Vicar Matt Doebler
Matins Devotional: October 19, 2022
Lately, there’s a semi-popular television series called “The Chosen” that's been attempting to adapt the gospel narratives for the small screen. While I have no particular opinion one way or the other on whether “The Chosen” is worth your time—it’s gotten me thinking about the challenges—and even the potential dangers—of trying to make Jesus recognizable. Because what always seems to end up happening whenever there is a dramatic portrayal of the life of Christ is that all our unspoken ideas and assumptions about how Jesus should look, and sound, and act start bubbling to the surface.
I think you understand what I’m getting at here. Directors who need to cast an actor in the role of Jesus look for someone who has that je ne sais quoi—they want someone who can come across as relatable, yet mysterious—as warm, yet stoic—as gentle, yet assertive—as someone who can look right into your soul but who can also flash that thousand-yard stare.
I suppose that on one level these considerations are appropriate for a visual artistic medium. However, they also point out the fact that we hope—no, we expect—that we will be able to recognize the Son of God before he even utters a line of dialogue. We don’t want him to look ordinary, unattractive, or even—God forbid—frightening. We want to be assured of all of Jesus’ goodness, love, compassion, and kindness just by the way that he walks across a room, hits his mark, and smiles for his close-up.
But that’s not how Jesus wants us to recognize him.
In our reading from the gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus has just forced his disciples to get on a boat and cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Why? Well, Jesus has just miraculously provided food for a crowd of over 5,000. In fact, John tells us that many in the crowd witness this miracle and immediately start hatching plans to anoint Jesus as their king. Not because they’ve listened to his teaching and have understood what Jesus has come to do, but because they hope—no, they expect—the Messiah to be their bread king. They look at Jesus, they look at his miracle, and they decide to cast him in the part. He’s got just those qualities they’re looking for—he’s recognizable. So Jesus, anticipating the danger to his disciples and their understanding of who he is, sends them out on the sea.
And it’s out there. Out on the treacherous sea, that Jesus teaches his disciples how they are to recognize him. The disciples are caught in the middle of a particularly nasty storm. They’ve spent all night straining against the wind and waves, struggling to keep the boat from being broken up and capsized, fighting until their bodies are drained by exhaustion and fatigue. On top of all of this, they look out into the churning waters and they see something that looks like a ghost or a phantom coming straight for them. These grown men now give way to sheer terror. They have no idea this is Jesus. In the middle of the night, out on the open sea, in their terrified state of mind, Jesus is unrecognizable.
But then he speaks: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
This is how Jesus hopes—no, how he expects—to be recognized. By his word. By his word of peace that comes to us in the middle of the raging storm. By his word of forgiveness that comes from his dying lips as he hangs from the cross. By his word of blessing in the breaking of the bread. By his word which promises us life and salvation through the preaching of the gospel. By his word which quiets our terror over sin and assures our hearts of his mercy in the sacraments.
When Moses tells the people of Israel that God is raising up another prophet for his people (Deut. 18), he doesn’t tell them how to look for this prophet. He tells them how to listen. True faith never enters the heart through the eye, but through the ear. May God give us ears to hear the voice of Jesus calling: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.”