Last week, Doan and I were at Jester’s for dinner when we ended up talking to a gentleman sitting at the bar to our right. It was a rather raucous in Jester’s that evening, and with each beer our new friend drank, the more, let’s say, open, he got. As Doan and I were getting up to leave, we found that we hadn’t yet properly introduced ourselves to the gentleman, and so Dean Imlay, who was also there, did it for us. “That’s Father Matt and Doan,” Dino said, at which point our new friend spent about a minute and a half apologizing for all the cursing and other bad things he had said.
People get caught off guard all the time, myself included. We aren’t always aware of ourselves, how we are acting, or in front of whom we are when we have an occasion of acting badly. No doubt those original twelve disciples had an ‘uh-oh’ moment with Jesus, that moment when it became clear that their friend and rabbi was not just their friend and rabbi. My guess is that we just heard a recounting of that moment from St. Mark.
Jesus and His disciples were traveling by boat when a great windstorm kicked up which threatened their very survival. Jesus was apparently very tired, and so was not to be deterred from catching some Z’s. “What the heck, Jesus,” said the scared and worried disciples, “don’t you care that we’re this close to dying?” Jesus got up, told the wind and the sea to chill out, and then told the disciples they were a pack of clowns for being so worried. Their reaction was priceless.
Now, “We are not told the disciples were filled with wonder. We are not told they asked this question trembling with joy or anticipation. We are not told that they asked one another this question with excitement rising in their voices. No, we’re told they were “terrified,” and the discerning reader has to wonder why. After all, the disciples have been with Jesus long enough now to have seen a lot of spectacular healings, including the casting out of some demons. They have been around Jesus long enough to sense that he possesses phenomenal powers and is, by most any reckoning, no ordinary man or rabbi. True, they’ve not seen him command the very forces of nature in just this way but it wasn’t exactly the first time they’d seen power at work in and through the very words of their master.”1
“But things are different in case you realize you are in the presence of not just a gifted person but no less than God himself! (Not unlike realizing that you’ve been cursing up a storm in front of the local priest,) …if you have occasion to realize that you’ve been hanging around with God all along, suddenly you start to wonder about other things. Suddenly you wonder if all along he’s been able to read your mind, know your thoughts, see the envy and the anger and the things you didn’t say (but wanted to) and that were not all that kind. Suddenly you wonder if you’ve been sitting up straight enough and behaving well enough all along, if maybe the things you’ve done and said are going to have consequences well beyond the momentary (as in, maybe into eternity . . .). As Fred Craddock once said in a sermon about John the Baptist, what made John the Baptist intriguing was that his preaching brought people right into the presence of God which, as Craddock put it, “Is what everybody wants, and what nobody wants.”2
As humans, as mortals, created beings, we do not, on an everyday basis, assume that we will end up in the presence of God. When Isaiah found himself before the throne, he only managed to utter “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The Lord…” We heard about Job finally running into the God he so loved, only to be shouted down: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth,” God asked Job. God told Job to prepare himself ‘like a man’ for His questions, perhaps marking the first time God told someone to put on their big-boy pants and man up. The disciples finally figured out that Jesus was not only a great teacher and wonder-worker, but the Son of the living God, and they were rightly terrified.
It would not be incorrect for us to be terrified at the prospect of being in the presence of God, and yet here we are, in the presence of God. We will see God work today in the saving waters of Baptism, in the sacrifice of the Mass; we will be in His presence no less surely than those first disciples were, and if we pause for a moment to consider the consequences, no one would blame us. But if we remember that God has all along known the good and the bad hidden in our hearts, that He has seen the worst we have to offer and yet still He sent Jesus to be with us and for us, to give His life for us, we can take comfort and remember that most of all God loves us, and in His presence is where we are meant to be.
1Scott Hoezee, This Week.