Pause for thought: Expecting the Unexpected
Christmas is a discordant brain-teaser. Much of the joy and pleasure of the season is because it is comfortable and familiar. Food, activities, and gatherings which bring contentment partly because they echo previous years. That familiarity gives a sense of well-being. The difficulties and challenges of last year haven’t been able to derail the enduring patterns in our lives.
But the Christmas story is all about the unexpected. God upturning the familiar and the expected. Elizabeth and Mary were definitely not expecting to become pregnant. Zechariah was struck dumb. The shepherds had never been disturbed by angelic choirs before. Many modern readers find the wise men a discordant note – if the story is really about God being with the poor and marginalised, why are the rich elite in the story too?
This Epiphany season continues the theme. The word itself means something new suddenly being revealed or grasped. We will remember Jesus’ glory being revealed in water turned into wine, his baptism where the heavens were opened, and Simeon who when he saw the baby Jesus in the temple declared that he can now ‘depart in peace’ because he has seen God’s salvation. The light for revelation to the nations. After many centuries God was now acting, but shockingly it would not crush but benefit those who had oppressed God’s people.
The message is all about God doing the unexpected, but we easily turn it on its head into a season of being comforted by the familiar.
It is common to define mission as ‘finding out what God is doing and joining in’. It’s a great definition with one almighty problem – are we any good at finding what God is doing? Are we capable of seeing where God is at work, or do we see what we want to see, and see God in the familiar? We know what we are doing, we know what the church is doing, we know what we would like to see, we know what we think ‘needs to be done’. How easily we decide that this must be where God is at work. So mission becomes ‘joining in’ with what we are already doing, and what we think needs to be done.
But Christmas and Epiphany are all about the unexpected, the ‘God of Surprises’.
The challenge we face is whether we can open our eyes, listen with curiosity, and be attentive to where God is actually at work. The challenge is to leave behind the comfortable familiarity of Christmas, and imitate Mary, the shepherds and Simeon, and see the unexpected.
I wish you an unexpected, surprising, New Year. A new year that is different from the one you or I would choose, because God’s choices are always better than ours.
Canon Professor Jeremy Duff