When you’re a child, a wind up jack in the box
can provide a marvelous surprise. Turn the crank around and around, and pretty soon the top pops open and good ole Jack jumps up. Giggles and laughter abound! Surprise!!
As we get older the surprises may not come quite as easily. For instance, it doesn’t take too long to become a pretty good Christmas or birthday gift guesser. A little shake, a gentle squeeze, and you can tell whether that gift from Aunt Myrtle is a book or a sweater or a package of boxers. With a little more practice, you can even tell whether the small box from your boyfriend is a diamond ring . . . or a Target gift card.
As we get older, it may take more to surprise us. Maybe the congregational president announcing the pastor’s retirement, or the somber news of a doctor bearing test results, or a spouse telling you they want a divorce, or a visit from the boss telling you your position has been eliminated.
To be sure, surprises can come in all different shapes and sizes.
Near the end of the nineteenth century, Dr. Charles Eliot was the president of Harvard University. In the spring of 1885, a humble-looking couple from California showed up in his office. The only reason he agreed to see them was because the man had recently been elected to the U.S. Senate. But, after all, California wasn’t a very important state
in the late nineteenth century.
The couple told Dr. Eliot that their only son had died of typhoid fever a year earlier.
It had been his dream to attend Harvard University. They wanted to build some memorial to their son at the university. “What did you have in mind?” Dr. Eliot asked. The husband responded, “Is there a building that is needed?” Dr. Eliot sized them up as a kindly but naive couple. He said, “It costs a great deal of money to build what we need. You may want to consider endowing a chair in honor of your son. I suggest that you go and talk to our academic dean.”
The meeting was over. Dr. Eliot stood up. But before leaving the president’s office, the wife asked, “How much would it cost to duplicate this entire university in another part of the United States and endow it so that students wouldn’t have to pay tuition?” Eliot was astounded by the question. After a moment, he said, “I suppose it would take $5 million.”
The husband and wife looked at each other and said, “Well, we could manage that, couldn’t we?” Before Dr. Eliot could recover, the couple was gone.
Can you imagine how surprised Dr. Eliot was to find that a year later the couple had begun plans to start a university in that not so very important state in honor of their son?
The couple had donated their entire estate and another $20 million to endow
Leland Stanford Junior University. Surprise!!
Perhaps our past experiences — our ability to guess at the contents of holiday packages
and our ever higher threshold for being surprised — causes us to hear our readings from scripture today without pausing a beat. After all, what could really be surprising from the Bible?!
Our readings today remind us of something very important:
Faith in God through Jesus Christ
causes some surprising things to happen.
This surprising faith drives us to our knees in worship and praise. This surprising faith compels us to share what God so freely and generously gives us first.
Our reading from 2 Timothy has something to say about the nature of this surprising faith.
In the middle of this reading, we have what scholars believe is a quote from an early Christian hymn. Listen again to what Paul writes,
If we have died with Christ, we will also live with him;
If we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful –
for he cannot deny himself. 2 Tim 2.11-13
Did the ending of that surprise you? The rhythm of the first three stanzas would expect us to hear the hymn to say in its final stanza:
If we are faithless, God will reject our faithlessness.
But instead, it contains an astonishing reversal:
If we are faithless, he remains faithful —
for he cannot deny himself. (v.13)
In the economy of this world, we understand the notion of getting what we deserve. We tend to like those who like us, and to not hang out with those we don’t like. It would make sense to think that God works the same way. And yet, our surprising faith says something different:
If we are faithless, God remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.
God continues to offer forgiveness and salvation even when you and I are unfaithful. Why? Because God cannot be untrue to his divine word or unfaithful to him own character. Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Romans:
What if some were unfaithful?
Will their faithlessness nullify
the faithfulness of God? By no means!
It is God’s nature to love. This passage from 2 Timothy reminds us that God cannot deny his own nature as holy love. For this reason he sent his Son as a ransom for all. Even if we disbelieve, God still keeps on offering to us this grace. If we pretend that God is not, it isn’t possible for God to go along with our pretense. When we are faithless to God, the only effect that can have is to once again underscore God’s own faithfulness.
Now, we may hear these words of Paul’s and think,
Hey, that’s cool; I can do anything I want and
God’s still gotta love me and be faithful to me!
If we would think to take advantage of God this way, it shows that this surprising faith hasn’t captured our heart or made a difference in our lives. A better response from us would be the example of the healed leper in Luke’s Gospel.
In Luke 17, Jesus meets 10 lepers as he entered a village along the boundary between Samaria and Galilee. That Jesus encountered sick people who wanted healing is not so surprising. That Jesus healed the sick lepers who came to him is not so surprising. That one came back to say thank you – now that’s a little surprising, since Jesus had instructed them to present themselves to the priests.
