Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Finding God In Unexpected Places

Have you ever encountered God in an unexpected place or person?  

Imagine if you walk past someone sitting on the street begging for money what would you see? 

This is Alan, he is 40 years old, and has been using drugs & alcohol since he was 12.  He’s homeless & sits in a sleeping bag waiting for handouts to feed a deep rooted drug habit. 

AIan is the subject of Marksteen Adamson’s ‘Behold The Man project.  Marksteen is a photographer who befriended Alan & spent time trying to discover the real Alan behind the endless cycle of destruction that grips him & won’t let him go.

Alan & Marksteen

It was not easy.  He had to get through the bad behaviour, the sense of hopelessness, the smell & the dirt, and to focus on the human spirit, the man himself.  But as he did this, Marksteen was able to discover the real Alan, his dreams & aspirations, his disappointments & regrets, as well as the confidence, the charisma, intellect, and humour.  As he did this he was able to begin to see Christ in Alan.   

Today is Epiphany Sunday we recall the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus.

The question I’ve been pondering, how did the wise men know that Jesus was the one they were looking for?  When they entered the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was living with Mary & Joseph, how did they know that this was the one they were looking for? 
What do we know about the magi?

The magi were astronomers, who came from the East, probably Persia.

Magi were very well educated and influential people, who were employed as advisors and acted as envoys. 

Magi would have been interested in time keeping, calendars, tides, medicine, religion, alchemy and many other subjects. They would have been particularly interested in the study of the night sky, because it was thought that what was observed in the sky was reflected in the events upon the earth. Monitoring of events in the heavens, it was believed, gave insight into what was happening, or going to happen upon the earth.

Matthew tells us that they were led to Bethlehem by a star. 

Despite nativity scenes, the magi didn’t arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth, but weeks or months later.

They initially go to Jerusalem, and to King Herod, because that would have been the natural place to search for a new King.

When they arrive in Bethlehem, they found Jesus not in a stable, but living in a house. 
Matthew tells us that when they entered the house they bowed down & worshipped Jesus, giving him the gifts they had brought with them.

Something extraordinary here.  They had travelled hundreds of miles, over deserts, facing great hardship & danger, searching for the new King.  And what they find, is not a child in a palace, surrounded by courtiers & the trappings of wealth & power.  But a small child & his parents living in the simplest & most humble of circumstances.  And yet, they recognise that this is the child they’ve been looking for. 

They recognise the Messiah, the King of the Universe in the face of a small child. 
They recognised Jesus in the unlikeliest of situations, are we able to do the same?
If there is one message we can take away from the Bible, it is that we can find God in unexpected places & people.  

St Martin of Tours: Born c316  

One day Martin, a Roman soldier, rode into town & saw a thin, sick-looking man shivering in the cold by the side of the road. The man was very poor, for his clothing was old and full of holes. He had nothing warm to keep out the cold. Moved by the plight of the man, Martin stopped pulled his sword out of his belt and cut his cloak in half giving half to the poor man. That night as he was sleeping, Martin had a vision of Jesus in heaven, surrounded by angels and wearing half of Martin’s cloak. Jesus said to the angels, “See how Martin has covered me with his cloak.”

Mother Theresa: 

Mother Theresa when asked what motivated her to serve the poorest of the poor, answered "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise." 

Tale by Leo Tolstoy  ‘Where Love Is, God Is’ 

Martin was a poor man, a cobbler, who lived alone & who felt he had nothing to live for, nothing to hope for.  One day, though, a traveller suggested to him that he should read the Bible. Perhaps in that there would be something which would help him. So Martin began to read the Gospels, of Jesus’ love for the poor, the sick, the lonely like himself. Gradually Martin’s heart softened & he said “if only I could meet this Jesus!”

The next day Martin tried to convince himself it was just a dream, but nonetheless, he couldn’t help peering out of his basement window hopefully. All he could see, though, was an old street sweeper, Stephanitch. Stephanitch was even poorer than Martin. On this winter’s day Martin could see that Stephanitch was freezing cold & weary. He called out to him to come inside. “Come and have some tea!” The street sweeper came in and gratefully drank several cups of hot tea, but he noticed that Martin kept looking out of the window. “Are you expecting someone, Martin?” Martin told him of his dream. “I know it is foolish, but perhaps it might happen as I dreamed.” Stephanitch shrugged – who can say what might happen in life if God wills it…? He went back out into the snow, thanking Martin for his kindness.

A little later Martin noticed a stranger standing outside his window. Was this Jesus? But no, it was just a young woman carrying a baby. Then Martin noticed, though, that her clothes were threadbare and she wore no cloak against the cold. The baby too, looked half-frozen. He went out and brought her in, gave her some soup and bread he had prepared for his own lunch, and listened to her story. Her soldier husband had died, leaving her penniless. She had no money, no food for herself and her child. As she rose up to go Martin gave her a little money, and an old cloak. He wished he could do more, but she was very grateful to him, and went on her way rejoicing.

“Who is it? “ Martin asked, peering round into the darkness.

“It is I” said the voice, and out of the corner of the room stepped the figure of Stephanitch, who smiled and vanished.

“It is I” said the voice again, and the woman with the baby came towards him and vanished.
And Martin looked down at the Bible in his hands. “As you did it for one of the least of my brothers and sisters you did it for me”. And Martin knew that Christ had indeed come to him that day, and that he, Martin had welcomed and cared for him just as he’d longed to.

Then one night in the depths of winter he had a dream. He dreamed that Christ spoke to him. “Tomorrow, Martin, I will come to visit you.”

Then later on Martin saw a hungry young boy who had been caught stealing from an apple old lady. He went outside and settled their argument as he extended love and compassion towards the both of them. But he still did not see Jesus.

Martin was pleased to have been able to help his friend, the young woman and the hungry boy, but he was still sad that Christ hadn’t come. He went back to his basement room as darkness fell, feeling a little foolish for having trusted in a dream. He opened his Bible to read again.

But as he read he heard a voice behind him. “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”
“It is I” said the voice a third time, and the apple seller and boy emerged from the shadows before vanishing.

The magi discovered God in an unexpected place, a small home in Bethlehem.
At the start of a New Year, let us ask God to open our eyes to His presence, in unexpected places & people.  To recognise that God is present in all aspects of our lives, and to make God visible in our lives to others.

May we never again find ourselves surprised to discover God in the unexpected
places of our lives. Amen.

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