Recognizing God

Preacher: Jeff Davidson

Scriptures: John 21:1-19, Acts 9:1-20

One of the classic adventure books that I remember reading as a kid “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood” by Howard Pyle. It might have been in the Reader’s Digest abridged books. My mom and dad subscribed to those for many years, and it let me read books as a boy that I wouldn’t have been able to understand or follow if they’d been in their full original versions.

To get us all on the same page, Robin Hood is a British noble who has been cheated of his lands and become an outlaw. Great Britain’s King Richard is fighting overseas, and the throne has been entrusted to the care of the greedy and unscrupulous Prince John. Richard has been captured and is being held for ransom, and the people have been taxed for the ransom, but John does not intend to pay the ransom. Instead he is going to allow Richard to be killed and claim the throne for himself. Robin Hood and his merry men oppose John and support Richard.

Through a long and convoluted series of happenings, King Richard returns to England and is disguised as a priest. He and his entourage are

taken prisoner in Sherwood Forest by Robin and his men, as they do not see through his disguise and realize that he is the King.

The best movie version of this is from 1938 with Errol Flynn and Claude Rains. It’s on Turner Classic Movies all the time. One of the emotional high points of both the book and the movie are when King Richard chooses to reveal himself to Robin Hood and his band, and stands up and throws back his hood to show his face. Everyone immediately recognizes the King, and they all kneel before him, and they all bow their heads. It gave me goose bumps when I was a kid, and it still does whenever I watch the movie.

That mistaken identity thing, or just not recognizing someone, is a very common theme in books and movies and TV shows. Mark Twain used it in “The Prince and the Pauper.” A similar theme shows up in the 1983 Eddie Murphy movie “Trading Places.” I don’t know how far back in history this plot device goes, but it’s still in use today and probably will be as long as books and plays are written.

Both of our scripture readings this morning hinge on someone not recognizing God. I guess in our Gospel reading it’s more specifically about not recognizing Jesus.

The disciples are out fishing, and although many of them are professionals they don’t catch any fish. This random guy on the beach tells

them to throw their nets over on the other side of the boat. They do, and all of a sudden they have more fish than they can haul in. Then, and only then, does one of them recognize Jesus.

You sometimes wonder if the reality of the resurrection hadn’t quite sunk in for the disciples. Maybe they were a long way from the shore. Maybe they really couldn’t see Jesus well enough to realize that was him. They’d been traveling the countryside with him and observed him from far away and from close up for three years, and they’d already seen him risen a couple of times after the crucifixion and the resurrection, but let’s say that they couldn’t see him well enough to recognize him.

They sure could hear him, though. They could hear him shouting instructions, because they followed the instructions. They took up their nets from one side of the boat and cast them out on the other side. Even if they couldn’t see Jesus well enough to recognize him, you would think that if they heard him well enough to follow instructions that they would have heard him well enough to know who he was.

But they didn’t. At least not until they got their miracle and all those fish showed up in the nets. Not just a bunch of fish, not just a large quantity of fish, not just a mess of fish, but one hundred and fifty three fish precisely. Large ones. Once they had their miracle, once they had their one hundred and fifty three fish, they recognized Jesus.

That reminds me of the old joke about the guy who falls off a cliff. As he’s falling down and down and down he grabs hold of a little branch hanging out of the side of the cliff. He’s holding on for dear life, but the cliff is too sheer for him to climb up, it’s too far for him to let go and drop down, his grip is starting to slip on the leaves of the branch, and the branch itself is starting to pull out of the side of his cliff.

The guy shouts out a prayer. “God,” he says, “God, I’ve never believed in you. But I need you now more than I ever have. Can you hear me God? Are you up there God? Is anyone up there? If you’re up there God, please save me. Please rescue me.”

And a voice comes from the heavens – “I have heard your prayers, my child. Trust me, and release your hold on the branch, and I will catch you and keep you safe.”

The guy pauses a minute, and then he shouts, “Is there anyone else up there?”

Sometimes we’re like John and Peter and the rest of the disciples. We don’t recognize God in the ordinary and the routine and the boring stuff of life. We don’t recognize God unless and until God does some big, miraculous, fancy thing. It’s a challenge to see God in the regular old life that we lead from day to day.

When I come home from work Julia usually asks me if anything interesting happened, and I usually say no. Most of the time there isn’t a fatal accident, or a childbirth, or a shooting, or whatever. Most of the time nothing terribly exciting happens, at least nothing terribly exciting to me because I’ve gotten used to it.

But I don’t need for some exciting thing to happen to recognize God. I don’t need to wait for a successful childbirth delivery, or someone whose life is saved by timely CPR instructions, to see God. I don’t need to wait for us to save a suicidal person threatening to jump off a bridge or shoot themselves to see God. If I’m paying attention, it’s just as big a miracle that nothing happened. It’s just as big a miracle that everyone was safe. There are a million and a half people in Fairfax County. God is just as present on the days that nothing happens as he is on the days that we have the big spectacular stuff. I just don’t notice. I just don’t recognize God.

In our reading from Acts, God gets missed twice, at least. First, it’s Saul – the guy that we know better as the apostle Paul. There is a bright light, Saul falls to the ground, he can’t see anything, and he hears a voice asking “Why do you persecute me?” I want to give Saul credit in that he seems to recognize that this might be God when he says, “Who are you, Lord?” It’s not clear if he means Lord in the sense of a superior, like lords

and ladies, or my lord and master, or the lord of the manor, it’s not clear if he means Lord in that sense or in the sense of God.

