Looking for Jesus in the Ordinary
Over the course of the liturgical year, from the First Sunday in Advent at the beginning of December, through the Last Sunday of Pentecost at the close of November, we make our way through the Gospel story, week by week, hearing the four Gospelers’ accounts of Jesus’ life, his mission and ministry: from his birth in a Bethlehem stable, to his travels throughout Galilee teaching and preaching and healing, his death on a cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem, and his resurrection and return to God the Father and the life eternal.
Seven weeks ago, in early January, on the first Sunday of the Epiphany season, we encountered Jesus wading into the Jordan River for baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist. At that time, Matthew told us, “… when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Sound familiar? It should. Because today, on this last Sunday of the Epiphany season, we hear a similar heavenly proclamation in Matthew’s telling of the Transfiguration: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased…”
The divine proclamations that bookend this Epiphany season between Christmas and Lent call our attention to Jesus, the divine God of heaven, who comes to us in earthly human flesh. Ours is a God who is transcendent, yet immediate and present; a God who is set apart, yet never distant, ever drawing near.
Because we encounter Jesus in our lectionary readings week after week after week, we can become quite used to him. And while that can have its positive aspects and, in some ways, be a good thing, these stories can also become too familiar, too predictable, too common-place and expected. Our God-made-human-in-our-image can, over time, begin to seem quite ordinary, comfortable and tame.
It’s natural then, given our standard Sunday-to-Sunday, Gospel-encounter-with-Jesus routine, to long for and hope on occasion for an exciting, unexpected, revelatory encounter with God. But, alas, it’s not often that God comes to us, as he does to Peter, James, and John in this morning’s reading, in sudden bursts of awesome glory and mystifying revelation. And even for these three disciples, their one-time, miraculous Transfiguration encounter on the mountain-top with Jesus is quite different and unusual from their recurring and everyday experiences with him.
On the mountaintop, for a brief moment, Matthew tells us, “[Jesus’] face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The two greatest Hebrew prophets, Moses and Elijah, appear with him, a bright cloud overshadows them, then God speaks – and it’s over. One might say that, in the long stretch of the expected, the ordinary and everyday, these disciples are surprised by the unexpected momentary, extraordinary and once-in-a-lifetime.
It must be faith-affirming to experience God in such an amazing way, quite different from our run-of-the-mill encounters with Jesus in the lectionary. Seeing the face of God and hearing his voice would certainly go a long way toward convincing and solidifying one’s faith and belief.
Maybe you have heard the stories that occasionally capture the attention of the news media, of people seeing Jesus’ face in the creases of a tortilla or a burnt piece of toast. Maybe you have heard about a guy who claims to have recognized Christ’s countenance on the side of a glass building when you are standing in just the right spot and the light hits it just right. Or maybe you have personally noticed Jesus staring back at you from the foam swirling on top of your half-caf mochaccino, or, perhaps, caught a glimpse of the Savior in a distant rock formation.
The desire to glimpse Jesus in unexpected and miraculous ways is understandable. It certainly would make believing in him a lot easier, but for most of us, we do not typically encounter God in the miraculous. Instead, we encounter God in more subtle and quieter, less spectacular — yet equally important — ways.
I will admit to going through a period of time when I doubted my faith because I had not had such an earth-shattering experience of facing God face-to-face. In seminary, several of my classmates recounted their personal experiences of being confronted with God’s overwhelming presence and knowing – in that very instant! – that they were forever changed. That was not my experience, and I felt the poorer for the lack of it. It took some time for me to come to accept that my experience of God – solid, plodding, year-in-year-out, step-by-step-by-steady-step – was just as valid as theirs. A slow evolution and what Paul calls, a “maturing of faith” has been my experience. Knowing God in the ordinary and every day has been my experience of his personal claim on me.
There are those among us – and you may be one - who have had the privilege of a “mountaintop” faith experience. For these few, thunder crashes, lightning strikes, and God takes shape right before their eyes. I am certain it can happen like that. But even these few, like Peter and James and John, must eventually walk down from that mountaintop and return to level ground, return from the extraordinary to the ordinary, return from the momentary to the every-day.
For most of us, instead of standing by and waiting for God to be revealed to us in some extraordinary, earth-shattering way, we are called to get up every day and look for Jesus’ presence in the course of our ordinary lives. Admittedly, recognizing God at work in ordinary life events and experiences can be difficult, especially when we face setbacks, sorrow, or general annoyance or frustration. But rest assured, as I have learned, God is always there, in both the good and the bad.
God was there in the lonely hours of long, cold night watches onboard a US Navy submarine. God was there when I married my life-long love. God was there in the two a.m. diaper changes and feedings of my children. God was there when I broke down on the morning of my father’s funeral. God was there when I longed to understand and accept the developmental difficulties my son is burdened with. God was there on occasions when the Church not only disappointed me, but broke my heart. God was there when I stood in the driving rain amidst the ruins of a 6th-century Irish monastery and marveled that I stood in a centuries-long line of Christian witnesses and believers. God was there when I witnessed the tears of a Guatemala couple in their nineties as they learned how to use their new stove, built by gringos they will never see again.
All of God’s people have good days, extraordinary days, when a glimpse of the divine fits right in. And all of God’s children have bad days; and on those days the trick is learning to look for Jesus anyway. After all, anybody can recognize Jesus when times are good. Somebody’s cancer is cured; they give the credit to God. Somebody meets an old flame and falls in love all over again; they claim that their prayers have been answered. Somebody gets a long-awaited raise or completes a Hail-Mary touchdown pass; they give God the glory.
Just to be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeing God in the good; nor should it be our goal to see God exclusively in the bad. But in both the good and the bad, it is absolutely necessary for us to look for God. And it is imperative that we look for God in the ordinary because in this life, the ordinary is overwhelmingly what we have the most of.
Startling revelations and jaw-dropping encounters with the divine are not necessary to convince us of the validity of our faith. Belief and obedience and faithfulness do not grow only out of God’s unanticipated intervention, but from a life spent looking for Jesus in all the everyday times, and in all the ordinary places.
Perhaps this year, instead of giving something up for Lent, we should instead take something on. Let us resolve, in the ordinariness of these next forty days, to take on the discipline of daily looking for – and expecting to find! - Jesus.
Our tradition gives us plenty of ways to do that. A couple of daily doses of prayer should do the trick. Reading the Bible helps. Saying “I love you” is a good start. And talking to God - out loud, even! - is also a healthy thing to do, especially when you’re angry.
Coming to worship is also important, not for the sake of upping Messiah’s average Sunday attendance for the annual report to the diocese and national church office, but for the sake of your relationship with God, a relationship fueled by hearing God’s word and participating in the rituals of Christ’s time on earth that are exactly like your own: the certainties of birth, life, death; and the promise of resurrection.
As we close this Epiphany season and prepare to enter into the long, dark, somber season of Lent, the task for each of us is quite simple: look – every day! – really look for Jesus! Seek him out! He may not always appear in the way you want him to, or in the way you think he should. He may not appear in the places or the people you expect, but nevertheless, Jesus will be there.
So, watch for him. You’ll know him when you see him.
And listen, too. You’ll know it when you hear it — that voice from heaven that quietly rings in your ear: “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Last Sunday in Epiphany / A
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9