Whenever God sees fit to show up, I expect him to do so in style. To kick down the door of my life in hobnail boots. A booming voice. A little dry ice. Tricks of the light. That sort of thing.
Remember Jesus walking on the water? “Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake.” Boom! This is what I‘m talking about. This is what I need: the CGI Jesus. The Marvel movie messiah. But then, when he nears the boat, we are told disconcertingly that “he was about to pass by them” (Mark 6:48).?
The God who passes by
Having gone to all the effort of walking on water half way across a massive lake on a stormy night (which must surely be trickier than walking on a nice serene sea at sunset) Jesus inexplicably feigns disinterest. I imagine him giving a little casual wave to the boat. Calling out to the boys with a chummy "Hi", as if he hasn’t noticed that they are freaking out. As if he’s the kind of guy who regularly takes hikes across the Sea of Galilee. As if he has somewhere else to go.
“Jesus was about to pass by them”. Does he not know that he’s in the Bible? That this is not how the story is meant to end?
And then there’s the time Jesus gate-crashed a conversation between two commuters on the road to Emmaus: “As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going further” (Luke 24:28).? ?
Having risen from the dead we can be fairly sure that Jesus has all the time in the world. You might say that his schedule is wide open. And the couple with whom he has been walking haven’t yet clocked his identity. So why does he “continue on as if he were going further”? Why does he make out he‘s got somewhere else he needs to be?
There’s something playful here. Something smiling and unassuming about the King of Kings. (How many others met the resurrected Jesus but failed to invite him in?)
The God who whispers
We see something similar in Elijah’s epiphany of 1 Kings 19. The prophet has been tipped off to "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” And sure enough, “A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.”
And then God speaks in that still, small voice. We expect him to thunder, to dazzle from the limelight, but instead he sidles up in the twilight to whisper in our ears.
Disguising himself in the ordinary and the strange, Jesus seeks us out - deliberately and intimately - in our distress. He joins us gently on the Emmaus rd where we are reeling with post traumatic disorientation, struggling to navigate God’s will. He walks upon the water looking like a ghost while we are straining at the oar, pulling against the wind in the small hours of the night. He is the figment of our own imagination. The familiar hope clothed in ambiguity.
And when we glimpse Jesus like this in the storm, or sense his presence with us on the road, he sometimes feigns a certain surprising detachment. He pretends to pass us by. But don’t be deceived. He is waiting for us to want him, asking for us to ask him, insisting that we must ‘urge him strongly’ into our empty lives.
Pete Greig is the bewildered founder of the 24-7 Prayer movement. He heads up Emmaus Rd in Guildford with his wife, Sammy, and is the author of a number of books including God on Mute (David C Cook), Dirty Glory (Hodder & Stoughton) and How to Pray (Hodder & Stoughton).