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December 4, 2011—2nd Sunday of Advent
Un-surprise Surprise Party
Ps 85:1-2, 8-13, Is 40:1-11, 2Pet 3:8-15a, Mk 1:1-8
Theme: God’s Gentle Surprises
ILLUMINATING THE TEXT
by J Nichols Adams
God’s timing is something that puzzles us all. Some see God’s timing as something that is just around the corner, just about to sneak up on us. But is God being sneaky or is God being gentle and patient? Does God want to scare us into submission or does God want to surprise us in a gentle way? I think we may be scared of being surprised. We’ve come to believe that life is made up mostly of scary surprises.
In the old comedy I Love Raymond there was an episode called Debra’s Surprise Party. It is an excellent example of how we really see surprises. Debra’s mother, Lois, suggests to Raymond that she throw a surprise birthday party for her daughter and Ray won’t have to lift a finger. Debra senses something is afoot and forces Ray spills the beans. Instead of the themed surprise her mother plans Debra wants a Chinese banquet instead. Ray then convinces his mother-in-law to change her planned theme to the Chinese banquet, never disclosing to her or to anyone that for Debra there is no surprise. Inevitably, all is revealed when Debra arrives home to a houseful of guests and feigns complete surprise. Ultimately she embarrasses herself, her husband and disappoints her mother, who wanted, more than anything, to surprise her daughter. Debra wanting to be in control spoils the surprise and missed out on the joy of the occasion for herself and everyone else. Maybe we are a lot like Debra. We miss out on the gentle surprises in our lives by not being open enough, willing to give up control.
We may well be afraid of nasty surprises but there is something deep inside that makes us want the thrill of a gentle life changing surprise. Should we live our life afraid of what God has waiting for us. As Christmas anticipation grows within us this Advent Season help us to trust in the possible wonderful and gentle surprises of this season.
The beginning of the Gospel of Mark needs to be considered carefully. . We too easily take it for granted. When we look at the beginning of the Gospel we at first see what we expect “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.” It is what is at the very heart of the start of Mark. There is an aspect of Mark’s understanding of the word we normally translate as “Gospel”. Mark’s understanding is one of “joyful tidings”. Mark opens with the joyful tidings of the coming of something very special. Mark is speaking in terms that everyone in both Roman and Jewish cultural would understand. The term evangel or gospel was not a word first coined by the Christians. It was in common use. Among the Romans it meant “joyful tidings” and was associated with the cult of the emperor and the emperor’s birthday. Evangel was the name of the reports in the inscriptions talking about the happy event. (William L Lane The Gospel of Mark The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, 1974] p43) Modern day Christians find three surprises in the way the Gospel of Mark begins. The first surprise is the abruptness with which the gospel is suddenly announced. The second surprise is that while the other Gospel narratives start with the birth story Mark does not. The last surprise is God’s promise of salvation. The huge surprise is the simplicity of salvation. If you compare this to the more complex Sanskrit religious writing from Indian for instance the story about Jesus is amazing simple. If you expect salvation to be full of long ascetic training, complex rituals and obscure writings to be profound then the simplicity of Gospel comes as a wonderful surprise. The real problem for modern Christians is recapturing the surprise of learning that God will redeem humanity from the cosmic and human powers of suffering, evil, and injustice. Recapturing the surprise of God’s total salvation means we realize that Christ promise of salvation is for the whole world which is different from the false prophets that want to isolate Christ’s followers from the world. (Pheme Perkins The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume 8 [Nashville, 1995] p529)
In the Isaiah passage, it is easy to overlook the fact that it starts off “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” The beginning of this new surprise for God’s people is gentle and comforting. Not loud and brash or full of fanfare. Isaiah does not set out to frighten his listeners but gave instead to them a gentle surprise. Isaiah’s surprise which is echoed in Mark, is that “You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” Isaiah then ends with a very gentle image of God that Jesus echoed when he points out that “the Sovereign LORD comes with power... “That God is “like a shepherd and gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” Isaiah, like Mark, gives us a gentle insight about our future with God.
