The night Greg asked me to marry him, I mistook him for a creepy drunk lurking in the bushes. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I actually tried to run away from him. In my defence, it was all about context—the man was completely out of context!
I was home in Arizona for semester break during my final year in college and my boyfriend Greg was home in Ohio. Or so I thought. One evening my younger brother Russell invited me to take a sunset hike with him along one of our favourite ridge trails. It crested a hill with a breathtaking view of the shimmering lights of downtown Phoenix. Back at college, I had mentioned to Greg once or twice how I thought it was just such an incredibly romantic place, but how could I have known he would plan to propose there? I didn’t expect to see Greg for at least another six days, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get engaged just yet.
My brother and I began our ascent up the rocky trail. The growing darkness of the desert evening cast strange shadows across our path. Suddenly, from out of the gloom ahead, a foreboding figure emerged from the bushes. Who sneaks around in bushes on lonely trails at dusk? Certainly this person wasn’t in their right mind. They must be drunk, lost, stumbling around in the dark.
I bowed my head, avoiding his face, hoping to circle past the stranger without incident. We’d made it past the mysterious figure when from behind he addressed me: “Hey, babe,” said a sultry, breathy male voice.
Panic rose inside me. I willed myself to move faster and escape the threat.
Who is this creepy person lurking? Why is he addressing me so forwardly? What will he do to me? What if he follows us? Is my brother strong enough to fend him off? Instinctive thoughts of fight and flight took over my mind, such that I almost didn’t hear my brother earnestly whispering, “Melissa—what are you doing? Turn around!” Through the falling dark I looked into his face. It wasn’t fearful. Rather, it was a look of amusement, a smile spreading, his eyes laughing. Now instead of fear I just felt confused.
“Turn around, Melissa!” he urged again. “Just look behind you!”
I finally turned, and there stood my Greg, my beloved, on the path. But my mind still had difficulty computing his presence. It didn’t make any sense. He was thousands of kilometres away. I turned back to my brother for an explanation, but he had disappeared. Vanished! I turned back to Greg and stuttered, “But, but . . . you’re here . . . . Why? What’s going on?”
He smiled. “Melissa, let’s finish the walk,” he said simply.
“Okay . . .” But my mind was still spinning.
The drunk—my would-be attacker—had turned into my boyfriend? Here in Arizona? And my trusted sibling—who had initiated this evening hike—well, he was nowhere to be seen. Struggling to make sense of what was going on, I reached for Greg’s hand. It was sweaty.
His hands are never sweaty. Unless . . . only if he is nervous. And then it hit me: Oh, this is the moment. He’s going to propose. Everything suddenly made so much sense.
At the top of the hill, Greg got down on one knee and there, overlooking the glittering lights of Phoenix spreading to the horizon, in this most romantic place, he asked me to be his wife. A magic moment. Eventually!
When I tell the story now, people make fun of me for not recognising my own boyfriend, or even his voice! But in my defence, can I say, his opening line was woeful. Who just steps onto a darkening hiking trail and drops, “Hey babe”? Seems to me he could have thought of some smoother, more eloquent first words at the moment he would ask me to marry him. And, moreover, I didn’t expect to see him there; it was the last thing I would have ever have guessed. He was so completely out of context that his presence didn’t compute. My mind knew he was somewhere else—Ohio—and when your mind is sure of something, it can be pretty hard for your eyes or ears to convince it otherwise.
2000 years ago
I think the men walking the road to Emmaus would back me up on this (see Luke 24:13–35). Their walk came at the close of a long, painful weekend. Jesus of Nazareth, their beloved rabbi, had been crucified in full public view of the crowds from Jerusalem. His disciples had laid His dead body in a tomb, so that’s where He was, and that’s where they knew He should be.
We might criticise these two miserable travellers for not recognising their anonymous companion as Jesus while they walked and talked with Him for several hours. But maybe it’s not such a surprise. He was out of context. Certainly He couldn’t be walking and talking with them if He was dead, gone, buried in a tomb!
I also think Mary would sympathise with my engagement story, because, earlier that day, the same thing happened to her. Crying alone outside the empty tomb, she didn’t recognise the Man who approached her with concern. Though she knew Jesus well and was very familiar with the sound of His voice, she mistook Him for a gardener. Who else would be walking about at that time of the morning? Certainly not Jesus, because He was dead, gone, and supposed to be buried in the tomb beside her. It wasn’t until the moment Jesus spoke her name, “Mary,” that she knew who she was speaking with.
These stories from Resurrection morning seem surprising at first. True and intimate followers of Jesus who didn’t even recognise Him? Didn’t they know Him? Didn’t they love Him? How could these people not recognise the One they knew and loved?
How about us?
And I wonder if we don’t do the same thing to Jesus. Are we missing the times He has shown up in our daily lives because we just didn’t expect to see Him? Have we confined Him to a religious context, assigned Him only to the churchy, the overtly spiritual, the places we know and expect Him to be? What if He shows up somewhere else?
One of the most profound truths of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is that it wasn’t anything like what anyone had ever expected. He didn’t ride in like the conquering King they’d hoped for. Instead, He lived like a traveller, a commoner. His teachings were strange, gutsy, countercultural and unheard of. He didn’t die fighting the Romans. He died hanging on a Roman cross, surrendered and speaking forgiveness. And then, when He was supposed to be dead and everybody was trying to get their minds around that idea, He shows up speaking to women in a garden and to men travelling down dusty dirt roads. Not at the temple, not in the city centre, but in gardens and country roads. Who could predict what Jesus would do next?
Maybe it’s not about predicting His next move. Maybe we aren’t supposed to worry so much about setting limits on what Jesus does or doesn’t do or on what He would and wouldn’t want from us. Maybe, instead, we’re called to be people who are looking for Him, people who expect Him in unexpected places, people who understand that Jesus comes to us in the ways and times of His choosing, not ours.
And it’s equally important to make ourselves available for His company. Mary and the travellers to Emmaus didn’t recognise Jesus, but they were still earnestly seeking Him. The travellers so desperately desired to comprehend the events of the weekend. And Mary wouldn’t rest until she had shown her Master’s body as much care and respect as was possible. They were surprised, but their hearts were still ready to receive Him.
Every believer has a different story of how Jesus found them. And though these stories differ as much as believers do, the important common thread is this: that He found them. Somehow, some way, He was able to cut through each one’s confusion and questions and doubts and disagreements, and He found them. And even if it took a while, they did eventually recognise Him.
This season when we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, I don’t know whether you’ve known Him for a long time or whether you’re just beginning to think about Him. I have no idea where you expect Him to show up or how surprised you’d be if He did. What I know for sure, though, is that this unpredictable Jesus is predictably good at finding people.
He lives today to seek and to save the lost and to find people in gardens or on back roads or in any of the other places where we aren’t particularly expecting Him.
So watch for Him!