Do you like surprises? I love jumping out from around a corner and scaring the bejeezus out of someone. I enjoy hiding in a dark room with a bunch of people and yelling out “Surprise!” when someone enters in order to celebrate the birthday of that unsuspecting person. I like coming home from work and discovering that one of my children has drawn me a picture and wants to present it to me as a surprise.
I don’t like it when the phone rings at three o’clock in the morning. I hate arriving at a hotel and realizing that I left my phone charger or my toothbrush at home. I’d rather that a member of our Vestry not surprise us with an important issue that has been bothering him instead of putting it on the agenda a few days in advance.
I remember that the last time I met with my bishop before I went to seminary he issued me a stern warning, “Evan, keep me informed of what is going on in your life. Bishops don’t like surprises.” I suppose that the ministry of bishops is predisposed to hearing not-so-good surprises. No one calls a bishop and says, “Guess what! We have extra money to send the diocese this year!” No one asks to meet with the bishop because she loves her job and has no complaints. It’s like that scene in the beginning of Ghostbusters when Bill Murray is conducting an experiment by asking two test subjects to guess the shapes on the backs of cards. When you’re the nerd, it doesn’t take long to learn not to like surprises. The attractive woman who can’t seem to get one wrong, however, well, that’s a different story.
As Seth Olson pointed out in his sermon last Sunday, we have heard several parables about the kingdom over the last few months—the king and the wedding banquet, the virgins and their lamps, the slaves and the talents, and most recently the sheep and the goats. Have you noticed the element of surprise in all of those stories? All the uninvited guests who fill the banquet hall are surprised to be there, but the guest who failed to wear his wedding robe is speechless when confronted by the king and is cast out into the outer darkness. All ten virgins fall asleep, but the five foolish ones are stunned to learn that they missed the bridegroom while out looking for more oil. The third slave tried to preserve his master’s money and returns it humbly when the master returns, but, instead of being rewarded, he is punished for his inactivity. The “sheep” are surprised to learn they took care of the king in his moment of need, and the “goats” are likewise surprised to discover that they missed a similar opportunity.
The kingdom of God is like a surprise party… Are you think kind of person who likes kingdom surprises?
This week, we will hear Jesus say, “Beware, keep alert…keep awake…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” If that sounds scary, maybe it’s because we are preconditioned not to like surprises. But the reading from Isaiah presents a very different depiction of God surprising his people:
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
That’s not fear and trembling—at least not the terrified variety. That’s reverence and awe. That is the poetry of a people who need God to surprise them by doing great deeds they had almost forgotten were possible.
What seems clear to me is this: God and his kingdom are coming, and they will come as a surprise. No one knows exactly when, but we are urged to stay alert lest we be unprepared. The place of the faithful, therefore, seems to be one of anticipation. Yes, the kingdom will still surprise us, but how we receive that surprise depends on us. Does the thought of God coming in power and great glory make us nervous? If so, what does that say about our faith in God’s promise to take care of his people?