We have an opportunity here to show how Mark comes in to surprise us in a gentle way about the coming of Jesus. Mark’s gospel is a bit of a surprise for a Christmas reading since there is no birth narrative, but suddenly it all makes sense. Mark surprising gift is the simplicity and joy of the beginning of his gospel, the simplicity of his message of salvation.
The fun and exciting part of preaching for this week can be about how we can live our lives waiting for God’s gentle surprises. No big fanfare. No yelling to get our attention. No earth shattering revelations. We often turn to God in times of fear but we often forget to turn to God in our times of gentleness. We all know we live in a world of fearful surprises but rarely think in terms of God’s gentle surprises.
One of the ways to explore a gentle surprise is through the tradition of the surprise party. It is good to explore the different ways people react to surprise parties and the way they sometimes try to control the surprise party they suddenly discover. It may be relevant to ask the question is this a good analogy about how we try to control the surprises in our lives even God’s surprises
ILLUSTRATING THE TEXT
The movie Second Hand Lion starts in the summer of 1962, 12-year old Walter Caldwell (Haley Joel Osment) is taken by his fortune-hunting mother, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), to live with his bachelor great-uncles, Hub and Garth McCann (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine). The uncles are rumored to have a secret fortune. When they first arrive, they are greeted by the uncles’ pets, a mixed and mangy pack of six dogs, and a pig. They find Hub and Garth knee-deep in their pond, shooting bass with shotguns. Neither they nor Walter are initially pleased to see the other.
Soon Hub, Garth, and Walter have adventures of their own. Hub and Garth purchase a clay pigeon thrower, a succession of ever-larger boats, and a biplane with their wealth. They buy an aging lioness from a circus animal dealer and Walter adopts and names the lioness Jasmine (a name with deep significance to Hub, as Garth reveals to his great-nephew),. Hub gets into and wins a fight with several local toughs.
Throughout the film Garth tells Walter the stories about their mysterious past: Garth reveals to him that he and Hub were adventurers beginning their arrival in France the day Germany invaded in the First World War. Following their army service, Garth becomes a guide in Africa, while Hub travels the world and helps anybody in need of it. During these travels, Hub meets and falls in love with Jasmine a beautiful young princess. She, however, has been promised to a young and powerful Sheik. After Hub rescues Jasmine from the Sheik, a bounty of ten thousand gold pieces is put on Hub’s head. Garth, disguised as a bounty hunter turns Hub in for the reward as a set-up. Hub duels the Sheik and wins but spares the Sheik’s life.
One night Walter asks Hub about what happened to Jasmine. Hub tells Walter that Jasmine and her child (died in childbirth. As times passes the three grow closer and you see where they are living life more happily than before. Walter even finds his uncles’ fabled wealth.
Eventually, Walter’s mother and her current suitor, an “Investigator” named Stan (Nicky Katt), arrive at the farm to find the money. Stan tries to make Walter believe that Hub and Garth were actually bank robbers and that Jasmine was their accomplice, and the fortune is theirs for the taking. When Walter refuses to tell where the money is he is viciously beaten by Stan. Jasmine (the lioness) attacks Stan and seriously wounds him, but it the lioness that dies when her heart gives out.
The next day, Walter is taken away by his mother, but during an emotional argument, Walter asks her to “do something for me for once”, and she lets him return to live with his uncles.
In the film’s epilogue, which takes place several years later, Walter (Josh Lucas) is now a successful cartoonist whose comic strip (“Walt and Jasmine”) is based on his experiences with his uncles. He receives a phone call one day to be told that his two great-uncles have passed. Walt returns to the farm to learn that they died when attempting to fly their biplane upside down into their barn.
