Expecting to Be Surprised

November 28, 2010

In one of my favorite episodes of the old “Dick Van Dyke Show”, it’s Rob’s birthday and his wife Laura has planned a surprise party for him. Unfortunately, Rob finds out about it and the whole episode is about him looking around every corner expecting to be surprised. When his entire birthday goes by and there’s no surprise, Rob thinks maybe he’s been mistaken. There isn’t going to be a surprise after all. And so, he gets ready for bed and he’s in his pajamas when he walks out into the living room to turn out the light. That’s when his friends jump out and surprise the living daylights out of him. The twist is that even though he knew he was going to be surprised, he ends up being surprised after all. The episode is entitled, “A surprise surprise is a surprise.”

It begs the question, if you’re expecting to be surprised, can you really ever be surprised? Well, that’s what this first Sunday in Advent is all about: expecting to be surprised. It’s the day when we focus upon the second coming. Something we don’t talk about a whole lot in the Lutheran church because it makes us uncomfortable. We really don’t know what to do with it. We say we believe in it, but what does that mean?

There are many ways to understand the second coming. But in the dominant culture around us, there seems to be one way we hear it explained by Christians. And that’s the whole bit about the rapture taking all the good people (i.e. Baptists) up into heaven and the rest of us miserable, rotten people (i.e. Lutherans) being left behind. I don’t know if this puts us off so much as Lutherans because it offends our understanding of God’s grace or because somebody’s having a party and we’re not invited. But it doesn’t matter because it’s just plain fiction. The whole idea of the rapture has only been around for about a hundred years. It draws on a bit of scripture here and a bit of scripture there, all put together with crazy glue in a way that’s very creative, but not very biblical. Take today’s gospel, for instance. It talks about two women grinding meal together; one is taken and one is left. Some will say this is a Biblical reference to the rapture. But if you read the passage in its entirety, it’s probably safe to say that the one taken is the one you don’t want to be and the one left behind is the winner here. That’s not the way the rapture scenario goes.

The singer and storyteller, Ed Kilbourne tells a story about following an expensive car that had the infamous bumper sticker on it, “In case of rapture, this car will be driverless.” He says that he fantasized about saying to the driver: “In case of rapture, can I have your car?” But instead, he wrote this song:
It’s called, “What Will Jesus Do.”
He was not what the experts expected
That day that he rode into town
He looked like a fool, sitting there on a mule
With the palm branches waving around
And when he went into church on Sunday morning
He found that they'd made it a store
To sell Bibles and "fish signs", music with bad rhymes
And he ushered them out of the door
What folks thought he would do, thought he should do
Was not what he did do, my friend
So they tempted and tried him, one tried to buy him
But he didn't listen to them
And they nailed him for that in the end
There's a crowd always looking for Jesus
And they say that he's coming again
They have great expectations of a great celebration
High places with all of their friends
And they'll ride on a cloud up to heaven
Leaving all unbelievers behind
But the one who would lead them, the one we believe in
Just waits at the end of their line

What folks thought he would do, thought he should do
Was not what he did do, my friend
So they tempted and tried him, even denied him
But he didn't listen to them
And they nailed him for that in the end

He was not what the experts expected
That day that he rode into town

Maybe it’s the uncertainty of it all that makes people do it, but for some reason they like to believe they have everything about God all figured out. They like to look at the signs and determine exactly what God is going to do next and how it’s going to be done. It’s just another way we like to be in control and we can’t allow God to be God.

Now, the rapture scenario isn’t the only understanding of the second coming. There are other interpretations that we might be more comfortable with. Most of the Lutherans I know believe that the second coming is something that happens for each of us individually, that for each of us our final day will come and that’s when we’ll stand face-to-face before our God. In that respect, being ready at all times because nobody knows the day or the hour is good, sound advice.

Theologically, the problem with that understanding is that it’s so private. There’s no communal aspect to it, and I think there is something communal intended in the whole idea of the second coming. In that respect, I kind of like the way the theologian John Dominic Crossan explains it when he says that “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon, violently, or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.”

That works for me. But the truth is, all of these theories are just conjecture. Jesus was not what the experts expected that day that he rode into town. They didn’t have a clue. And we don’t have a clue today, either. We don’t know what God is doing in this world, other than loving it. Jesus says that even he doesn’t know the day or the hour. So, the only thing we can expect is to be surprised.

I like the metaphor Paul uses to describe it when he tells the Romans that it’s time to wake up. It’s like we’re sleep-walking as we go about our day-to-day lives. God’s kingdom is present with us in the here and now, but we can’t see it unless we wake up. With eyes wide open, awake and active, we’re ready for encounters with Jesus and we find God where we least expect it.

That’s what happened to Greg Mortenson, who happens to be the son of Lutheran missionaries. In his book Three Cups of Tea, he tells the story of how a failed attempt to climb the world’s second highest mountain led him in an unexpected direction. Alone, lost, and exhausted, he found his way to an impoverished village in northern Pakistan, where he was awakened to a new life. The residents nursed him back to health, and responding to an obvious need, Mortenson promised that he would return to build a school for their children. His rash commitment led to the founding of an organization that since 1996 has funded the building of dozens of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And all he wanted to do was climb a mountain.

What kinds of surprises have you encountered in your life that have led you to where you are now? I don’t know about you, but, as a little girl, I couldn’t begin to imagine what God had in store for me in my journey on this earth. The things I would do. The people who would become a part of my life. The places I would live. It’s been one surprise after another. But the biggest surprises have been the God moments. Those times when I felt like God was only a passing thought at best and suddenly God appeared out of nowhere, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four. Like the time I decided to leave pastoral ministry and went to school to do something else. I was going to teach English as a second language to adults. I was all ready to make my move. Had made my announcements and was on my way out. And out of nowhere, God called me to serve this unique little church on The Plaza and suddenly I found myself more into pastoral ministry than I had ever been in my life. What’s that about? It’s happened to me so many times that I’ve come to expect to be surprised.

And look at our congregation. How many of you expected to be a part of this little church on The Plaza? How many of you who have been here for a long time ever expected Holy Trinity to go through the changes it has and be thriving as it is today, but in a way you never would have imagined? How can we ever be so bold as to suggest what God has in store for us next as his people in this time and place?

Expecting to be surprised can turn life into an adventure to be relished rather than an ordeal to be feared. As God’s people our call is not to convince the world that we have special knowledge of God’s purpose that they’d best listen to if they don’t want to get left behind. That’s not our calling. We’re called to wake up so we can see how God’s purpose is already being manifested in the world around us, and participating in it. Jesus is coming? Maybe for those who are sleeping. But for those who are awake, Jesus is already here.

Like Rob, who wakes up on his birthday expecting a surprise party, with every step we take, we can anticipate a surprise, because we have a God who is ever-present, ever loving us, ever waiting to de-rail our best laid plans and show us his even better plans. Expect to be surprised!