About 10 years ago, Joshua Bell, one of the biggest-name solo violinists in the world, made news when he went busking in a Washington DC metro station. He played for almost 45 minutes. But he didn’t announce it. He went in disguise. He wore a baseball cap to hide his floppy hair and a t-shirt.
What do you think happened?
Well, you might imagine a crowd would develop. That some would think ‘ok, so I might be running late, but this guy is awesome. As the Guardian said at the time, had this been a Richard Curtis film, Bell would make the whole station come to a standstill, causing a spontaneous multiple epiphany as people realised the hollowness of their pathetic, materialistic lives and their spirits awoke up to a world of transcendent beauty.
But what did happen?
Well, whilst he played, 1097 walked past. The Washington Post, who were in on the experiment, counted them.
How many do you think stopped to listen for more than one minute?
How much do you think he made from busking?
$20 of that was from one individual who did recognise him. So from the others it was just $32.
However the point Bell was trying to make wasn’t so much that we’ve don’t appreciate real beauty and talent when it right in front of us, nor that we’ve lost the ability to stop and pay attention, though certainly those things might be true.
It’s more that we fail to notice these things when they turn up in the wrong place, where or when we don’t expect it.
Had Joshua Bell been in a concert hall, on a stage, in a tux and bow tie, he would have no problem being recognised. But dressed casually, in a tube station, when we’ve got somewhere else to be? Less easy.
It’s probably true. Location does have a part to play. I mean, have you ever had trouble recognising someone because they are not where you normally see them? I’m more likely to stop and listen for a few minutes to singers in the markets at Covent Garden, when I’m just browsing and not in a rush anywhere, than in a tube station.
There was a fascinating story in the news recently about how the opposite can also be true. We can think more highly of something, which is actually quite ordinary, if it is in a grand place. A 17 year old left a pair of glasses on the floor of a San Francisco art gallery and walked away.
But people thought they were part of the exhibition. They stopped and stared at them, considered their meaning, got down and took photos of them…
And I wonder…
… might we fail to notice God’s presence with us, cos it seems like the wrong place, it’s not where we would expect to find him?
God is here, but we don’t see him, cos surely here is the wrong place?
Where we least expect him?
Last time we started a new series, looking at the nature of the ‘spiritual life’ through 12 words. Lots of people would say they are spiritual, even if they would not consider themselves religious. More people have experiences which they would describe as ‘spiritual’ than we might realise.
But experience can be deceptive. It’s unreliable. Besides most of life is not lived in the highs and lows of experience. Most of us spend most of our time living in the ‘ordinary’. If are created to be drawn into close personal relationship with God our creator and sustainer, it can’t be based purely on great experiences. Good as they are, their impact fades over time. Relationship with God is only sustainable if we can find it in the ordinary.
So, are there ways in which we can encounter God and nurture relationship with God in the everyday experience of life?
I’m not talking about heaping more things onto a ‘to do’ list or suggesting big things that require lots of time, freedom or self-discipline. I’m talking about simple, doable things that we can build in to what we’re already doing.
Well, that’s what the 12 words in the circle on the screen are about.
The first word I introduced last week was Here.
If it doesn’t sound too obvious, here is the only place we can begin because here is where we are.
We might wish we were somewhere else.
We might think we should be somewhere else.
But we’re not.
In this place; in this time; in these circumstances; with these joys and sorrows; these strengths and weaknesses.
And last time I suggested that was good news.
We don’t need to get ourselves somewhere else to meet with God.
God wants to meet us here.
Where we are.
That’s what the two passages Femi read for us this morning were about. God encountering people where they were. But they were the ‘wrong places.’ The places where did they not expect to find him.
But something just to make clear about this word here. This is not about God ‘showing up’ as if God wasn’t there all along. This is about us wakening up to the presence of the God who has there all along whether we noticed or not, whether we wanted him around or not.
Consider what Jacob says in the Genesis passage.
The LORD is here. He is in this place and I didn’t know it.
Last time I introduced you to a very brief prayer, where we allow ourselves to be open to God’s presence with us. It was…
Here I am, Lord
Here You are, Lord
Here we are together.
Neither Moses nor Jacob seemed like ideal candidates to have any kind of encounter with God. In many different ways they weren’t in the ‘right place.’
It was true about their geography or physical location. But it was also true if you considered their emotional, mental or spiritual state.
