A Date in the Middle of Nowhere: Encountering Jesus
One never forgets certain moments of prayer. For example, this one, as night falls over the Syrian desert. It has been a stressful day. A bus ride that lasted for hours. A breakdown. Waiting on the roadside surrounded by white sand and boulders. Now, it was late. Life is turning out the lights and I am sitting, in the middle of nowhere, under an awning that, with a bit of imagination, one could call a café.
To encounter God – it can’t be done. It isn’t something one does. To hear God’s voice is a gift, it is something that is given to someone. So I sit there with the only book I brought with me on this trip, the New Testament, open before me. I am tired after this long day and the long journey, the noisy bus station in Damascus and the dusty heat. And yet, this evening I experience what it means for God to speak to me through his word.
My eyes glide across the page. "After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another …" (Luke 8:1). As if my feet had suddenly fallen down a hole while trudging through undergrowth, my eyes came to a sudden halt. And my whole attention focused on this sentence, which then turned into a door opening inwards. What was it about that sentence that stops me in my tracks? I sit there, tired, in the middle of nowhere in a fog of shisha smoke and read about Jesus. I read about the God who became a man who walked around. About the God who became a man who travelled on foot along dusty roads between insignificant hamlets in the Near East to get to the next tiny village. To a place where five, maybe nine families were living. Unwashed children and goats on the road. Men busy farming and women breastfeeding their babies, all of them uneducated. I sit in a café in an insignificant little town in the Syrian desert and read about a God who became man, to walk around insignificant hamlets. Because a few people lived there. And then this "from one town and village to another." It was not something he did only once. It was not the first-century equivalent of a PR visit by some celebrity to some disaster area. It was just one more day. One more arduous foot march. Like every other morning.
What happens to me while I sit here? I don’t understand it. But suddenly this God-become-man is so near to me. Jesus, who are you that you hike on foot between dusty, insignificant little villages to speak with just a handful of people? You, through whom everything was created … You, before whom every knee will bow … You, within whom, I read, the fullness of divinity dwells?
And while the muezzin, in a crackling recording playing far too loud over loudspeakers, tells of a God who knows nothing of being human, I encounter precisely this God-become-man, as if he were an old acquaintance who sits himself down with you at a stranger’s table out in the Syrian desert. How do I encounter him? I don’t know. But suddenly I understand more, no, I suddenly feel more of what love means. But it is no abstract understanding. I feel like someone who just met with someone. And while tears come to my eyes, I repeated: "'After that Jesus wandered from one town and village to another…' The next morning Jesus continued onward … You went onward … You continued onward … Jesus, you went far enough to find insignificant people whom you wanted to encounter … Jesus, you went far enough to find me … to find me here in the middle of nowhere."
The difference between Biblical head knowledge and real revelation (epignosis) is enormous. Epignosis changes something in me: it takes hold of my mental categories and makes the matter in hand become important. Head knowledge alone is dead, although it is not, in and of itself, bad: it is good to know what is in the Bible and what our creed proclaims. But that is only the beginning. Our problem is when we know everything theoretically and put almost nothing into action. Every Christian knows that Jesus died on the cross for him or her. And nearly every Christian also knows, theoretically, that Jesus’ blood justifies him before God. But to what extent does this knowledge actually shape our deeds?
In spite of this knowledge our lives are mostly determined by the fact that we feel great when we do something right and feel bad when we do something wrong. Deep in our inner being there is a voice that says: "God only likes you if you constantly live the good, Christian life." And if we fail to live up to our own high ideals, we suspect, deep in our hearts, that God is disappointed with us.
Isn’t that astonishing? We know that Jesus died for us and that we do not have to make ourselves acceptable to God through our own righteousness. And yet there is clearly another theology at work in our hearts. If we really understood that Jesus died on the cross for us and God loves us unconditionally – wouldn’t our lives, wouldn’t our emotional worlds look completely different?
It is one thing to know what Africa is. And quite another to have been there once, perhaps even lived there for years. We all know the message of Jesus Christ. But do we know it like a country we’ve only read about or have we actually been there?
Weaving together stories of individuals, movements, and moments he has encountered across the world,
Johannes Hartl invites us to join him on an incredible adventure in Heart Fire
. Exploring different
approaches to prayer--such as contemplative, intercessory, creative, and revelatory--Hartl encourages us to
rediscover the true central focus of prayer: a God who hears us and wants to speak to us.
Johannes Hartl is a passionate storyteller who loves to communicate the heart of God. He and his wife Jutta are founders of the Augsburg House of Prayer, which attracts thousands of young people each year. Johannes’ new book Heart Fire: Adventuring into a Life of Prayer, publishes on July 6 from Muddy Pearl.