At that moment a helicopter touches down and a North African man (Eric Balfour) steps out with his little son accompanying him. He explains that he heard of the men’s deaths on the news and thought those two might be the two courageous Americans whose tales his grandfather, (the Sheik), would tell him about when he was a little boy. When Walt affirms it and tells the sheik’s grandson that the pair raised him, the three are happy to realize that the stories which had inspired them for so long were true — that the two men “really lived.” The surprise at the end was that the uncles were telling the absolute truth not tall stories. They each had lived an incredible life full of adventure. The other gentle surprise is that they turned out both to be great fathers to Walt.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if our faith were a little rawer, a little more real, more spontaneous, unscripted, more like an adventure? By simply beginning each day with a request for God to surprise him in some way, Esau experienced life in a much deeper, meaningful way. He saw God in his interactions with his children. He found God on a routine bike ride. He discovered surprises about who he is and who he is not. He witnessed God’s hand in the day-to-day monotony that all of us can get caught up in. As a single you may be waiting for the next big surprise from God. Esau notes in his book that not all of God’s surprises during his faith experiment were easy to handle. But by opening ourselves to God’s will, we allow Him to work in us in the very way He chooses.
There are many things in life that we can plan for – retirement, vacations, new homes, career moves. But we cannot plan for the infinite amount of blessings God is waiting to bestow on each of us through life’s surprises. Start tomorrow with the simple phrase, “Surprise me, God,” and wait to be surprised. (http://www.catholicmatch.com/blog/2011/02/a-daily-request-surprise-me-god/)
My Dad loved coin banks. He had several that he dropped spare change into regularly, but he was especially fond of quarters. Saving quarters was a habit he practiced all his life.
A few years after he died, something strange started happening. My mother and I began to find quarters. Sometimes they’d be in the house, sometimes outdoors or in our cars.
If it were just one or two, I’d admit it was only coincidence. But my mother has an envelope full of them, and I have six on my nightstand that I found in the past two years. Never nickels, dimes or pennies. There were just quarters. Is that just wishful thinking, or one of God’s surprises? Maybe something unexplainable like that has happened in your life. Maybe a job or a check showed up, right when you needed it. Or maybe it was a person whom you hadn’t seen for years, and you met by sheer coincidence. Or was it? A few seconds either way or you would have missed each other.
Some folks like to attribute everything from finding a parking place to passing a history exam to “God’s favor.” If you haven’t had one of God’s surprises in your life yet, keep watching.
Scripture tells us that he delights in blessing his children. I’m sure he has a few delightful surprises in store for you too.( www.inspiration-for-singles.com/surprises.html)
My friend Cherise hates surprises. Last year after some girlfriends threw her a surprise birthday party, she admitted to me, “It was sweet of them, but my heart sank when I walked in the door and everyone yelled, ‘Surprise!’ I wish they’d have told me about it instead.”
Surprises are sometimes good and sometimes bad. But God assures us, as Christians that no matter what happens; he is “wonderfully good.” He encourages us to look for his mercies each day. So don’t let God’s surprises pass you by. Keep an eye out for them!
“Mom, are we going to Dayville for the Fourth of July?” my son, Tyler, asks, planning his summer. “Oh yes!” I assure him. “Dayville’s the only place I ever want to be on the Fourth.” Though I’ve never lived there, the tiny town of Dayville, Oregon, is my mother’s birthplace and where I spent most summers and holidays as a child. Although it has barely two hundred residents, it glitters like a colossal sparkler on the Fourth of July. The day kicks off with a cross-country horse race and ends with fireworks in the park. In between are barbeques, a mini rodeo, and everyone’s favorite—the parade down Main Street, complete with floats, crepe-paper streamers, balloons, and tons of candy tossed out to the bystanders.
Since a parade can’t very well be held amidst traffic, the townspeople simply block off the road—which also happens to be State Highway 26. When the parade ends, the roadblocks are removed, and traffic is finally allowed to drive through town. Every year we clap and cheer for each car, as if they, too, are part of the parade.