Take Jacob. He’s the son of Isaac. The grandson of Abraham. Abraham had received great promises from God. Land, descendants, that God would bless him and, through his family bless the world.
But God had his work cut out. At the time God made the promise, Abraham had no kids, and there seemed little chance of any arriving.
But even when Isaac was born the trouble wasn’t over. It was hard to imagine a whole world being blessed through this family. They weren’t even very good at blessing each another.
Jacob was a twin. His brother was called Esau. It would fair to say they didn’t get on. The parents didn’t help because they had favourites. Isaac favoured Esau, their mother, Rebekah, favoured Jacob.
Up until this point there is very little to indicate that Jacob had any real interest in, or awareness of, the God of his grandfather. There are only really two, strange little stories we read of him to this point. One where he persuades his twin brother to give up the inheritance rights of the firstborn son, in exchange for some bread and lentil soup. The other is as Isaac is preparing to die. Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal the blessing Isaac had prepared for Esau.
As we pick up the story Jacob is on the run from Esau. Their mother Rebekah has had to help Jacob escape. Esau wants to kill him.
This story occurs just as Jacob is about to leave the Promised Land. He’s returning to where Abraham had been when he first got his call. He’s going back to the place Abraham had been told to leave behind.
He stops for the night and decides to get some sleep. You might think it odd to have a stone for a pillow, but that’s what they would have had. No lovely, soft, duck down in those days.
The place where he stops is described as sacred. It might just be with hindsight, knowing what’s about to happen, that the writer says that. More likely it was a shrine or worship site for the gods of the people who lived there. It’s possible, from the dream, that it was the site of an ancient ziggurat, a worship area for Mesopotamian gods, with ramped sides. Perhaps that serves to highlight just how alone Jacob is out here.
That’s when he has his dream, of a stairway or ladder up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. He discovers that God is not just out there, distant and aloof, but is interested and connected with what is happening here and now.
But what was new and groundbreaking about this story was not the spectacular dream, but the promise that was given to Jacob.
I will be with you and protect you, wherever you go.
Jacob was raised in a world where gods were thought to be local. Everyone had their gods and their gods ruled over their land. When you entered someone else’s territory it was the area of their god.
That was part of Jacob’s story too. When Abraham had been called to leave behind home and family and set off to a place God would show him, it was a story about leaving behind their gods.
So it would make sense for him to not expect his god to in this place. When you leave the family behind, you leave the gods behind too. Away from home, from family, at the worship shrine of another god, Jacob could be forgiven for thinking he is leaving behind God. He could even think he is being banished by God. That perhaps he’s finished with God, or at least God is finished with him.
But here at Bethel, or Luz, Jacob makes a huge discovery.
This God could be with him wherever he was.
This God could be encountered anywhere.
Jacob did not have to get back there.
God could meet him here.
Wherever here was.
His story bear striking similarities to the account of Moses. Who knows how many times Moses had walked his sheep that way, before the encounter at the burning bush. We’re told again that the site was sacred. It was Sinai, the holy mountain.
But Moses shows no signs of being aware of that. He’s not looking for any kind of spiritual encounter. He too is separated from his people. If anything he’s trying to leave the past behind.
Moses was a bit of the Harry Potter of his day. I’m not saying he was a wizard or anything like that. For those who know a bit about Harry Potter, Moses was the original boy who lived. At a time when Pharaoh was putting all the male Hebrew children to death, Moses mother had rebelled. Then when she could hide him no longer she placed him in a basket on the river. He had been picked up by Pharoah’s daughter and wound up being raised by his own mother in the royal house.
But for all his privilege, Moses never forgot his roots. He despised how his people were being treated. One day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and killed the Egyptian.
But this didn’t make him a hero. There may have been a bit of a ‘what’s this got to do with the posh boy at the palace’ but when he tried to settle a dispute between two Hebrews, he was not only told to get lost, it became clear that his murder was known. So he fled and that was how he ended up being a shepherd. That was why he was out in the desert.
Moses encounters God in the course of his ordinary working day. But he doesn’t go the bush looking for God. He’s just awake enough to notice something odd about the bush. When the rabbis talk about this story they say the bush has been burning the whole time, it’s just that this is the first time Moses notices it. Again this is not so much a story about God showing up. It’s about Moses waking up to the presence of the God who has been there all along.
