Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

The Word became flesh because we needed him most in our difficult, scary, sorrowful, painful, shameful, uncertain places.
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In today’s gospel reading in John, there is this line:

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

It struck me as particularly perplexing.

Why didn’t the world recognize him?

Why don’t we recognize him?

You would think the creator of the universe wouldn’t be that hard to recognize.

And yet…

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Is it because we’re looking for God in all the wrong places?

* * *

God is in prosperity, we say.

When we’re doing well financially, we say we’re blessed.

In our checking accounts, in our 401Ks, that’s where God is.

Some even promise wealth in exchange for faith, have you heard those teachings?

God Wants You to Be Rich is the name of a popular book I’ve seen in some circles.

If you trust God, God will reward you.

God will shower you in blessings.

God will give you wealth untold.

Yes, that’s where God is.

But what if I were to tell you that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is seen most clearly in poverty?

In the faces of the poor.

In the hands of those who cry out for help while we pass them on the street.

In the anxiety of the chronically underemployed.

In the bellies of those who are starving.

In the homeless shelters. In the shacks and slums of the developing world.

And when we avoid these places, we avoid seeing God’s face.

* * *

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Why didn’t we recognize him?

Is it because we’re looking for God in all the wrong places?

God is in our health, we say.

In bodies that are strong and function just as they’re supposed to.

Sickness is a sign of weakness—of dis-ease, of lack of faith.

Have you heard that before?

Or more recently, how about this one?

We don’t need to fear the virus, God will protect us! Are we so afraid that we feel the need to alter our lives because of some silly germs?

But what if I were to tell you that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is seen most clearly in sickness?

In the dying poor Mother Teresa tended to in the streets of Calcutta.

In the pediatric cancer centers, where children struggle to get well.

In the solitary rooms of Covid patients, gasping out their last breaths to an iPad screen.

In the uncertainty of a new diagnosis. In the weariness of chronic pain. In the devastation of a treatment plan gone awry.

And when we tell ourselves God can’t be found in sickness but only health, we miss God’s presence in precisely the places it comes most clearly.

* * *

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Why didn’t we recognize him?

Is it because we’re looking for God in all the wrong places?

God is in happiness, we say.

In the joy of a family game.

In the contentment of a walk through the woods.

In the laughter of a close friend.

But what if I were to tell you that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is seen most clearly in sorrow?

In the grief of a child lost too soon.

In the dark, descending haze of depression.

In the heartbreak of a failed relationship.

In the thrumming loneliness of isolation.

When we convince ourselves God can only be found when we’re feeling good, we miss how close God comes in pain.

* * *

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Why didn’t we recognize him?

Is it because we’re looking for God in all the wrong places?

God is in our righteousness, we say.

When we make good choices.

When we keep the rules.

When we keep our hands clean.

But what if I were to tell you that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is seen most clearly because of our sin?

In the desperation of addiction.

In the shame of lies.

In the self-hatred of the worst things we’ve ever done.

For Jesus Christ came to exchange our sin for his forgiveness, our shame for his wholeness, our self-hatred for his all-encompassing, ever-expanding love. We don’t have to hold onto our sin, or pretend we don’t have it in the first place. We can lay it at the feet of Jesus.

* * *

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Why didn’t we recognize him?

Is it because we’re looking for God in all the wrong places?

God is in our certainty, we say.

In our faith that “this too shall pass.”

That “everything happens for a reason.”

That “God has a plan.”

But what if I were to tell you that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is seen most clearly in uncertainty?

When we don’t know if or how we’ll be able to make it another day.

When it feels as if we’re surrounded by darkness.

When we doubt that God even exists at all.

For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

* * *

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

But now you, my friends, perhaps you will be able to recognize him where you didn’t see him before.

  • In the faces of the poor.
  • In the bodies of the sick.
  • In the heartache of grief.
  • In the remorse of repentance.
  • In the uncertainty of doubt.

Yes, yes, God is in our abundance and our wellbeing and our joy and our goodness and our faith too, of course.

But Jesus Christ came—the Word became flesh—because we needed him here, in the difficult, scary, sorrowful, painful, shameful, uncertain places.

The incarnate God made his dwelling place among us not because we were doing just fine, but because we weren’t.

And so God joined us, became one of us, and not the richest or healthiest or happiest of us, a sort of unrelatable demigod or glorified emperor, but a homeless, broken-hearted man who lived and breathed and got sick and struggled and ultimately died.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Let’s not make the same mistake.

If you are struggling, hear this word. God is with you, right here, right now, in the very midst of it, for the Word became flesh.

And if you are not struggling, at least not at the moment, for periods of struggle come and go, hear this word. If you are looking for God, you will find him with those in need; run to them, go with them, so that you can be together with them and God. For the Word became flesh, and that’s where we will find our lord.

May we be found there, too.

Amen.

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