Friday, January 22, 2016

Are there still surprises? (Acts 9:10-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

This story was sent  to the Reader's Digest.  A man was just stepping out of the shower one evening, when his wife yelled out asking him to run down to the basement and turn off the iron which she had accidentally left on.  Without bothering to grab a towel or robe, the man headed down to the basement.  Just as he reached the bottom stair, the lights came on and a dozen friends and colleagues jumped out and shouted – Surprise!  His wife had planned a surprise party for her husband's 40th birthday.

Yes, surprises are a part of life.  Good surprises and unfortunately bad ones.  Can you think of a time when you were completely surprised?   What an experience when something totally unexpected occurs.   You interview for a job, you feel the interview didn't go well, you write it off, then the phone rings and you're offered the job.  Or your rather low offer on a house or condo, which you think the owner is laughing at, is accepted.  Or you learn that your pregnant.  Or you unexpectedly meet someone and fall in love.  Or you reluctantly, against your better judgment, buy a ticket and win POWERBALL.  Or yes, someone throws you a surprise birthday party.

Now in saying this I'm not being Pollyanna here.  I'm not looking through rose colored glasses.   I am well aware of the disappointment and hurt which is also a part of life.   As a pastor, I have ministered to families in nearly every conceivable situation.   I am aware of the mournful and unfair side of life.   But nevertheless, sometimes we get so wrapped up in the negative, in dwelling on disappointments, in being pessimistic, in giving into bitterness,  that we are blind to or miss out on life's joyful surprises.   Or maybe I'm off base.

For you see, surprises are also a part of the Kingdom of God.  Surprises are also a part of God's will for our lives.  God surprises us with His actions in the world.  They too are a part of God's purposes for our lives.  God whom we worship is also a God of surprises.

For example, out of all peoples of the world, God called Abraham and his descendants, and formed the Jewish people, as His chosen people.   Why?  We don't know.  It was God's gracious decision.  God spoke to Israel through the prophet Isaiah:  “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights, I will put my spirit upon him.  I have made a covenant with my people, you shall be a light to the nations.

God surprised the world with the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in the town of Bethlehem.  God surprised the world at Easter, when after Jesus was crucified, had died and was buried, He rose from the tomb as the resurrected Lord and appeared to many.   God surprised the world at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian Church.

In Psalm 90, the psalmist prays:  “Surprise us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”   I say Amen to that prayer.  One of my daily prayers in whatever situation I find myself in is:  “God surprise us with your grace.” For God has surprised me with His steadfast love, His faithfulness, His affirmation, with power and strength when my heart was fearful, when I was discouraged, and my knees were weak.   How about you?

Jesus constantly surprised people.  Jesus shocked everyone when he raised Lazarus from the grave.  To the disapproval of some, Jesus treated women, who had low social standing in his day, with respect.  Women were a part of his entourage which traveled with him from village to village.  He spoke to women in public, even prostitutes, even Samaritan women.  To the horror of many, Jesus conversed with and healed lepers.  Jesus appalled the crowds when he encountered Zaccheus, a Jewish tax collector for the Romans.  Zaccheus would knock on your door and say:  “Hi, I'm from the Roman government and I'm here to help you.” 

He was hated by his fellow Jews who considered him a traitor and because he profited by collecting excessive taxes.  He was a short, small man, who avoided crowds because of their anger towards him.  One day in Jericho, Zaccheus heard Jesus was coming to town.  Zaccheus climbed a tree in order to safely see Jesus and spoting him Jesus said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”  Surprise Zacchaeus.

Jesus was also surprised by people's reactions to him.   Like the extraordinary faith of an unlikely person, a Roman centurion, who asked Jesus to heal his servant.  Jesus said: “I will come to your home and and cure him.”  The centurion replied: “I am not worthy to have you come to my home but only say the word and my servant will be healed.”  Jesus responds: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jesus was also surprised and disappointed by the lack of faith among many people from his hometown of Nazareth.  Recall his words: “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown and in their own house.”  We read: “Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

The Bible also speaks about surprising changes in people's lives.  Like our story from Acts.  Before his conversion to Christ, Paul was known in Jewish circles as Saul.  Saul was an agent of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the temple, charged with finding and arresting followers of this blasphemer and political agitator Jesus.  Saul arrested and imprisoned many of Jesus followers.  His name struck fear in the hearts of Jesus' followers.  One day Saul underwent a dramatic conversion.  On his way to Damascus he was temporarily blinded and hears the voice of the lord calling out to him.  He is brought to Damascus by temple soldiers for a period of rest.

