Isaiah 61:10-62:3Luke 2:22-40
Life is full of surprises. That’s hardly a profound theological statement, and rarely do I find simple, trite phrases to be all that helpful or accurate. But this little truism seems to be an exception to that: Life is, indeed, full of surprises.
One of the reasons it is true is because it is so neutral. Sometimes, the surprises are good, the existential curve balls that make us smile. I’m reminded of the teacher who walked around the classroom as her students drew in art class. One little girl was working diligently: “I’m drawing God,” she announced. The teacher replied, “But no one knows what God looks like.” “They will in a minute,” the girl answered.
There are times when surprises are profound, moments where brokenness gives way to deeper truth. In a recent Special Olympics, Roberta and Mary Pat were two competitors who crossed the finish line in their race holding hands. It was a simple act of friendship by two women born with disabilities, but it made for an insightful commentary on the nature of competition.
And then, there are, of course, the times when surprises are unwanted. These are the moments where we see little good, if any; the dark cloud has no silver lining; there is no “looking at the bright side.” We need move no further than the struggles in our own community here at Oglethorpe this past week to see examples. Loved ones aren’t supposed to die during the holidays. Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children. Life isn’t supposed to be this way.
Given these examples, it is difficult to coalesce a theology of surprise. Several temptations arise as we try to explain God’s work in the surprising moments of life. One of these temptations is to ascribe to God the good surprises, but not the bad ones. The problem is that God becomes less than God, a domesticated bumper-sticker slogan of a creator. Another temptation is to ascribe it all to God, the master puppeteer. Well-meaning friends try to offer words of comfort: “It was her time.” “It’s all part of God’s plan.” The problem here is that God is rendered almost fickle, if not cruel, causing misery for the sake of an unknown “greater good.”
I have no illusions about fully answering the question of evil, or the seemingly unanswerable philosophical riddle of why bad things happen to good people. We Presbyterians are often tempted to explain everything and leave no room for the mysteries, good and bad, that surround our experience. The nature of the divine is simply far too complex to squeeze into a fifteen-minute sermon on a Sunday morning. But I do believe that God created this world, and created it with freedom. Freedom gives way to brokenness: not simply the willful straying from the straight and narrow path, but the overall sense of imperfection that leaves us vulnerable to illness and death. But at the same time, I do not believe in a watchmaker God that got the ball rolling and has since abandoned this creation, but rather that God is always at work. When something good happens, we may think we see God’s hand quite clearly. When something bad happens, we may have to squint to see God’s presence: the hug of a friend; a broken relationship that has been restored; a personal acknowledgement of our ultimate dependence on God. For a people who believe in the absurd truth of the cross where divinity died for the sake of humanity, we rest on the hope that God is always at work, even if only in the form of a broken heart or a steady stream of tears. At best, though, this is an impartial answer that is perhaps better left to quiet conversations and the struggles of prayer, doubt, and faith.
So the question still remains: how do we see God at work in a world where people suffer?
It is a question that the prophet Isaiah knew well. We’re not sure exactly where Isaiah’s audience was – some scholars think that they are still in exile in Babylon, others believe that they have returned to Jerusalem, others that they have restored the Temple, but are only in the early stages of rebuilding their society. In any case, the quandary remains. People suffer, and yet the prophet’s role is to show them that God is still at work. Isaiah paints a picture for them of celebration and redemption – a bride and bridegroom dressed for their wedding day; new life springing forth from the ground as in a garden; victory coming like the sun in the day, salvation like the torch of fire in the night. Prophecy, like that of Isaiah’s, is meant to be more evocative than descriptive. It speaks of a future hope, a perfection of an imperfect world. The language is odd and poetic, giving more voice to trust and vision than to clarity and detail.
But the problem with painting a picture of the future, no matter how vague or circumspect, is that it creates expectations. And the problem with expectations is that they are rarely met. More often than not, such expectations look to the past rather than toward the future. In the case of the ancient Israelites, the people have returned from exile and expect to return to their glorious past, like in the days of David and Solomon. They expect not only a rebuilt Temple where they can worship, but also a rebuilt kingdom where they can rule.
And from the time of Isaiah until the time of Jesus, these expectations remain unmet. Jesus’ birth finds the Israelites living in their land, and worshiping in their Temple. They even have a king, named Herod, but he’s little more than a puppet for the Roman Empire. The reality is very different from those ancient hopes and expectations. The Romans occupy and rule their land, and yet delusions of grandeur still occupy their hearts and minds. Life hasn’t exactly worked out the way it was supposed to.
The expectation still hangs in the air, though more wearily than in Isaiah’s time, as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus up to Jerusalem to the Temple. Imagine the scene: the young mother carrying her son in her arms, her husband walks beside her with two turtledoves clutched in his hands. They have brought the appropriate sacrifice for the purification ritual, even if it is the one allowed for poor families who cannot afford a sheep. And as they enter, we can almost see Simeon appearing from behind a column here and Anna emerging from over there to embrace the Christ child, to pronounce prophecy, and to declare the fulfillment of ancient expectations.
Simeon and Anna appear in the story to offer readers irrefutable proof that Jesus is the Christ. Simeon is energy, the one with personal revelation from the Holy Spirit. Anna is the steady presence, the elderly widow who never leaves the Temple, constantly praying and fasting. Let’s put it this way: Anna would be the Catholic nun; Simeon would be the Pentecostal preacher. Both have been waiting for the words of Isaiah and the unmet expectations of the Israelites to be fulfilled. And here he is, the one they’ve waited for! Simeon can be at peace. Anna can finally rest. The hope for which they have waited has finally arrived.
But is this really what they waited for, a hick kid from Nazareth born to a poor, unwed couple? He doesn’t restore the line of David to the throne, but is handed over by the one who is called king. He doesn’t drive out the Romans, but is cruelly murdered at their hands. And forty years after his death, the Temple is destroyed yet again. Where’s the rebuilding of a glorious past that Isaiah promised? Where’s the “Happily Ever After”? If Jesus is, indeed, the Christ, as Simeon and Anna attest, then this is not the way the story was supposed to go. Life has surprised us yet again.
But the life of surprise and unmet expectations are put into context with this one word: revelation. As charismatic Simeon holds the infant child in his arms, he declares him to be “a light for revelation.” That is, in Christ himself, something is revealed about the very nature of God and the future of history. The curtains between heaven and earth are parted briefly, and we can see not just a mere glimpse of God at work in the world, but the fullest revelation of the divine character, who and what God is, held in the arms of a man who is preparing to die. And in this strange, broken moment, all that Isaiah envisioned comes to be – not in the way of ancient expectations, but rather in the perfected promises of a loving creator who enters into that brokenness in the humble vulnerability of a poor child.
Friends, I do think that there is a simple truth for us here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in this moment. I imagine that what was true of the ancient Israelites is true for us: that is, that our expectations of God at work in our midst can often be rooted in visions of what once was. I think that this is probably as true for each of us individually as it is for us as a church. And I would also hazard a guess that any such expectations, like those of the people in the Temple waiting for their political salvation, will not be met. It is not that God disappoints, but rather that God works the way that God desires to work. My prayer is that we would give room for that movement of the Spirit, that we would know that desire with the faith and devotion of Simeon and Anna, and that we, like Christ, would continue to grow in our wisdom and knowledge of God.