“Expect the Unexpected”
A sermon by Allison Brown
Before the crackling sound of a firework is heard, a majestic display of light emerges before our eyes. Against the bleak midnight backdrop, bright flames explode dwindling into faded embers. Then boom, a sound reaches our ears as we ooh and ahh. Most of us have seen fireworks or even a thunderstorm recalling our basic elementary school science lesson. Light travels about a million times faster than sound. For most day to day interactions, there isn’t enough distance for our brains to tell the distance. But when something unexpected happens such as a firework or lightning strike, our eyes and ears process separately. As a result, we show up to watch fireworks expecting the unexpected.
In our scriptures today we too are encouraged expect the unexpected; to see before we hear in of our faith. Paul shifts his focus in today’s passage of Romans from sin and the law to God’s will. It’s an unexpected dialogue for those Paul was writing too. The Jewish community lived with a strict observance of the law, the very law in which Paul contends with. These tensions of sitting with and rubbing against show up in all our readings this morning. Paul’s readers expect Paul to adhere to their understanding of the law, and yet Paul roots his identity not to the human condition but to Christ. Likewise in our Gospel today we find Jesus admonishing the crowd who expected something and complain when it is not so. And yet Jesus offers an unthinkable invitation, to slow down and lay down our burdens. It seems so opposite of what we expect; for there is always something to do- drive the kids to sports practice, grocery shop, send that email, finish that home improvement project. But both the Gospel writer and Paul calls us to surrender our perspective becoming communally dependent. It is not what we expect. And yet, and yet, it is an invitation to accept what we may not fully understand.
So how we may wonder does this invitation work?
The words of the Gospel applies to both those in the crowd and to our world today. Often we look past the presence of God in our world. The children in the market are people who reject Jesus and his understanding of the kingdom of heaven. They demand that Jesus and John conform to their expectations of the Messiah. They cannot accept what they are seeing, even though they heard the words of God through John and Jesus. It is easy to get caught up in what we want God to do or how we want God to show up. As a child I remember a classmate explaining God is a genie, to which we both shared a laugh. We don’t get three wishes, instead we get the unexpected uncertainty and a choice to trust or rely on our own understanding.
Similarly, sometimes a few fireworks will fizzle up creating a long light in the sky, but never fully explode. It’s not intentional, the display is crafted with the hope that every single burst will become a sight to behold. And yet even careful planning doesn’t stop the inevitable laws of chemistry. Paul says faith is like that too. We try to follow what we know is right and yet we get distracted, confused, scared. What we see isn’t always the fullness of who God is, which is why it is so important to look to the words and ministry of Jesus, prophets, and saints to understand more fully our life of faith.
Keeping our eyes open to the wonder of God in the world, is the unhiding of God. In our Gospel Jesus reminds us “God has revealed these things to infants,” to those who have child-like faith. It’s a bold, unrelenting faith in the face of a world full of temptation to control our fate.
Paul understands the struggle of our human desires, of trying to live between what our flesh and our spirit. It is important to keep in mind Paul is not advocating to be perfect or free of sin. Rather it is an invitation to lean into the tension, to rub against what we know and what may be. It’s learning to wrestle well with the uncertain and uncomfortable truth that our faith brings to our lives. And we don’t have to do that alone. Turning towards the Gospel, we hear it in Jesus’s own words. In verse 27 Jesus offers the readers an inside peek into this life of faith. He grounds his own authority to preach in his identity as God’s son. He uses the words Father to initiate a personal, intimate relationship with God. The invitation Jesus is offering the crowd is unexpected, but not without God. We too are called to live counter cultural with God, not apart from God. What are those words we say in our baptismal covenant: I will with God’s help. With God we gather in community to worship and share a Eucharist meal. With God we repent and return to God when we sin in our fleshly desires. With God we seek and serve Christ in all persons. God is not expecting for us to be able to live this life of faith without God and without one another.
