How can we find the glory of God in our very ordinary lives? It can be hard, can’t it? But one way is instead of looking for God now, to look back and identify significant moments in our past. What is interesting, if we do that, is that sometimes they will be moments that we knew were significant then – first day at school – passing those exams – getting married etc. But other moments may well be things that we didn’t realise were so important at the time,; and it’s often when we think on those things that we begin to see how God was at work in us, even though we didn’t realise it.
But whether we knew they were special moments at the time or not, looking back on them and seeing where we are now, can often reveal all sorts of things about the event that we didn’t realise at the time. It certainly took me many years to realise what deciding to be a priest has done to me, and I still have to pinch myself occasionally and remind myself who I am, and this can be very challenging (or ought to be) and not just very joyful.
There is no doubt that the Baptism of Jesus. that we celebrate today, was a very important moment for him. But there are two things to notice. First, although today’s Gospel writer (Luke 3:15-22) speaks as if everyone saw “heaven open and the Holy Spirit descending”, Matthew and Mark say “he saw” it. In other words, that it was Jesus alone who saw heaven open and the Spirit descending; that this was not seen by those standing round. This is a way of writing from ancient times that is a bit strange to us. Our world tries imply that “real” things are those that can be observed by everyone, whilst things in the mind are less real or not real at all. Yet we all know that there is a distinction that should be made, between dreams and phantasies of the mind that are not real, and thoughts and decisions in our mind, on which we base much of what we do. To love is to have a series of thoughts about caring for someone else in our mind, but these thoughts put into action are very real indeed. Likewise evil thoughts sadly!
So, when heaven opens for us, as it did for Jesus; when we have a moment when we know God is with us in a wonderful way, this will usually happen in our mind, and nobody else will notice, unless we tell them; and yet it can change completely the direction of our life. It certainly did this for Jesus. But not immediately, for as we know from the Gospels, Jesus then had to go somewhere quiet and alone to work out what actions he should take in response to this inner experience. This is what is called the Temptations of Christ, and they are immensely important for all that Jesus then does, right up to his death on the cross.
As it was for Jesus, so it will be for us. God is at work in and around us whether we recognise and respond to his presence and power or not. But working out how to respond to this is not an easy thing. We’re imperfect people and often muddled in our response to God, aren’t we? We may often get it wrong, or at least a bit wrong, on the way; and admitting that, and learning from that, is a very important part of the never-ending journey towards God. We might well call this process prayer; provided we realise that prayer is not just what we do, it is also what we allow God to do in us. So Titus in our 2nd Reading today (3:4-7) does not call this process “prayer” but being “justified by his grace, to become heirs looking forward to inheriting eternal life.” So the journey is not so much, us moving towards God, as us realising that God is and has been present in our lives all the time; even though often we did not know it.
When Isaiah in our 1st Reading (40:9-10) calls out, “Shout without fear, to the towns of Judah. ‘Here is your God.’ Here is the Lord coming with power”; we may not realise this is happening, that God is at work in us with power, even when he is. Jesus knew this only too well. True power is often not shown by outward things but by inward glory. God shows his power most of all when Jesus is weak and helpless on the cross, crying out in agony. We too may learn as much about God when we are weak and uncertain as when we feel strong and uplifted, and we need to use every moment for him.
Have you heard the ancient story from Epictetus of a starving man standing in a queue for cheap cabbages? But when he reaches the front there are no cabbages left! The question then is what will we do then? Do we rage and shout, do we weep and curse, or do we simply move on? Whatever we do, right or wrong, as Christians we must realise God is always with us. That is what “compassion” means!