That the one who came back was a Samaritan, a “foreigner” – now there’s a bigger surprise. That a non-Jew would recognize in Jesus something that would cause him to prostrate himself; really, to worship Jesus as God; that’s amazing! And yet, this whole section of Luke’s Gospel (17.11-19.27) is full of such surprising faith examples:
Here, we have a leper, a Samaritan, and a foreigner who recognizes Jesus as divine.
In 18.1-8 Jesus tells a story of a widow whose persistence is a model of surprising faith.
In 18.9-14 Jesus tells the story of a tax collector who, because of his repentance and humility, is a model of surprising faith compared to the example of the so-called
‘religious’ elders of the community.
In 18.15-17 infants and little children are examples of this surprising faith, as Jesus bids his followers to let them come to him.
In 18.35ff a blind beggar has better spiritual sight than those around Jesus, for his surprising faith helps him trust that Jesus will heal him of his blindness.
In 19.1-10 another tax collector named Zachaeus, demonstrates a surprising faith by promising Jesus he would restore the fortunes of those he’d defrauded by donating half of his wealth and paying back four-fold those he’s ripped off. Amazing!
So what are we to make of all of this? What impact on our lives can we expect this surprising faith to have for us?
Clearly, this surprising faith changes us. The lives of the people Jesus touched
didn’t remain the same. Jesus met them where they were; he didn’t expect the lepers to do anything before he healed them. In fact, they weren’t healed until they had already begun
to go to show themselves to the priests. But neither was their healing conditional
on what they did later; the nine who didn’t return to give thanks to Jesus didn’t come down with leprosy again. They were still healed.
But once their lives were touched by Jesus, nothing was the same again. Do we see that in our own lives as well?
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book, Who Needs God:
Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs,
a collection of prayers or a series of rituals.
Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing.
It can’t change the facts about the world we live in,
but it can change the way we see those facts,
and that in itself can often make a difference.
Through the eyes of surprising faith, we see that God acts first. We also discover that our proper response to God’s actions is praise and thanksgiving.
God didn’t tell the Israelites in Egypt, “If you only had enough faith, I would lead you to the promised land.” God led them out of slavery to Canaan. And the people praised God on the banks of the Reed Sea. God didn’t tell us, “If you only had enough faith, I would send Jesus to suffer and die for your sins.” It was because our faith wasn’t enough that God sent us Jesus. As Paul tells the church in Rome:
God proves his love for us in that while we
still were sinners Christ died for us.
Luther’s explanation of the first Article of the Apostles’ Creed captures the essence of this surprising faith and our proper response. Luther writes,
I believe that God has created me and all that exists.
God has given me and still preserves
my body and soul with all their powers.
God provides me with food and clothing,
home and family, daily work,
and all I need from day to day.
God also protects me in time of danger
and guards me from every evil.
All this God does out of fatherly and divine
goodness and mercy, though I do not deserve it.
Therefore I surely ought to thank and praise,
serve and obey God.
God has created everyone, and many (and most Americans) have food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all that they need from day to day. God protects believers and non-believers alike in times of danger and guards them from evil. None of us deserves this, yet God’s “fatherly and divine goodness and mercy” touches each of us. How are believers different from the rest of humanity? We are like the one leper. We recognize God’s hand in the good that we have. We respond with thanks and praise to God through Jesus. We respond by serving and obeying God through Jesus.
God doesn’t wait for us to have enough faith. God acts first. God’s actions are to lead us to a faithful response. And even when our initial response isn’t one of faith, God remains faithful, because that is God’s nature.
The rest of the world may be like the nine lepers. They have been graced by God in many ways, but they don’t recognize the source of such blessings. They don’t offer the proper thanks and praise through Jesus.
Perhaps we might think about it this way: It happened one day that a farmer from the country was in town to do some business. He stopped at a drive-in restaurant to get a bit to eat. As was his custom, before he ate, he bowed his head and gave a word of thanks to God.
There were some others in the restaurant whose manners weren’t quite so refined. They saw him praying, so in jest they asked him, “Does everybody where you’re from pray before eating?” The farmer looked up and said, “Nope. There are some who don’t. We call them pigs and they just dig right in.”
At the end of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan ex-leper, Jesus told him,
Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.
“Made you well” is a rather weak translation; better it seems to me is your faith has saved you. Salvation for the Samaritan meant that his life was changed. It was not something he did for himself, but it was a miracle that came from God. His focus, his seeing, his perspective was forever changed. Salvation for us means that our lives are changed. It is not something that we do for ourselves, but it is a miracle that comes from God. Our focus, our seeing, our perspective is forever changed. You and I care called to live out that change with lives of service and obedience to God.