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A Season of Surprises

A hospital chaplain was making her rounds visiting patients when she encountered the family of a dying man huddled outside his room. She offered to visit the man, but his daughter replied: “I don’t know if he’ll want to see you. He doesn’t believe in God.” The chaplain gently responded: “Won’t he be surprised.”

God is full of surprises – showing up unannounced in places we don’t expect and in ways we can’t fathom. There is an unpredictability – even a wildness – in God. We see it in the Scriptures and experience it in our own lives.

The Season of Advent invites us to be on the lookout. It urges us to cultivate a watchful readiness to recognize and receive the God of Surprises. No way was Moses expecting God or a call to leadership. He was hiding out in the desert after killing a man. God’s presence in the burning bush was a complete surprise – and not a welcome one. The man who would come to lead the slaves out of Egypt tried one argument after another to get out of it. (Exodus 3: 1- 4:17) I know how he feels. When I confront the need for self- sacrifice, my fear and resistance usually trigger a series of arguments I use to try to talk my way out of it.

The prophet Elijah did what he was told. He went to the holy mountain and waited for God. He expected God to make a dramatic entrance. Yet, God wasn’t in the earthquake, the fire, or the wind. God surprised Elijah by coming in a small, still voice. (I Kings 19:11-13) We may come up empty when we expect to experience God in dramatic and powerful ways. Sometimes, God comes to us in the silence that we try so hard to avoid.

For the Hebrew people longing for deliverance, it was hard to imagine that an infant Messiah would be born in a Bethlehem stable. Jesus’ flight into Egypt, his quiet life in Nazareth, and his emergence as an itinerant teacher were all surprising. Our expectations for how we think God will act can get in our way. All too often, they blind us to the surprising ways God is with us.

At Caesarea Philippi, Peter was gifted with a divine revelation that prompted him to announce that Jesus was the Messiah. At first, he seemed to “get it.” Just moments later, however, he was unable to get his head around the surprising notion that the Messiah would suffer and die. (Matt. 15: 13-22) It can be enticing to want to worship a pedestal God. We may find it much harder to embrace the God who surprises us by suffering with the poor and taking the part of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

Jesus’ most dedicated followers never imagined that his ultimate redemptive act would require embracing suffering and death. The paschal mystery – the passage through suffering and death to resurrection and new life – is the ultimate surprise at the heart of Christian faith. There is a way in which we are all disciples on the road to Emmaus – struggling to understand “why it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and so enter into his glory.” (Luke 24: 13-35)

Advent is a time to remember that God’s revelation throughout history has been filled with surprising twists and turns. It urges us to remember the times that God’s presence has surprised us. Advent reminds us that being open to surprise may require us to unlearn. We’ve heard the familiar Scripture stories throughout our lives. As a result, we can have a tendency to normalize them. Because we know how they end, we can miss the element of surprise. We can fail to grasp the powerful ways they defy our expectations and open us to the unexpected ways God is with us. The dying man who doesn’t believe in God isn’t the only one who will be surprised. We’ll all be surprised!

The Season of Advent invites us to open ourselves to the God of Surprises. Doing so requires abandoning our biases and pre-conceived notions about where we think God will be found. It requires giving up our narrow expectations for how God will act. Advent invites us to remember that we have been surprised before. It encourages us to watch and wait for God to surprise us again.

During Advent, we join Moses in needing to abandon our excuses and find the courage to say “YES” to whatever God is calling us to do. We join Elijah in waiting and listening – opening ourselves to the silence in order to hear God’s small, still voice. During Advent, we join the Hebrews in abandoning our expectations about where God will be found in order to discover the divine presence wherever and however it manifests itself. With Peter, we try to let go of our preconceived notions about God and surrender to the mysterious ways that suffering and death lead to resurrection and new life. During Advent, we all join the dying man – about to be surprised by encountering God in ways we never imagined.

Invitation to Prayer
I hope this Advent Prayer helps encourage you to watch and wait for the God of Surprises.

Wonderful God,
Throughout history you have been full of surprises
Showing up in unexpected ways.
During this Season of Advent,
Create a watchful readiness in me
So I may recognize your presence and
Open myself to receive you.

With Moses,
Let me take off my shoes
Recognizing that all ground is holy and
Your presence is everywhere.
Give me the courage to abandon my excuses and
Surrender to your call.

With Elijah,
Lead me to your holy mountain
So that I may discover your presence
However you make it known.
Let me find you when your ways are dramatic and
When you are the small, still voice within me.

With Peter,
Help me abandon the narrow expectations
That blind me to the ways you are with me.
Open me to discover your presence in suffering.
Give me the courage to embrace the cross and
Pass through suffering and death to the new life of resurrection.

As this Advent Season unfolds,
Prepare me to recognize the child
Born in a stable among the poor.
Give me the heart to know
He is Emmanuel, God with us,
Our Savior, the Prince of Peace.

Gift me with watchful readiness
That I may recognize and celebrate your presence
However and wherever you come to me and
However and wherever you come to all of us.

I pray, as I always do,
In the name that reveals your presence among us:
Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.