As I was preparing for this sermon, I was attending a church where the sweet melody of a treasured hymn reminded me of this truth. The organ notes invited all of us on the church steps to linger in the invitation of the near presence of God dwelling with us. The first verse goes
“Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy, whose trust ever child-like no cares could destroy, be there at our asking and give us we pray your bliss in our heats Lord at the break of the day.’
The words go on to say give us we pray your strength at the noon of the day, your love in our hearts at the eve of the day and your presence in our hearts at the event of today.
It’s the simple tune that affirms our scriptures for today, that in the midst of our uncertainty, struggle and burdens God walks alongside. Thanks be to God to echo Paul’s words.
Since God dwells in us, daily our hearts are changed in faith. In our Gospel Jesus doesn’t offer any evidence for who He is other than his own testimony. He notes John too was rejected among the crowd, for being not what they were expecting. And he offers a statement of his identity. We hear the evidence of God dwelling through Jesus knowing the Father. It is relational living, where to know God is to have a relationship with him. That in itself in Jesus’s day is shocking. Having access to a personal God, is made available through Jesus, not through observing law and practices. It is an invitation to let go of needing to do everything right and an invitation towards following the sound of God’s voice.
When a firework goes off we expect to hear a sound. But perhaps it is surprising just how far that sound carries. Off in the distance a car alarm faintly beeps, dogs lowly bark in response to the crackle and boom. The sound reverberates and echoes for many people farther away to hear. Our faith does that too. The way in which follow the voice of God in our lives ripples beyond our own circles.
And yet God knows this way of living is hard, it is risky. Living counter-cultural doing the work of God isn’t always popular, and living with God in our hearts doesn’t preclude us from pain and suffering. In our human-ness we are limited. We get tired. We mourn. We get frustrated and impatient. We get discouraged to continue. There are several passages in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus illuminates God’s understanding of our human-ness and this passage is no expectation. “Come to me all who are weary.” We all need rest, permission to let go of things that were never ours to carry, things that are too heavy for us to wrestle with. The invitation is to let go of the burden and to take up Jesus’s yoke. It’s not exactly what the crowd, or us for that matter expects to hear. In the heat of the day, the crowd must have raised eyebrows and shared a looked among each other. What’s wrong with just resting, I can’t simply do yet another thing. And yet the unexpected invitation comes; take my yoke upon you for my burden is light. Jesus is calling us to live with his yoke and burden; a hope that is found in God. Paul sees the hope in Christ to live a life of wrestling with between our uncertainty and expectations. Paul says without Jesus, we are up a swift flowing creak of sin without a paddle and with a bad leak on the canoe. We aren’t going to make it without Jesus. And Jesus says we aren’t going to make it without living into a relationship with God. It isn’t the solution to all our questions. It isn’t mastering the art of perfectionism. It is embracing uncertainty through the hope of faith.
Henry David Thoreau spent two years between 1845 and 1847 living in a cabin by Walden Pond; a sixty two acre lake in Concord, Massachusetts. There he cataloged several species of flora and fauna. He documented how species reacted to shifting seasons and environmental changes, and many conservationists owe what we know about New England ecology to him. In one of his journals “Dispersion of Seeds,” he writes (and I quote)
“Though I don’t believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Some of the plants Thoreau walked near, he could not fathom thriving in the world. And yet in his uncertainty he let them be. He trusted not in what he saw but in what he could not, and in the profound work of the natural world. As we let go of our worry and trust in the yoke of Jesus, doing our work faithfully, we become more tuned to the tangible work of God in the world around us. We enter more fully into an intimate relationship with God, the same one Jesus had with his Father. We trust that the unexpected can and will happen, getting in sync with the work of bringing God’s kingdom on earth.
What does this mean for us as we practice ministry in our communities today? How can we live intentional lives that align with the purposes of God? Our scriptures for today points us in a new direction way from self-sufficiency and into relational living with God and creation. When we show up expecting the unexpected, we accept an invitation to live more fully into the wonder of God.