The God Who Surprises Us

Some people don’t like surprises. Some people like to know everything that is going to happen before it happens. Some people like to be in control. Some people think that there are only bad surprises. Some people are planners and work long, hard hours to try to predict the future and guarantee events that have not happened yet.

Some churches don’t like surprises. They spend endless hours in talking and meeting and planning and don’t seem to ever get around to the doing part, but at least they don’t ever get surprised. One of the consequences of this is that some churches feel stuck. The only things that happen are the same things that have been happening for the last 20 years. People go to church every Sunday without any expectation of meeting God, that something new could occur, or that God might show up. Some churches have drawn down their bank accounts of hope so low, that they get back a message every Sunday of insufficient funds. Without realizing it or being conscious of it, they have developed a culture of hopelessness. Their recent experience has persuaded them their church life will not get better, will not improve, and that they will continue to live a life of quiet desperation.

For whatever reason, some churches have forgotten that the God of the Bible is the God who surprises us. God shows up in the most unexpected places. Miracles happen that could not have been predicted. Outcomes are altered that could not have been guessed. Things that look like they are dead or dying amazingly come back to life. Who would have guessed?

In Scott Sundquist’s book Understanding Christian Mission, he writes:

“No one predicted the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Few people imagined that the violent apartheid social system in South Africa would end without great violence or even civil war. No one imagined that China would become the most competitive free market in the world, while remaining a communist country. No one (at least no one in the ecumenical movement) dreamed that Christianity and other religions would remain so vital into the twenty-first century. No one dreamed that the twentieth century would be the century of both ecumenism and Pentecostalism. Finally, no one predicted that Christianity would recenter outside of the West within one generation: between 1965 and 1990. The global developments (and many more) came about suddenly, quietly, and with little warning. Christianity, in the midst of these global transformations, was showing a new strength, resiliency, and adaptability.”

The God of the Bible is the God who surprises us. Who would have guessed that Abraham and Sarah could conceive and have a child when they were 100 and 90 years old? Who would have guessed that Moses, after murdering a man and having to flee his country to save his life, could return 40 years later as one of Israel’s greatest leader? Who would have guessed that David could defeat Goliath? Who would have guessed that an old woman like Elizabeth could give birth to John the Baptist or that Jesus would be born out of the scandal of a young woman named Mary who became pregnant before she was married? How many in Israel guessed that Jesus would not come as a military or political leader? How many would have guessed that Paul would do a 180 and go from persecuting the church to leading its first great missionary expansion? Who saw these things coming? I don’t think there were many, if any.

The church in North America today needs to remember that the God of the Bible is the God who surprises us. Our ways are not God’s ways. We walk by faith and not by sight. God shows up in the most God-forsaken places. The Holy Spirit falls on people we would not normally imagine. What is holding the church back is not the lack of power of God. Often, we are held back by our lack of missional imagination. We have lost our ability to have visions and dream dreams. We complain that our culture or our denomination is holding us back, but in fact, we are often the ones holding ourselves back. It is our own mental maps, our own lack of imagination, our own fear of failure, or our own church culture, that prevents us from discovering and participating in the exciting mission of God going on in the world today.

As financial advisors regularly tell us, past financial success is no guarantee of future financial performance. The same is true in the church. Past ministry experience is no guarantee of future ministry performance. God is on the move. Jesus Christ is alive and well in our world today. The Holy Spirit is at work in people’s lives and in the communities around us. Sometimes, it just takes getting out of buildings, and getting off of our campuses, and moving back into our neighborhoods, to discover what God is already doing there. Sometimes we have to take off our blinders, read scripture with a new pair of glasses, and start looking at our world with a new set of lenses. God is doing something new. God is inviting us to join in the new things He is doing in our world. Can we learn to see it? Can we learn to hear it? Can we take some wise risks and take a chance to participate in a way of doing ministry for the new culture we live in today.

I believe that great things are ahead for the Church of Jesus Christ. I think the future is full of ministry opportunities that we have not even begun to imagine yet. I believe God’s Holy Spirit is actively at work to redeem people and communities with the good news of Jesus Christ. I believe God is inviting us to be a part of this exciting mission of God. I hope we don’t miss it. The God of the Bible is the God Who surprises us.

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