But just like Jacob, when he’s far away, when he feels he’s on his own, when he thinks him and God are finished, when he’s least expecting it, he discovers he’s not out of the reach of God.
That’s the place where God meets him.
We get a sense of what Moses might have been thinking from God’s response.
Was he thinking that God doesn’t care?
That God is out there, not interested in what is happening to his people?
Either he doesn’t see or he doesn’t care?
God reminds them that he has seen.
He has heard their cry.
He is aware of their suffering.
This God is interested in here and now.
He’s as interested in what’s happening in Egypt as in the land he had promised Abraham.
But it’s another feature of the story I find interesting here. Take off your sandals for this is holy ground. It’s always seen as a sign of reverence that Moses takes off his shoes.
But why would that be seen as reverent?
Perhaps the shoes get in the way.
Perhaps the divine wants more connection, not less.
But even before that, how does Moses respond to his name being called from within the bush?
Here I am.
Neither Moses nor Jacob seemed in the right place to encounter God. Neither was in the right place physically, geographically. The places are described as sacred, but they show no signs of knowing it.
But neither did they seem in right place mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Neither of them had gone there looking for God.
Both were far from where they would have thought they needed to be. They were in the place where they least expected to encounter God.
But they didn’t need to get from that place to somewhere else to encounter God.
God met them where they were.
In fact, God had been with them all along, even though they never knew it, even though they never acknowledged it. Perhaps, even, when they didn’t want him.
We speak of God showing up. But if anything what these passages teach us is that God is waiting for us to show up. To wake up to the divine presence that is with us, around us, always.
And that this God looks to encounter us.
Just where we are.
Just as we are.
It’s not a matter of us getting from there to there. It’s not about us getting ourselves in the right place emotionally, spiritually or whatever before God can meet with us.
God longs to encounter us as we are, where we are.
Here is where God comes to meet us.
It’s the only place God can meet us.
Both Moses and Jacob are, in their own ways, hiding.
But God comes to where they are to find them.
He comes to meet them, even where they least expect to find him.
God doesn’t wait for them to have it all sorted out before he can deal with them. It’s clear from the name he gives himself.
I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
He was the God who been revealed in their stories, in their lives. And none of them were super saints. Oh, at their best they were fine, but at their worst they could be a right dysfunctional lot.
But God was the God who was faithful, often despite rather than the cause of them. He’s the God who was there as the story unfolded, even when they forgot about him, even when they didn’t notice him, even when they didn’t want him. Even when they hid from him.
This God didn’t wait for us to get it all right before he came looking for us in Jesus. It was whilst we were still far from him, he came looking for us in Jesus. It was whilst we were still sinners, Christ gave himself for us.
But we also learn in our encounters this morning that when God comes to meet us, it doesn’t answer all the questions. We just get enough for the next stage of the journey.
It’s pretty ambiguous whether Jacob has really that much more faith when he leaves Bethel than when he arrived there. His response is ‘if God does this, that and the other for me, then I’ll let him be my God.’
He’s a God who works with Moses and all the doubts he has. We only read a small part of the encounter. Moses offers many reasons why God should go encounter someone else.
He asks ‘who am I to do it’.
Then he tries ‘I don’t know what to say’
Then he tries ‘what if they won’t listen to me’
Then he tries ‘I’m not equipped, I don’t have the skills.’
Then when all else fails he tries ‘can you not send someone else?’
But God starts with Moses where he is. And when Moses asks for a name he says I am who I am, or I will be what I will be.
Moses you’re going to have to trust me with that. I’ll be always present, but never fully grasped. It’s a relationship. There will always be more to discover. There will always be mystery.
You’ll never know all you think you need to know.
And that’s ok. Cos just as I am here now,
I will be there then,
and there then,
and there then.
That is the nature of the relationship we are invited into through Jesus.
There may be times we experience him as a shepherd.
There may be times when we encounter him as our rock.
There may be times we encounter him as a father, or a friend.
He will be what he will be.
But always beginning from the same place.
Where we are.
Waiting to be encountered.
Waiting for us to wake up to his presence.
We’re not waiting for him to show up. He is always there.
We might feel like we’re in the wrong place. We might not feel prepared. We might not feel worthy. But all he’s asking is that we show up when he calls. That we say Here I am.
Here I am, Lord
Here you are, Lord
Here we are together.
But they were the ‘wrong places.’ The places where did they not expect to find him.
Just an ordinary pair of glasses.