But whether he recognized all of this as being from God or not, he didn’t recognize it as Jesus, at least not immediately. The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus because until the big haul of fish it was just routine old life as usual. I think Saul didn’t recognize Jesus until Jesus identifies himself because he perceived what had happened – his fall, his blindness, as bad things.

That happens to us too. We often think that God cannot be found in the hard or difficult things that happen in our lives. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat with people going through painful times and they’ve said, “Why me? I can’t believe that God is doing this to me. Why me?”

People write books about those questions and don’t ever resolve them. I’m going to try to say what I think very briefly. “Why me” is a fair question. The other side of that is “Why not me?” Why shouldn’t I suffer as other people suffer sometimes? That doesn’t mean I like it or I want it, but I’m not a better person than anyone else. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all are worthy of death.

Yet another side of that is “Why her? Why him?” Again, “why me” is a fair question, but it’s a question that lots and lots and lots of people who go through hard things can ask. We had a meal last night with friends and the

husband was talking about his daughter that was born with Spina Bifida. Why her? She was a baby. She hadn’t hurt anyone. Why me? Well, why her? On almost any rational scale, it should probably be me instead of her.

There are folks who believe that God causes bad things to happen in order to test our faith and bring us some sort of spiritual growth. I don’t necessarily believe that, but I recognize that there is scriptural support for that idea and there is a large body of theology that teaches that. I’m not saying that I know those people are wrong because I don’t know everything about God’s will and God’s intent.

One of the ways that I think about it, though, is that everyone makes choices and choices have consequences. We have the gift of free will. I have undoubtedly made bad choices along the way, and I have suffered some consequences for them. I also have made choices that other people have probably suffered consequences for, and I am probably suffering consequences of some sort for choices other people have made. I don’t think that God necessarily caused those choices or those consequences. I do think that God can help something good come out of them. I do think that God can help us find meaning in them. I do think that God can use the bad choices I’ve made and the bad choices other people have made and the negative consequences that come from all of those things and use them to help me, to help others, and to help the world.

Saul doesn’t recognize God at first because he perceives that something bad has happened to him. Later he does recognize God, and good things come. Saul’s life of rebellion against Jesus, of persecution of Christians even unto death, lead in the end to good and positive things in his life and in the lives of others he ministers to and with.

And it’s Saul’s past life that at first trips up the third person who fails to recognize God – Ananias. Ananias seems to recognize that it’s God talking to him. I mean, the first words out of his mouth after God says his name are, “Here I am, Lord.” That’s a good start!

But then when he gets his instructions Ananias isn’t so sure. “Lord, I’ve heard of this guy Saul. And what I’ve heard… uh, well, uh… it isn’t good. Lord, he kills Christians. And he has authority from the chief priests to imprison us.” To give him full credit, God says again what he wants, Ananias obeys him, and Ananias lays his hands on Saul, and Saul’s sight is restored.

We judge people based on their backgrounds, or their histories, or their reputations. That can keep us from seeing God in them and with them. That was one of the things that was so troubling about political leaders referring to gang members, mostly MS-13, as animals.

No one actually defends MS-13 or what they do. It’s a terrible organization, just as all similar gangs are. Bloods, Crips, 18th Street, and

many, many more that don’t get nearly as much publicity do terrible heinous, and yes, animalistic things. I have to watch footage of gang activity from time to time. I have to listen to tapes and calls and it’s not pleasant at all.

But although they do terrible things, although they do animalistic, evil things, in the end they are not animals (except in the scientific, biological sense like all of us are.) They are human beings, created in the image of God. They are people for whom Christ died. They are not unlike Saul, who persecuted and tortured and killed Christians in terrible ways, but who God used to share the gospel with a significant portion of the known world of that day.

It doesn’t have to be something as awful as criminal gangs. For some, it’s politics or religion. I read an excellent, excellent article on Buzzfeed last week about Katie McHugh and her journey into and out of white nationalism. David French wrote a good piece in National Review about the shootings at the synagogue in Poway, California called “Dealing With the Shock of an Evangelical Terrorist.” There are folks that will look at McHugh and at the Poway shooter and because of their histories will not grant them humanity, will not recognize that they are children of God.

It happens when people look at President Trump, and Secretary Clinton, at Senator Sanders, at Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, at Sen. Cruz, at any

number of people regardless of their politics. People make judgements about evangelical Christians and progressive Christians and Muslims and atheists. We look at someone and make a judgment about their humanity and their worth based on their religion or their politics or any number of other things.

And that’s wrong. That is not recognizing that they are people for whom Christ died. That is not recognizing the ways in which God can use them, despite actions and views that we think may be wrong. That is not recognizing the voice of the Spirit in whatever form it may come.

Throughout the Bible God speaks through sinners and terrible people. God even speaks through animals, like Balaam’s donkey. Figure out who your least favorite political or religious leader is, and remind yourself that if God can speak through someone who killed Christians, if God can speak through a donkey, God can speak through that person too. That doesn’t mean that God IS speaking through that person, but we have to be open to the reality that God COULD speak through that person.

As we leave here I pray that we can be open to see the world around us as God’s creation. I pray that we can see the people around us, whether it’s around us in our own lives or around us in newspapers and on television and the internet, as real people. I pray that we can see and recognize God moving

comprehension in and through people who are also beyond our understanding and comprehension. I pray that however he comes, we recognize God. Amen.

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