministries that dot the land from Dan to Beer Sheba make their galleries?  Few, it seems, carve out space in their itineraries to come alongside a harassed church and pray and bless and say—we stand with you. How is it that we are so fixed on the biblical stories of the past that we miss the story God is writing in the present?

Here’s something else I wonder—what will happen to the next generation of believers? Will they survive this environment? I gained a glimpse of the answer this week. After class, I was invited to come to Jerusalem to have dinner and speak to 22 eighteen-year-olds about leadership. On the way, I wondered-will they listen? Each one will soon be called to fulfill their mandatory two-year service in the Israel Defense Forces. For most, it will be a harsh environment filled with conflicting values and huge peer pressures. Some statistics suggest nearly one-half of believers lose their faith during their time of service.

Asking one of my students at the college to reflect on her experience in the military, she told me it was like jumping into a pool in which there was no water. The fears are real. Many will come out hardened by assignments that took them into combat. Some will witness deep hatred. They will be exposed to immorality in a season of life when hormones rage. Whatever protective bubbles they have been raised in will soon burst. And they will be challenged for believing in Yeshua.

I discovered God is doing something miraculous. I sat with a military officer who is leading an effort to prepare these students. These young men and women have come to live a regimented life, spending nine months preparing. With permission from the military and a secular government, these students meet from morning until night, studying  Scripture, developing spiritual disciplines, learning what it means to be a soldier, and becoming fit to lead. ASt present, there is a waiting line to get in.

Speaking to these young men and women, I was amazed—baffled—at what God is up to. They hung around pumping me with questions about leadership. They are determined—even enthusiastic—to make a difference. They must. It’s life or death. There’s something we, in a more relaxed and permissive culture could learn here.

After closing my time in Israel speaking to an international church—one that is bursting at the seams with Israelis and people from other nations, I came away shaking my head. The fingerprints of the enemy may seem to be everywhere, and his threats are surely intended to promote fear, but given what I am witnessing in Israel, he does not stand a chance.

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