February 2nd, 1992

St Stephen's


The God of Surprises I

Malachi 3: 1-4
Hebrews 2: 14-18
Luke 2: 22-40

The God of Surprises is the name of the book. I haven't read it myself but I'm told it's very good.

It's about those three words that make up its title that I'm going to talk this morning.

God of Surprises

The Jews believed that God would visit them. As the prophet Malachi had said in the first lesson "the Lord you are seeking will suddenly enter his Temple".

The trouble was they had already decided in their minds what this was going to be like.

It was, they thought, going to be like what we would call a space invasion.

A Superman-type of being called Messiah or Christ - God's Anointed One - would suddenly appear out of the blue so to speak and lead them all to a great military victory over the Roman army of occupation. And this in turn would lead to a Golden Age of peace and justice and prosperity at the end of which perhaps even the Gentiles would come to believe in God.

What actually happened of course was that Mary and Joseph brought the Baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. So when the Lord did, literally come into his Temple practically nobody recognised. That was Surprise Number One.

Surprise Number Two was what happened to Mary and Joseph. They had taken the child to Jerusalem in order to do as the Jewish law laid down. It probably wasn't convenient for them. Joseph had to leave his work bench for a couple of days. Mary, just a few weeks after childbirth had to go with him taking the child to the temple and carrying not only their luggage, food for the baby, swaddling clothes and so forth, but also the heavy wooden box with the live turtledoves in it.

I can imagine them wondering whether it was really all necessary these days. After all there were plenty of their friends who hadn't done what the Law prescribed for a newborn male child. Couldn't they have said "Thank You" to God in their own house? But being good and holy people they pressed on and did their duty.

Then the Surprise happened. Two complete strangers Simeon and Anna, prompted by the Spirit came into the Temple at precisely that moment and recognised what had happened and who Jesus was.

Anna was a very old lady who had served God devoutly all her life. We're not actually told that Simeon was an old man though that is the way he is usually depicted. All that we know is that God had told him that he would not die until he had seen Christ the Lord and that death was not very far away. He may therefore have been quite a young man who was suffering from a terminal illness, cancer, or tuberculosis or multiple sclerosis for instance.

But whether he was young or old Simeon recognised that Holy Child. Taking him in his arms he blessed God and said:

"LORD, I have seen what you promised. I'm now ready to die. This child is to be the light of the world and the glory of Israel"

And to Joseph and Mary he said

"This child is destined to be a sign that is rejected by many people who meet him. And you will go through great suffering too. But that will be God's way of opening men's hearts to repentance and forgiveness."

Anna too, the old lady prophetess, 84 years old, spoke of the child to all who were looking for the coming of God's Saviour.

Four very ordinary people and a baby all going about their duties. And yet it was precisely in the course of that that they came together and their eyes were opened to what was really going on.

God of Surprises!

Of course the Surprises didn't stop there. The words of Simeon did come true some 30 years later when Jesus, near the spot where the five of them met, was nailed to a cross and pierced with the soldier's lance. God's High Priest, the Holy Messiah, leader of his people died the shameful death of a convict on the gallows.

God of Surprises!

But it was vital, said the writer to the Hebrews in the second reading, that God's saviour should share our flesh and blood and experience death like us in order that he might free us from the slavery of sin and the power of death.

God of Surprises again!

The Jews simply couldn't understand this they still can't today. A Messiah who dies as a criminal simply doesn't "add up". Likewise the wisest men in the world in those days, the Greeks, found the whole idea of a God who dies was quite absurd. God is one thing; death is another. You can't have life and death going hand in hand in one person. The whole thing is absurd.

Or is it? Remember, our God is a God of Surprises!

And what about you and me? Isn't it really rather absurd when you come to think of it that we should all have landed up here together this morning to celebrate Christ the light of the world?

Who are we that we should be so special?

If you had been God would you have chosen people like you and me for this enlightenment?

Or for that matter would you have chosen people like Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna?

Yet God did choose them

He really is a God of Surprises!

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