Most travelers enjoy participating in this unexpected slice of Americana. They’ll give us their best beauty-pageant wave as we cheer. Some, however, irritated over the delay, pointedly ignore us.
One year, when an unusually grumpy couple drove through, my brother tossed several pieces of his collected candy into their rolled-down window, startling the couple with an unexpected treat. A few moments later, they grinned sheepishly and returned our waves. From then on, tossing candy to travelers became a family tradition.
As I look forward to another Fourth of July in Dayville, I think of the travelers whose holiday plans will take them down Highway 26—and the annual roadblock. Will they relax and enjoy the unexpected experience—or will they be so concerned with their schedule they’ll miss the quaint pleasure of a small-town celebration?
God’s surprises remind us of who’s in control .He knows us better than we do, and he wantsus to give our relationships—the beginnings, middles, and endings—to him. (Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse)
Mayo Mathers comments on the surprising and unexpected pleasure of being part of a parade in Dayville by pointing out that like those travelers, I often miss the surprises God tosses my way when I’m too focused on my own agenda. When my son asks me to ride bikes, will I cheat myself out of sharing his excitement over the new trail he’s found because I’m too concerned about my to-do list to take the time? Or when I turn down a friend’s lunch invitation because I’m too busy, will I miss being the first to hear her ecstatic announcement “I’m pregnant!”?
The Dayville parade is my annual reminder to “lighten up” and be more flexible in all areas of my life. And it’s taught me to be on the lookout for God’s surprises. Perhaps the woman spreading out her checkered cloth next to mine at the Fourth of July picnic will be a new friend—if I take time to introduce myself. And maybe I’m the surprise he has for her!
One of the surprises of early space flight was John Glenn’s fireflies. He was very surprised by their sudden appearance. What were the “fireflies” that John Glenn saw during the first orbital spaceflight for the US? Enjoy a new “you-were-there” look at the stories of early space exploration from the original NASA transcripts. John Glenn describes small, mysteriously illuminated particles surrounding his capsule. John Glenn starts off by saying: “This is Friendship Seven. I’ll try to describe what I’m in here. I am in a big mass of some very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They round a little; they’re coming by the capsule, and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by...” CAPCOM replies “Roger, Friendship Seven. Can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over.” John Glenn replies “Negative, negative. They’re very slow; they’re not going away from me more than maybe 3 or 4 miles per hour. They’re going at the same speed I am approximately. They’re only very slightly under my speed. Over.” What were these fireflies? In the movie “The Right Stuff” the fireflies were given the illusion of being mystical or perhaps alien — or maybe part of Glenn’s imagination. The answer to the mystery wasn’t confirmed until the next Mercury mission, Aurora 7, with astronaut Scott Carpenter on board in May 1962. Carpenter also saw the fireflies, or snowflakes, as he called them, and quickly could identify the source. They were tiny white pieces of frost from the side of the spacecraft. (http://www.universetoday.com/82211/the-mystery-of-john-glenns-fireflies-returns/) (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHPm1iWCZaw)
The film The Game is pretty much the basic example of a masterful surprise movie ending. Wealthy financier Nicholas Van Orton gets a strange birthday present from wayward brother Conrad: a live-action game that consumes his life. The surprise at the end is that it was just a game and instead of dying he lived.
There are many surprise endings in films. There is the classic surprise ending in the movie The Sting were the audience is set to believe that the girl is great and she turns out to be the assassin and the supposed assassin turns out to be his bodyguard.
The Sixth Sense is masterfully directed and amazingly well written and acted, The Sixth Sense will move, captivate, and scare you. The surprise end of the movie will leave your head spinning. This is one movie which will leave a lasting impression on your mind. Haley (Joel Osment) starts seeing dead people and his therapist, Bruce Willis, too many times. The true shocker comes with the twist at the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s best film. Spoiler Alert……It turns out that Bruce Willis is dead and that Haley is sent to help him.
