The God of Israel must really love rocks. One of the first things I noticed when I traveled to the Holy Land a few years ago is that there are rocks everywhere. The geology of the region is mostly limestone, which erodes easily and causes caves to form and rocks to break apart. It's actually quite similar to where I live in the Ozarks of Missouri, where we have lots of limestone, caves, and rocks as well.

When I returned home from my trip to Israel in 2014, I began thinking of the world in a whole new way. I had seen people from every nation, tribe, and language gather together in places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee, and the Jordan River. Although we didn't look the same and didn't speak the same language, we shared a common bond between us. There was a new appreciation of sacred spaces and holy places, and the realization that we would never be the same again.

So when I took a road trip out west with my brother in 2018, I was dumbstruck when we began our descent into Death Valley. It looked eerily similar to the region of the Dead Sea. Death Valley is the lowest point in the United States at 282 ft. below sea level, while the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth at 1,400 ft. below sea level. Both areas were formed in the same way, being surrounded by mountains that keep storm systems from moving across, and the dryness of the region intensified by the depth of the valley. Both places brought about a strange sense of fear, wonder, and awe - and also the realization that the only way to survive a place like this is complete and total trust in God.

They say that the land of Israel encompasses every type of topography on earth within a very small geographic area. It's not called the Promised Land for nothing. The God of Israel sent his Messiah to redeem all nations and all peoples, but he also did so in a way and in a place that would sanctify all lands and places.

So at Christmas we say we are in Bethlehem when we make a manger scene in the snow. On Palm Sunday we are in Jerusalem waving our palm branches and singing hosannas to the King. We are there in the upper room with Jesus every time we share a meal together in his name. We stand at the foot of the cross every time we confess our sins and receive his forgiveness. And we stand breathless before the empty tomb every time we confess, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Herb Brokering was a Lutheran teacher and musician who wrote many books and hymns. In one of his books, he said he thought it strange that some people go to Israel and bring back bottles of water from the Jordan River to use for baptisms back home. They want to use the same water Jesus was baptized with. But that's not really how weather works. How it works is that water from a river evaporates and is pulled up into a cloud, which moves on to another place, and when the cloud is filled with enough moisture, it rains. That cycle happens again and again and again, so over the course of 2,000 years, some of the water in the Jordan eventually makes it to America where we can be baptized by water and the Word.

The water of the Jordan from the days of Jesus is now in the heart of the USA. But Brokering reminds us that sometimes it’s important to go far away to learn of holy places back home.

Rich Mullins writes of a similar experience in his song, Here in America.

"Saints and children we have gathered here to hear the sacred story

And I'm glad to bring it to you with my best rhyming and rhythm

Cause I know the thirsty listen and down to the waters come

And the Holy King of Israel loves me here in America

And if you listen to my songs I hope you hear the water falling

I hope you feel the oceans crashing on the coast of north New England

I wish I could be there just to see them, two summers past I was

And the Holy King of Israel loves me here in America

And if I were a painter I do not know which I'd paint

The calling of the ancient stars or assembling of the saints

There's so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see

But everywhere I go, I'm looking

And once I went to Appalachia for my father he was born there

And I saw the mountains waking with the innocence of children

And my soul is still there with them wrapped in the songs they brought

And the Holy King of Israel loves me here in America"