This is my column for the March-May edition of the church newsletter, The Tower.
It was November, 1999, and Lynann and I and the other members of our group were dashing across the old city of Jerusalem along the old Cardo, the main shopping street of the old city. Imagine all the sights and sounds of an Arab bazaar on a narrow, twisty street clogged with tourists from all over the world, and set down among the dwellers of the city selling the wares.
It may have been November, but the weather was warmer than November in Los Angeles, enough for beads of sweat to break out on the brow as we walked as fast as our legs could walk from south to north across the city. One last turn, a left, and a plaza opened up before the ornate Damascus gate, the gate on the north side of the walled city, easily the largest and most splendid gate of modern Jerusalem.
We crossed a busy street and walked up a quiet side street. Immediately the area seemed more modern. By “modern”, I don’t mean recent; the buildings were 19th and early 20th century; it’s just that compared to the Old City, were the newest structures are from the 14th century, this area seemed modern.
We passed the city bus station to the right and up the street we came to a non-descript gate bearing a sign simply saying, THE GARDEN TOMB. We entered—our passes paid for as part of our tour, and joined in a group as an Englishman discussed the history of the Garden Tomb.
There was a time when the Garden Tomb was widely regarded as a more likely candidate for the real tomb of Jesus than the venerated tomb now encased in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Actually, the evidence is pretty strong that the Holy Sepulcher site is the right one; it’s just really hard to imagine the tomb as it was in Jesus’ day due to the fact that it’s been built over and almost grotesquely decorated over the centuries.
The Garden Tomb was set forth as an alternate resurrection site only in the 19th century. It is almost certainly not the right place—the style of the tomb is more like that of the period of the kings of Israel than the tombs of the time of Jesus. It also has no pedigree, history of claim, as being the right place.
But is does have this: it feels right. The British curators, who no longer claim that this is the right tomb do indeed maintain the area much as it would have looked in Jesus’ time. In that way, it evokes the drama of the gospel account better than the traditional site does.
The door to the tomb is a craggy opening that has been hacked larger than it would have been in ancient times. In front of that door is a cut furrow in the stone pavement designed to allow a round stone cover to seal the tomb. That stone on this site has never been recovered; it was probably broken up at some point in the past to be made into smaller stones for other purposes.
It was with a sense of awe that we entered the tomb. Even though I had that little voice in my head reminding that this wasn’t likely to be the right place, the atmosphere is so evocative of the gospel story that it didn’t take much to be moved. It was as if we’d stepped from the last year of the 20th century into the 1st century AD, and that we could expect to see the Roman guards pass out, the angels speak to the women and to see Peter and John come running.
It’s not likely that you will pass through a door and find yourself in 30 AD. But it is very likely that what happened here, in this place that year can reach out and completely transform your world. That stone that sealed in Jesus was tossed aside by the power of God. And God still moves stones today: stones of fear, doubt, worry, anger and suffering.
We all have stones that weigh us down. They do not have to stay there. The resurrection of Jesus reminds us that the power of God that was seen in raising Jesus up from the dead it “at large” in the world today.
What’s the stone that has you down? It is some hurt, habit or hang-up that’s keeping down, in defeat, in pain, in self-hatred? Jesus can move that stone. Folks, never ever forget this: He still moves stones today! Bring your stone to Him and let Him roll it away today!
Want to know more? I highly recommend The Weekend That Changed the World: The Mystery of Jerusalem’s Empty Tomb by British Bible scholar Peter Walker. I actually bought my copy at the Garden Tomb Book Store, but you can get it at Amazon.com or Christianbooks.com.