Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Faith for Life - The Art of Being Surprised

Preached on Sunday, January 8, 2017

Scripture readings: Genesis 28:10-17; John 1:29-51

“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Genesis 28:16) All through the Old and New Testaments, God is surprising.
In the stories that we have read this morning, from Genesis and from the Gospel of John, there really is the same surprise. At some point, neither Jacob nor the people who are about to become the disciples of Jesus are aware of the fact that, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”
Walking toward the Feather River from Live Oak, CA
December 2016
In Jacob’s story the center of God’s surprising promise (the foundation upon which all of God’s promises are based) is where we hear the Lord say, “I am with you.” (Genesis 28:15) God isn’t with Jacob because of the angels. The angels are there because God is there. God brings the peace, and grace, and power of heaven into contact with the needs of earth, and to us in our deepest needs.
Jacob is running for his life, and his life has become a disaster, and God will be with Jacob to rescue Jacob from himself. Jacob is running for his life because he has stolen his brother’s blessing by tricking and lying to their father Isaac.
Jacob is a manipulator, a thief, and a liar. If God comes to Jacob in the night, it ought to be for the purpose of punishing him or, at least, giving him a good scolding.
But God is surprising. God is a surprise. This was Jacob’s first recorded encounter with the Lord. He had heard of the Lord from his father, but I don’t think he had ever actually met him before this disaster. Given what Jacob was, in his heart, there should have been the greatest chasm, and wall, and gap between him and the Lord. The Lord shouldn’t have been with him at all.
You need to know, right now, that the Lord is with you just as much as the Lord is with anyone who hasn’t met him before (like Jacob) and whose is (at heart) false-hearted (like Jacob). You also need to know the truth that the Lord really is with you.
The Lord who says, “I am with you,” is not only with everyone. The Lord is also with everyone (including you and me) on the basis of being the bridger of chasms, the breaker of walls, the filler of gaps.
This Lord is the Savior from sin. He is the hero and the rescuer. The ladder full of angels was the bridge of God with Jacob, the God who would save Jacob from himself.
The people who were going to become disciples of Jesus didn’t know or understand what they were looking for. They came to Jesus, first of all, simply because they loved John the Baptist who spoke about the time when God would come near to judge his people, and to judge the world, and to set up his kingdom among them and make them the center of his blessing to the world. John told his own disciples about someone who was coming, who would make this happen.
Then, one day, John pointed them to Jesus, and he called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This would make Jesus someone who would bridge the chasms, break the walls, and fill the gaps between God and his people; between God and the world.
This would make Jesus someone who would fulfill ancient promises in the scriptures that were very hard to understand. The prophet Isaiah spoke of someone who would serve as a lamb-like sacrifice: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him; and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) That’s the saving-sacrifice part. Here is the lamb-like part: “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7) This was God’s surprising scheme to save the world.
So, the disciples of John the Baptist, and their friends, began to come to Jesus. They didn’t know, for sure, what to call him: rabbi (which sort of means a teacher), or even Messiah and Christ (which is a royal title for an anointed king).
They found, first of all, that Jesus was surprising. Jesus was a complete surprise to them. His first words were, “What do you want?” (John 1:38) His second words were: “Come and see.” (John 1:39) It was his invitation for them to stay with him. It was his offer to be with them.
First of all, Jesus would change their lives by being with them. What they understood least, at this point, what that he would change them absolutely by being the lamb that was slain to take away their sins. Jesus was the one who bridges the chasms, and breaks the walls, and fills the gaps. He would take the first steps to change the world by changing them, and by changing us.
The first disciples wouldn’t understand this until Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. When this crucified Lord is with us, then his death is with us: the death of our own sins, and the death of everything in us that so needs to be changed, is with us. This is what the Apostle Paul means when he writes, “I have been crucified with Christ.” (Galatians 2:20)
When this risen Lord is with us, the resurrection is with us. This not only means the promise of heaven> it means a new heart beats in us, and a new mind thinks in us, and a new soul feels in us. “Heaven comes down and glory fills our souls.”
How can anyone be anything but surprised by this? This is what God is like. This is what God does. When Jesus is with us, then we can say, like Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.”
Jesus is what Jacob saw. Jesus told Nathanael that Nathanael, would come to see this same thing about him. Jesus is the Lord with us. One of Jesus’ names, in the gospels is Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us”. (Matthew 1:23) Jesus brings heaven to us where we are, in our great need.
All the people we read about this morning were caught, by surprise, by the God of surprises. Jacob was in danger. He was also losing the only world he knew. He was also in a crisis and disaster of his own making. Jacob deserved to be on the run. He deserved to lose everything. This was a crisis very much like “hitting bottom.”
Jacob had no real knowledge or experience of God, until that moment of hitting bottom. How can you tell someone that they may not really ever know who God is, or who Jesus is (which is the same thing), until they hit bottom? How can you say that to anyone? I’ve known the Lord all my life but I needed failure, and humiliation, and crisis in order to be completely surprised out of my old self into something new.
For the disciples of Jesus, I think they lived in a state of mind in which they perceived their world to be in crisis. Their people and their nation were in crisis. They had been conquered and occupied by one of the world’s great superpowers. People were saying: “Something radical has to happen. Things cannot go on as they are.” Jesus seemed like a possible solution to this desperate feeling. Jesus seemed like the answer.
The curious thing is that Jesus didn’t change any of the things they were worried about. Jesus didn’t take away anything that they feared or hated. The world and the situation of their nation went on as it had been going, and it all went from bad to worse in their lifetime.
Jesus changed their world only by changing them. And he did this by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. This would come as a complete surprise to them.
The whole Bible in general, and the gospels in particular, teach us the gift of surprise. When we know Jesus, we ought to be ready for anything. We ought to be ready for surprise.
Maybe we ought to be in a continual state of surprise. We are not supposed to cultivate our sense of surprise. We are not called to emotionalism. We are called to see outside ourselves, and to see heaven come to earth.
This is what should happen because of the fact that we live with Jesus, and we are usually looking at him and listening to him at the same time that we are living what looks like ordinary lives. Our calling is not to generate feelings but to see Jesus.
Jesus is God with us, and so our calling is to be prepared to share the stories of our surprising Jesus, our surprising God, with others. This comes easier when we remember the stories of the Bible that tell us that God is with us even when we have hit bottom. God is with us when we think that things can’t keep going as they are. God is with everyone who is in any of those same boats. We can’t share our God with anyone if we don’t trust that God is ready, and able, and more than willing to surprise them.

The disciples, in their lives before Jesus, were searching, but they were surprised to be found by the God who was searching for them. Jacob was just running with all his might. He wasn’t searching for anything but he was found anyway. This is the God who is always a surprise, and he makes our own lives in this world a surprise to share with others.

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