Taken By Surprise!

Romans 8:35-39

Eight year old Katie wanted to help mom feel better when she was sick so she fixed her breakfast. She was beaming with pride as she brought the breakfast in on a tray and watched as her mother tried everything. Mom took a bite of the runny eggs and said, “Just how I like them.” She nibbled on the corner of the charred toast and said, “Yum. Thank you honey.” She took a sip of the coffee and it had a few grounds floating on the top. “Honey, how did you make the coffee?” “I filled a cup with water and put a spoonful of coffee in it and heated it in the microwave.” “But honey how did you get the grounds out of the coffee?” “I couldn’t find the strainer so I used the flyswatter.” “Aaak!” “Don’t worry mommy, I didn’t use the brand new one, I used the old flyswatter.”

God delights in taking us by surprise:

Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 when God showed up one day and announced, “Next year you will have a son!”

The Israelites were backed up against the Red Sea watching the Egyptian army approach knowing that they were about to be slaughtered when suddenly God parted the water and they fled to safety while God took care of the Egyptians!

Daniel was thrown into the den of lions and the next morning we expect to look over the king’s shoulder and see a pride of lions gnawing on the bones of leftover Daniel, when Daniel looks up and says, “Good morning, hope you slept as well as I did!”

Perhaps the greatest surprise was one which began with an angel appearing to a young virgin maiden named Mary and announcing that she would have a child, conceived, not through human parentage, but of God himself.

Not all of God’s surprises start out pleasantly -- but they always work out for good. After all, I’m certain that Mary and Joseph had something else in mind when they dreamed about starting a family. After she got over the shock of the angel’s announcement that she would have a child…

“Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name.’” (Luke 1:46-49)

They were not the only ones surprised, though. Through hundreds of years of anticipation of the promised coming of the Lord’s anointed -- the Messiah -- nobody expected God to send his son and not under these conditions -- to a teenage peasant girl in a backwater town like Bethlehem, shortly to be a fugitive from the king.

Their expectations? A royal birth, a newborn to a king, fanfare and privilege. A mighty military leader who would deliver their nation from foreign oppression. But a child born under suspect circumstances in a manger in a cattle shed without so much as a midwife attending? Hardly!

His development was not much of an improvement. He wasn’t schooled as a rabbi, wasn’t trained in military strategy, wasn’t groomed as a world leader. As an adult, he lived as an itinerant preacher, avoided the religious elite to work with common folks. When it looked like he was about to be made a king, he walked away. He purposely turned the crowds away from following him by demanding they be ready to die. He trained only 12 men as his followers, and one of them betrayed him.

Perhaps more definitive than anything else was his death. Crossways with the establishment, he was betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned and crucified as a common criminal. There was no state funeral, no visiting dignitaries, he was laid in a borrowed tomb as a pauper.

What else can we say? If he was trying to be powerful, or successful, or effective, he failed. By any human standard of success he fell short.

If we are inclined to think of this as a rags to riches story of a poor boy made good, we’ve missed the point. If we want to make Jesus into the underdog who beat the establishment at their own game, we haven’t heard what’s going on.

The point is that God has never tried to do anything according to a human agenda. When he wanted to preserve his people, he sent a young boy named Joseph to an Egyptian prison. When he wanted to deliver his people out of bondage, he did it through a fugitive Egyptian slave named Moses. God never goes through channels. He doesn’t recognize that there are certain ways you do things and certain ways you don’t.

Isaiah 55:8-9 -- “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

It’s not just that things got a little mixed up and Jesus should have been recognized and heralded as the new king of Israel. It’s not that Jesus should have been a little more conciliatory so he could fit in with the religious leaders. What was done was done on purpose. Neither the stable in Bethlehem, nor the cross of Golgotha were a mistake. They were the precise plan of God.

Of the cross, the apostle Paul wrote:  For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  (1 Cor. 1:18-29)

Of our salvation, he wrote: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Surprise! God never intends for you to look at the stable and say, “That makes sense to me.” He doesn’t want you to look at the cross and think, “That’s how I would have done it.” We will never look at the plan of God and shout, “I saw it coming, I thought of it first!”

And so, if by chance you have trouble figuring out what God is going to do next in your life -- if you don’t understand why you are having to go through so many things just to be a Christian -- then welcome to the crowd of people who span the centuries, with whom God has worked in incredible, unpredictable, often unbelievable ways in order to accomplish, not our will, but his.

We’d like a roadmap – everything spelled out, mapped out, arranged and confirmed – with our approval of course. We’ve got the steering wheel gripped tight, and we look over at God in the passenger’s seat and we say, “Okay God, I think I’ve got everything under control. You just sit back and let me handle things. I’ll wake you up if I need anything.”

And then with the first sign of trouble, we look over at God and say, “Why did you let that happen?” We come up on some road construction and a detour and we tell God, “I didn’t plan for this – you must be a lousy navigator.” Our life breaks down on the side of the road and we throw up our hands and yell at God, “Now look what you did!”

And the truth is, contrary to the bumper sticker, God makes a lousy co-pilot. In fact, he refuses the job. If you’re in control of your life, don’t look over at God for helpful tips on how to keep your life out of the ditch. He’s not that kind of God. He is either the Lord of all, or he will not be Lord at all.

The message of the Bible is that when God is in control of your life, you don’t have to worry about the twists and turns and potholes and detours, because God knows exactly what he is doing – and you can trust that he wills your very best. Now don’t misunderstand that to mean that nothing bad ever happens, because it will – don’t translate that to mean that you will never have to suffer – even Jesus suffered. But listen to what the Hebrews writer says, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9).

Or listen to James – “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

God has plans for your life that can’t be accomplished without suffering. It takes a detour or a pothole to get your attention. It is in the trials in your life that he does his best work.

When God is in control of your life, you can plan on some surprise detours and some unexpected destinations. But don’t think they are accidental – God has a purpose for everything in your life.

Your job? Trust God – not always an easy task – especially when things don’t make sense, especially when he throws in surprises. The apostle Paul had to learn that difficult lesson, just like everyone of us. But one thing you can be sure of, Paul writes – Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

It was 1936 and 10 year old Elizabeth was studying with her tutor in her home in London. They were studying history that morning – specifically English royal genealogies. They waded through years of Tudors and Stewarts and mountains of Henry’s and George’s and James’s and Mary’s. And then they came to the name Elizabeth. “That’s my name!” “Yes it is, and do you know that one day you will be the Queen of England?” “So I shall.” It was at that moment that Elizabeth realized there was something much bigger going on in her life than she realized.

I’m not sure we get it. We read the names in the Bible and listen to the stories and think, those are the stories that interest God. But the point is that your name is just as important to God as David or Moses or Peter. Your story is just as familiar to him as the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. He knows your story by heart and everything that has happened and will happen to you – he has already made plans for it. And you don’t have to worry about the outcome, because it is in his hands.

And he is waiting for that moment in your life when you realize there is something much bigger going on with your life than you have ever seen before – and start living like it.