A God of Surprises
The waiting is over. The presents have been unwrapped. The living room looks like a tornado zone. There are no more surprises—or are there?
For Christians, Christmas Day is just the beginning of surprises. True, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph were surprised months before with birth announcements from angels, but it’s really Christmas that begins the surprises—surprises that continue down to this moment.
For Mary and Joseph there were surprises throughout Jesus’ childhood. They began with the visits of the shepherds and the wise men, continued with the pronouncements of Simeon and Anna in the temple after Jesus’ birth, and, according to Luke’s account, culminated with Jesus and the teachers of the law during the temple visit when he was twelve.
Each of these events—and, I’m sure, many others that were not recorded—must have continually surprised the couple. What kind of child was this, who so many people took notice of? Yes, they had been told—warned is perhaps a better word—that this baby was different, special, blessed by God. Still, I’m sure they didn’t have any idea that his birth and early life would result in so much attention from so many quarters.
From Luke’s narrative we might assume that, following the Passover temple visit, Jesus settled down into a relatively normal teenage and young adult life—and it might well be. Certainly nothing he did between twelve and thirty caught the attention of anyone enough to remember and write it down. We have many legends from these years, but no corroboration of their truthfulness. Indeed, they sound outrageous enough to be easily discredited. Also, we can be sure someone somewhere would have taken notice of Jesus if he had done anything worthy of notice. The Pharisees were always looking for bright young recruits. Remember Paul?
If we look at Jesus’ adult life we’ll see that, again, this was just the beginning of the surprises. From approximately age thirty to age thirty-three, Jesus seems to have created one surprise after another in Galilee and Judea. Healing miracles, turning water into wine, calming storms, feeding multitudes using tiny amounts of food—all these are recounted in the gospels. At the end of John’s gospel he says that what we read is just a fraction of what Jesus did.
Overshadowing the miracles was Jesus’ teaching. As someone has said, those Jesus fed would have gotten hungry again. Those Jesus healed and raised from the dead would have eventually sickened and died from some other cause. There would have been other storms. All these miracles were temporary. The teaching was eternal.
I don’t believe Jesus was executed for performing miracles. It was his teaching that ran afoul of the religious authorities. It was his teaching that upset them, because it ran counter to what they had been saying—and claiming to be the correct interpretation of God’s law. It was the surprises in his words that led to his death.
But all these surprises were, again, only the beginning. The resurrection began another round of surprises—surprises which continue to confound us. Just when we think we have Jesus all figured out, and believe we know how to interpret his life and his words, he confronts us with another surprise. Whenever we try to put him in one of our theological boxes he says, “No, that’s not right. This is what I meant. Here’s what I want you to do.” And it’s always what we least expect. I’ve said (jokingly) how else would a guy who grew up in Brooklyn, wind up preaching in a denomination he’d never heard of through the first two-thirds of his life, in Southaven, Mississippi? God continues to be full of surprises.