The God We Do Not Expect
In Lent this year, we are treated to four weeks of readings drawn from the Gospel According to John. “Treated” is the operative word in that last sentence for me because I so much enjoy John’s evocative imagery, rich symbolism, and depth of theology. As I have been reading once again through these stories of Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man who receives his sight (let’s name him for what he has become, not what he suffered!), and Lazarus, I was struck by the element of surprise in each of them. That is, each of these stories describes God acting in unexpected ways that disrupt individuals and whole communities.
One would not expect the Pharisee Nicodemus to seek out Jesus, and he certainly doesn’t expect Jesus to invite him to be born again and anew by the Spirit. (No wonder he fades away as the story progresses; he needs time to absorb what Jesus has said before returning to play an important role near the end of the story.) And no one would have expected a Samaritan woman — and that includes the Samaritan woman herself! — to be the first person outside Jesus’ own disciples to tell others about Jesus and bring them to him. Similarly, no one expected the man born blind to receive his sight; indeed, many of his friends don’t recognize him and his family distances themselves from him once he has recovered his sight — God’s surprising and transformative change sometimes (often!) rocks the boat. And no one — not even Mary or Martha who knew Jesus so well — expected that Jesus would bring Lazarus to life. This theme continues throughout the Fourth Gospel, as at the end of the story, and even after having witnessed God’s continually surprising activity in Jesus for three years, none of the disciples expect the cross to be the place of Jesus’ greatest glory, and all are surprised when God raises Jesus to life.
Across the biblical witness, God regularly shows up in unexpected places, doing unexpected things, through unexpected people. Which should give us a clue about the God we worship and our life of faith. God, in short, is not we would expect from a close observation of nature. And that’s a good thing! Take a look around and you see we live in a world where it often seems only the strong survive. And so God surprises us by coming in the weakness of human flesh and giving particular attention to those who are most vulnerable.
Similarly, we can count on being surprised when God is at work in and through congregations even as they struggle to make budget or through persons who have a hard time keeping it all together. Our God delights in surprising us and regularly shows up where we least expect God to be, and so the life of faith is one of regularly being surprised by God’s unexpected grace.
I have been privileged to witness many surprises over the last three years at LTSP. No one, for instance, expected a “distressed” seminary to offer full-tuition scholarships. No one expected us to grow so significantly in such a short time. No one expected LTSP and LTSG — positioned as “rivals” for so much of our shared 150-year history — to attempt to unite in order to create a seminary that is simultaneously stronger, more affordable, more accessible, and more responsive to the world in which we live. (And, trust me, very few expected us to be successful in this quest!)
That doesn’t mean, of course, that everything unexpected is of God. We have experienced many unexpected things over the last six months in our lives as individuals, communities of faith, and as a nation that I would not necessarily want to claim as “from God.”
At the same time, however, God’s repeated — dare I say “predictable” — pattern of surprising us does invite us to be open to the unexpected. Most of us, when we encounter something unexpected, tend to withdrawal slightly, to be skeptical, and to compare this new and unfamiliar thing unfavorably against our expectations. While I suspect that has served us well evolutionarily — caution of the new probably aided survival in the natural world! — it doesn’t always serve us well today.
For this reason, as we approach the Passion of our Lord and the Feast of the Resurrection — where God’s delight in surprising us reaches its climax — I am interested in how all of us may be surprised in the coming weeks and months. Will we be surprised by the courage of our congregation to risk change, for instance, or by the sometimes equally courageous decision to close to better steward assets so that someone else may grow? Will we be surprised by who comes to our congregations as we open ourselves as caring and safe places for all God’s children? Will we be surprised by what changes occur on our campus as we seek to be good neighbors to the surrounding community and find ways to advance our mission as a center of theological learning? Will we be surprised by the new president identified to lead us forward into this new day of theological education and leadership formation? Will we be surprised by who flourishes in the new school? Will we be surprised if God chooses to work through a diminished and declining denomination to bear witness to God’s transformative grace in a world where grace and charity seem so scarce?
We have, of course, no idea. That’s the nature of the unexpected! What we can count on is that the God of manger, cross, and resurrection is not done surprising us, and that whether the surprises seem good or bad, healthful or not, yet God will hold onto us, will accompany us through them, and will never let us go.
Blessings to you in your various places of service and ministry, gratitude for your support of LTSP as we venture down “paths untrodden,” and prayers that you may discover God at work in surprising and life-giving ways in the most unexpected of places, people, and times.
Yours in Christ,