And in the midst of these events the Lord speaks to Ananias saying, “Get up and go to the house of Judas and look for a man of tarsus named Saul.  He has seen you in a vision where you come to him, lay hands on him and he will regain his sight.”

Does Ananias say: “Ready now Lord. No problem Lord, I'm on it.”  Rather Ananias replies:  “Lord, wait just a minute.  I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon your name.”  The Lord replies: “Yes, so true  Ananias, thanks for sharing now go.”   The Lord won't allow Ananias to wimp out.   So Ananias goes to Saul, lays hands on him, witnesses to him, baptizes him, and Saul regains his sight and commits his life to following Christ.  Surprise Ananias.  Surprise Saul, who soon becomes known as Paul.

Yes, there still are surprises in God's kingdom, wherever God reigns, wherever God's hand is at work, wherever God's will is being accomplished, wherever there is faith.  In instances when people have their hopes and dreams dashed, and rather than living a life of bitterness and regret, God's grace leads them to find a new goal, a new passion, a new dream.   In instances when you are ill, and by God's grace you recover and are healed.  In instances where you are terminal, no treatment appears to have a lasting effect, the treatments are no longer effective, and you find acceptance, serenity, and peace in surrendering your will to God's will and your time to God's time.  In instances where you expect to die due to an illness, and yet you continue to live, the years continue to roll by, and you give thanks to God.  In instances where you are grieving, and you receive an unexpected outpouring of support, prayers and encouragement from not only friends and family, but acquaintances and even strangers.   God's still surprises us.

Dr. Ben Carson, one of the Republican candidates for president, has become known throughout the world as a premiere brain surgeon. What you may not know is that he had an uncontrollable temper as a young man. In his book Take the Risk, Dr. Carson writes about the day he invited God to help him deal with this critical character flaw:

One day, as a 14-year-old in ninth grade, I was hanging out at the house of my friend Bob, listening to his radio, when he suddenly leaned over and dialed the tuner to another station. I'd been enjoying the song playing on the first station, so I reached over and flipped it back. Bob switched stations again.

A wave of rage welled up. Almost without thinking, I pulled out the pocketknife I always carried and, in one continuous motion, flicked open the blade and lunged viciously right at my friend's stomach. Incredibly, the point of the knife struck Bob's large metal buckle and the blade snapped off in my hands.  Bob raised his eyes from the broken piece of metal in my hand to my face. He was too surprised to say anything. But I could read the terror in his eyes.

"I…I…I'm sorry!" I sputtered, then dropped the knife and ran for home, horrified by the realization of what I'd just done.

I burst into our empty house, locked myself in the bathroom, and sank to the floor, miserable and frightened. I could no longer deny that I had a severe anger problem, and that I'd never achieve my dream of being a doctor with an uncontrollable temper. I admitted to myself there was no way I could control it alone. "Lord, please, you've got to help me," I prayed. "Take this temper away! You promised that if I ask anything in faith, you'll do it. I believe you can change me."
Gradually I stopped crying, my hands quit shaking, and I was filled with the assurance that God had answered my prayer.  Uncontrolled anger has never again been a threat to me or those around me. God has provided and will provide whatever strength I need to control my anger.

Like Ananias, God's surprises also come when He desires to use you and me in unexpected ways.  All it takes is a listening ear, an open heart, a willingness to serve, surrendering yourself to God, humbling yourself in prayer, the courage to step out in faith.  That's all. 

Think about some person you know who is struggling or in need in some way.  Surprise them.  Surprise yourself.  Do something you would normally not do.  Reach out in a way that is a bit outside your comfort zone.   Stretch yourself.  Step out in faith.

God wants to use you in unexpected ways, in ways you may not believe you are ready for, but God does,  just like God used Ananias.   When we turn to God in faith and prayer, amazing things can happen.   

I want you to hear this word from the Lord.  You know more than you think you know.  You are stronger than you realize.  You are more capable than you give yourself credit for.  You can endure more than you believe.  God will supply what you need when you are following his calling.  God can make things happen through you, when you trust in Him.

Yes, God brings surprises into our lives.  And God desires to use you and me in unexpected ways.  Be alert, be ready, for God's surprises are still very much alive.  Amen.

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