Surprise! Matthew 1:18-25
Do you like surprises?
Lillian Daniel, in a UCCdaily devotional this week responds:
“It depends. Are there airline tickets to Paris sitting in my mailbox, or is a piano about to fall on my head? Is Publisher's Clearinghouse ringing my doorbell, or a trio of dark-suited, long-winded members of a proselytizing religion?”
I think I like surprises, although, like Lillian says “it depends.” Is it the kind that blew in with Thursday’s wind storm, which toppled the neighbors 35 foot oak into her tiny front yard (unpleasant), or the kind of surprise that was the tree somehow missed both the new roof her adult kids spent a week installing this summer and the two cars parked in the drive (providential)?
Lillian goes on: “Children who are loved and protected still seem to have the sense that surprises are fun. To their hopeful hearts, the unexpected surprise around the corner is more likely to be a new pony than a trip to the dentist. It is the process of life, and perhaps braces, that causes that subtle shift within us, to the point where surprises frighten us and we long instead for something we call "security."”
I guess she’s right. Although the middle years are teaching me that the surprise has a way of sticking her unsettling head into the best laid plans of security anyway.
In these days and weeks of preparing for the birth of Emmanuel, I often think of another birth, the birth of my son Elijah. These days, it is very common for parents to be advised to create a birth plan from “I'll decide whether to use pain medication as my labor progresses” to “I'd like my baby evaluated and bathed in my presence.” We had a plan and it was quite clear on the number of points. However. The birth of Elijah took place in this way.
One Saturday evening, we went to visit friends in their apartment north of Seattle, where we were living at the time. The PLAN was that Jeff and I would entertain their toddler while they went out for the evening, even though our friend, the toddler’s father, kept saying he thought it was a bad idea for an 8-months-along pregnant lady to spend the evening chasing a lively child, but I brushed off those worries - after all pregnant women chase toddlers all the time, right? When we arrived at our friends building – surprise – there was a line of fire trucks in front because – surprise – our friends upstairs neighbors had started a small fire in the building so – surprise – we wouldn't be staying there that night although – surprise – it was a rather lovely evening for may so we ended up on the beach with boxes of pizza, watching the full moon rise over the hills and reflect on the water. And that night – surprise – I went into labor a full month early and called my mom who – surprise – changed the ticket she had for later “after the baby comes” and arrived that same day, just after Elijah who – surprise- was sent to the NICU.
The next few weeks were long ones – if you’ve never been surprised by a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, I don't wish that for you. But along with those surprises, came other ones – friends and even acquaintances arrived with gifts of food and prayer and presence and prayer and hugs and prayers. We had made a birth plan that included just the three of us – me and my husband the new baby - but it was the prayers and presence of so many others that got us through those surprising weeks just after Eli was born.
Although those weeks in the NICU were some of the hardest we’ve known, they were also the most wonderful and we were surprised again and again by the many sweet gifts of that time. Looking back, I mark the beginning of the strongest period of my faith and relationship with God to that time. Surprise.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Sounds like the start to a very clear birth plan. Joseph probably has one. He will spend a year engaged to and then marry a faithful and lovely young woman of the community. Engagement in Josephs time was a legal designation similar to marriage, although the couple did not yet live together. In the due course of time they would move into together and create a family.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” And then – surprise- everything is backwards. The baby is coming before the marriage. And then – surprise- Jospeh plans to dismiss her quietly (which to our modern ears can sound harsh, but if you consider the alternative -the law that she should be stoned to death– it actually IS righteous). And then – further surprise – the visit by the angel to Joseph while he sleeps and the change of heart. Mary will bear the child after all, and he will bear the child, and all of life’s other surprises, with her.
This is a big surprise, the biggest of Josephs’ life thus far, I’m guessing – but he met it with equanimity and grace and – the scripture tells us – righteousness.
He practices these big virtues not on a big stage but in (what theologian James Boyce calls) “the common places of life- the birth of a child; people faced with decisions involving religious traditions, law, and community or having to do with marriage, family or a decision to divorce- (these are) the arenas in which God surprisingly enters human life with creative and transforming power.”
In reading about the spirituality of surprise this week, I kept bumping into another s-word – Surrender.
In her book, The Sevenwhispers, Christina Baldwin says that surrendering to surprise is the biggest key to being able to accept them and, if not enjoy them, at least learn from them: Practice surrendering to the small surprises gives us resilience, she says, “required when the biggest surprises come along.
Baldwin describes one reaction to surprises this way: by remembering that it is what it is.
Notice what is
Accept what is
Work with what is
Joseph must have been working for a while on accepting surprise, because when the big one came, he was able to “notice” (mary is with child)
Accept – (things are not what I planned, what is the next step?)
And work with (planned to dismiss her quietly)
When he is hit immediately with another surprise –unless he was accustomed to receiving God in his dreams – he rolls with the punches again
I asked a few of you what you thought of surrender as a spiritual idea and un-surprisingly, no one said “surrender! I love it! I can’t wait to surrender!” Some of you suggested other words instead – discernment or serenity. But to many of us, surrender sounds too much like giving up, like being the victim, like ignoring our god-given free will.
If the word surrender sticks in your craw so much that you cant receive it, feel free to ignore it. But Joseph’s kind of surrender – the kind Christina Baldwin talks about - looks a lot like a word that (according toAnthony Robinson in another UCC devotional this week) “sounds a lot like its opposite” – determination.
Advent – like life – if full of surprises. “We don't know the outcomes in advance. We only know the next step. We surrender our need to know it all in advance, to be in control, and” then notice what is, accept what it, work with what is.
Do you like surprises? Well, like them or not, ready or not, here they come. How you meet them, all of them – the promotion along with the job loss; the medical scare averted, along with the worst diagnosis; the car who cuts you off in traffic, along with the person who lets you ahead in the grocery line “just because;” the tickets to Paris along with the piano on the head; the unexpected pregnancy along with the visit from god in your dreams– the practice of advent is the practice of meeting those surprises, all of them. May it be so for each of us. Amen.