In another movie The Others (2001) we find a mother (Nicole Kidman) who lives with her two young children in an English country manor house after World War II. Their father hasn’t returned from the war. The children share a condition which makes them extremely photosensitive, requiring them to be under constant supervision and to be moved from room to room in order to never experience direct exposure to daylight. They are tended to by a trio of mysterious caretakers, and are visited by ghostly apparitions. The twist: The mother and children are actually the ghosts. Their three caretakers are also ghosts. The ghostly apparitions, meanwhile, are actually a séance leader and the new inhabitants of the home.
You can pick your favorite surprise endings and show how surprises sometimes can be upsetting. Some more movies that you might want to think about using include The Prestige, Unbreakable, Psycho, Soylent Green, Chinatown, The Ring, Minority Report or 12 Monkeys.
Ways to welcome surprise can include Building “flex” time into your schedule. Then when surprises happen, they won’t throw you. You can also start a “Surprising Results” jar. When a surprise occurs, good or bad, write it down on a slip of paper. Put it in the jar, and then record what happens later. You’ll be amazed to see how God works everything for good (Rom. 8:28)! Another way to include surprise in your life is to Spring some loving surprises on others. Take a discouraged friend her favorite dessert, or accompany a child to a carnival. The more you do “spontaneous” things yourself, the less disturbed you’ll be when your own plans are interrupted. The final may be the most important you need to decide how you’ll respond before a surprise—good or bad—threatens to sidetrack you. Carrying a notecard in my wallet with writer Oswald Chamber’s words “We live by God’s surprises” reminds me to handle surprises with an eternal perspective.How do you handle God’s surprises? Do you eagerly anticipate them, knowing they’ll help you grow? Or are you annoyed because they interrupt your carefully made plans? How can you accommodate your schedule to allow time for the unexpected? (http://www.christianitytoday.com/holidays/mother/features/surprises.html)
Call to Worship (Based on Psalm 85)
Leader: You, LORD, showed favor to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
People: You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins.
Leader: I will listen to what God the LORD says; God promises peace to God’s people.
People: Love and faithfulness meet together
Leader: righteousness and peace kiss each other.
People: Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.
Prayer of Confession
O Lord, we confess that when it comes to getting surprised by something good in our lives our first impulse is to run away. O God we confess that we treat Your many surprises with the same horror we treat surprise parties. We keep waiting not with joy but with anxiety. O Lord, give us the real anticipation of Christmas Eve, when we suddenly just like children know that the surprise waiting for us will fill us with joy. We confess it is easy to be anxious and we confess that it is very difficult to be enthusiastic about the next wonderful surprise in our lives. As we face each test let us look for Your surprise in the middle of our fear. We pray for this in Jesus name.
Prayer of Dedication
Let these gifts surprise others. Let these gifts surprise the givers. Let these gifts surprise the receivers. Let these gifts surprise the world as Jesus surprised the whole world. We pray in the name of the Jesus who surprised the whole world. Amen
O Lord in this Advent season we spend more and more time trying to think of good gifts and good surprises for those we love. We admit we ask for help from them and they do point out that they need this piece of clothing or that new tech toy, but even when we get it we feel like we still need to give them a good surprise.
As we puzzle over trying to give a good surprise to the people we love and admire we know instinctively how hard it is to surprise anyone in a good way. This Christmas help us surround ourselves with God’s wonderful surprise and the wonderful surprises that we suddenly see in our lives. Help us change our ideas about surprises. Help us to see Your gentle surprises in our lives as something totally different from the surprises we have come to fear. Help us to see Your gentle surprises in our lives as something totally different from the disruptive surprises’ we have been trained to expect. Help us escape our limited view of Your world. Help us instead to see Your surprising world. We pray in the name of Jesus Your wonderful surprise that keeps giving us wonderful surprises.