I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Jesus’ disciples. I find myself using their words, their reactions. I’m reassured by Peter in particular, every time he puts his foot in it.
Sometimes I read their stories and think ‘what idiots, why don’t they get it?’ Why do they ask such silly questions, why don’t they trust Jesus properly? Then I remember. I’ve got the benefit of hindsight, of two thousand years of Christian thought and tradition, and I don’t get it most of the time. They experienced a whole lot of surprises as they followed Jesus round and as they continued his ministry in the subsequent months; there was a lot of new stuff to get their heads around. It’s not surprising they didn’t get it sometimes.
I read yesterday Acts 10, where Peter has a vision of a sheet filled with food previously called unclean, and he’s told to kill and eat. His response is “surely not, Lord!” It makes sense. Surely not, Lord, you can’t be telling me to eat the food I’ve avoided my whole life. Surely not, Lord, it makes no sense. Surely not, Lord, this wasn’t what I expected. The vision Acts 10 isn’t the first time Peter had expressed such sentiments. At the memorable incident at Caesarea Philippi recorded in the gospels, when Peter had declared Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus started to death about his necessary suffering and death. Peter’s response was the same “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matt 16:22) There’s the same surprise, shock, repulsion even. Surely not, Lord! This wasn’t the plan. Surely not, Lord, I thought you were the Messiah. Surely not.
There’s so much about the gospel story that might be surprising, not least the death and resurrection of the Son of God, and the welcome of people of all races and backgrounds into God’s family. But perhaps the biggest surprise of all is right at the start, at the moment God becomes man. If we were to take a first look at the baby in the manger, the child of an unmarried mother wriggling in a feeding trough, if we were to forget our hindsight and the millennia of thinking and understanding we’ve done since, wouldn’t that be our reaction too? Surely not, Lord. Surely this isn’t how you’re coming to invade human history? Surely this isn’t the plan to save the world? Really? This baby?
Advent gives us time to reflect on the wholly surprising and unexpected nature of the incarnation. It’s a time to think of the messianic expectations of the nation into which Christ came, to try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who were longing for God to come and rescue them. To imagine the hopes, the possibilities, the dreams. To feel the shock, the surprise, the awe…. surely not, Lord… really? It’s a time to remember how God, in coming as this poor baby, turned the values and expectations of the world upside down; how the King became a servant, how he who was rich became poor, how he emptied himself. It’s a time to be in awe at the surprising, shocking, perfect plan of God, who did it all that we might become everything he made us to be.
Perhaps it’s a time also to examine my own expectations of what God has planned, for my life, my family, his Church. As I allow myself to hope, to dream of all God might have in store for me, what kind of ministry I might have, the family I might have… perhaps I need to remember how surprising God’s plans have always been. This advent, one challenge I feel is to surrender my plans to him, to be prepared for his ideas to turn mine upside down. As much as I imagine all I’d love to be doing and how I think my gifts could be best used, and all the things I want God to do in me and through me in the coming years, I want to try imagining the unexpected too. What if God has completely different plans? Will I still trust that they’re good and perfect plans? Will I believe that, just as the baby in the manger makes no sense at first glance, or even fourth or fifth glance, when things happen in my life that seem to make no sense, God is still just as in control as he was at the birth of Jesus?
The more I’m convinced that God’s surprising plans are also God’s perfect plans, the more confident I can be that when those surprises come, I won’t need to echo Peter’s “surely not, Lord!” but I’ll be able to say with Mary, when confronted with the biggest surprise of all, “may it be to me as you have said.”