Oh. . . you’re going to hear a very surprising sermon this morning! In fact, the whole sermon is about surprises—so get you ready!
Our texts for today (Ecc. 10:12-18; Heb. 13:1-8; Luke 14:1, 7-14) all testify to the hidden realities that, either slowly or suddenly, break in upon our lives with their unexpectedness:
* The unwelcome stranger turns out to be an angel.
* The humblest persons become most exalted.
* The most powerful nations suddenly become powerless.
Surprise! Surprise! God often seems to work that way.
The Magnificat of Mary—her ecstatic response to the word that she is about to become the mother of the Lord—is vibrant with virtual disbelief that she, of all women, a maiden of such “low estate,” will be the woman whom all generations will call blessed. What a surprise!
In the years to come, the words astonished, astounded and amazed seem to mark every stage of Jesus’ life.
He is twelve in the Temple, “and all who heard [this boy] were amazed at his understanding,” and his own parents were astonished.”
As a young man in his hometown synagogue, where he began to teach, they were all “astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get all this?’”
When Simon Peter and his fellow fishers had failed in an all-nighter to catch any fish, they tried again at Jesus’ request—and their boats nearly sank from the great catch—and they were all “astonished.”
When Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching.”
When Jesus told his disciples that funny—or not-so-funny thing (depending on your own socioeconomic standing!) that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God,” the disciples were “greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’” And it is just then that Jesus promises: “with God all things are possible.”
At the end, there’s that astounding prayer of Jesus on behalf of his own killers, of all people: “Father, forgive them…”
Then, on the first day of the next week, there at the tomb, the women are told: “Jesus is not here. He is risen.” And those women flee, “for trembling and astonishment had come upon them.”
Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!
The unexpectedness of the gospel often seems expressed in paradoxes or contradictions. Sometimes it even sounds like double-talk. Sir William Gilbert, the whimsical librettist for all those marvelous Gilbert and Sullivan operas, once composed a sing-song ballad about a nightmare that went like this:
“The other night, from cares exempt,
I slept—and what d’you think I dreamt?
I dreamt that somehow I had come
To dwell in Topsy-Turveydom!—
Where vice is virtue—virtue, vice:
Where nice is nasty—nasty, nice:
Where right is wrong and wrong is right—
Where white is black and black is white.”
Sometimes, in the New Testament, the vision of the Kingdom of God almost seems like a nightmare of Topsy-Turveydom—not because vice becomes virtue, or wrong becomes right (unfortunately for us and our desires)—but because the Kingdom of God does turn things around.
“Whoever would save his life will lose it, and
whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
“If any one would be first, he must be last….. it
“If we have died with Christ, we shall live with him.”
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise
God chose what is weak in the world to shame strong.”
What a lot of double-talk! Everything’s backwards
This Kingdom of Topsy-Turveydom had been foreseen 550 years before Christ by a lonely prophet whose name we do not know—but whose vision comes to us through the book of Isaiah. When the Lord comes,
“Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low;
And the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough places plain.”
So: there’ll be a great reversal of all the prevailing topography—of society, if not of geology. All the customary ways of looking at our world will be overthrown, transfigured.
That’s the prophet’s forecast: the “before picture.” The “after picture” comes in the book of Acts, after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Here is the picture of the way the early church was behaving—or misbehaving, according to the power elite of Thessalonica:
“These people, these Christians, who have turned the world upside down have come here also.’ . . . And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard this.”
So: these early Christians went around exalting the valleys and leveling the mountains. They were a disturbing influence. They were full of surprises!
Now, a momentary digression for all you sports fans and you wise political observers. You know all about upsets: the unexpected, unimaginable, incredible victories or defeats that happen, defying all odds, or all polls.
Now if you happen to be a real Christian, you surely know that God makes all kinds of unbelievable things possible to those who do believe.
Such a faith is always prepared to challenge those who insist, usually with great disdain: “Let’s be realistic!”—as if they really know reality. The reality of history is that so-called “realists have been mistaken, again and again. They have underestimated the gifts of the Spirit.
So beware of such pretensions to know what is possible and what is impossible. Could you ever have believed . . . Helen Keller? Pope John 23rd? Rosa Parks? Vaclav Havel? Nelson Mandela? All incredibles!
This gospel of the unexpected is a gospel of both judgment and hope.
The bad news is that our power, or our wealth, or our complacency, or our cruelty may lead to our own shocking downfall—perhaps when we least expect it.
But it is the good news of hope to those who despair of love where there is hate, of pardon where there is injury, of faith where there is doubt, of light where there is darkness, of joy where there is sadness—all of which Saint Francis so winsomely understood about 800 years ago. It is the conversion not only of individual hearts but the transformation of a whole people’s negative expectations.
This is not a gospel that permits us simply to wait for God to shower us with lovely surprises. For we ourselves are to be agents of the unexpected:
* To act for and with expect nothing but relentless, dismal poverty—and to do whatever it takes to transform their expectations.
* To serve people who expect no deliverance from disease and malnutrition—and to surprise then with healing and nourishment.
* To be with and for people trapped by vicious circles of violence—and to help them to know shalom, that peace that is justice and true security.
Agents of the unexpected: the disciples of God’s great and good surprises.
Such holy unexpectedness, in some cases, can be face-to-face, intimate encounters of loving service.
But more and more, it means engagement in the institutions of social policy: governments, media, schools, corporations, the public ministries of our churches.
In recent days, the spirals of violence have swirled terribly in terrorist bombings and retaliatory raids, in repression and rebellion and spreading warfare in both Central Africa and Eastern Europe.
If, as Christians and Americans, we cannot expect to overcome all these troubles by our own efforts, we can do some surprising things:
1. We can, and must, mourn the brutal loss of innocent life on each side of each conflict and minister compassionately to the survivors.
2. We can, and we must, seek to understand the sources of grievance and alienation that typically are at the roots of terrorism, even as we condemn the acts of terrorism.
3. We can ask candidly whether or how our own nation’s policies have contributed to the violence perpetrated by others. One of our handicaps in belonging to this most wealthy, global, super-powerful, culturally aggressive nation—the notion that we want to believe is only a force for good in the world—is our great difficulty in understanding why there is so much anti-American feeling around the world.
4. And we can be vigorous advocates for strengthening the all-too-feeble international instruments of peace, especially through the United Nations, at a time when our nation’s debts and delinquencies should thoroughly offend our own national self-respect.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is an invitation to us all—as individuals and as a nation—to surprise the world
* by our modesty when tempted by power and glory;
* by our hospitality when confronted by strangers or people who are poor or physically limited;
* by our forgiveness when we are wronged by others;
* by our repentance when we ourselves have wronged others and by our hope when there seems so much to be hopeless about.
The Jubilee Assembly, the 50th Anniversary Assembly, of the World Council of Churches will meet in Zimbabwe in December, and its theme will be: “Turn to God: Rejoice in Hope”—an especially poignant theme for that African setting, so full of human misery.
And that theme is the echo of one of the most exhilarating of Saint Paul’s many radiant benedictions, like this one from his letter to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
If you indeed have such hope, you will truly be an agent of the unexpected. You might even, like the Lord Jesus, astonish a lot of people!
In his name, Amen.