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GOD OF SURPRISES (Views from the Abbey 28)

A taxi driver felt a tap on his shoulder, lost control of his cab and went careering across the road, narrowly missing a mother with a baby in a pram, just avoiding a lamppost, and just managing to stop before crashing into the plate glass window of a shop! He apologised profusely to his passenger. ‘I’m so sorry’ he said, ‘but you gave me such a shock when you tapped me on the shoulder! This is my first day as a taxi driver and until yesterday I drove a hearse!’

Sometimes in life things can come upon us as a bit of a shock and generally speaking, we don’t like surprises. In our minds we fear the unknown; we find it threatening and destabilising. But life can be full of surprises – in a good way! It has been said that one of the most beneficial and valuable gifts we can give to ourselves in this life is to allow ourselves to be surprised. It’s OK if life surprises you; it’s a good thing. And God is a very surprising God. He comes to us to break through the cocoon of our closed minds and it is always in a good way! According to Pope Francis, ‘God reveals himself through surprises so always allow yourself to be surprised by God.’

Today is the third Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany means a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation. Whilst we do not slavishly follow the church year, it is good to keep the main festivals and to follow the main themes of the faith because they are so important that we need to be reminded of them on an annual basis. Epiphany is the ‘season of surprises’ when we open our hearts and minds to God and make sure that we are always allowing ourselves to be surprised by God. No matter how long we have been on the road with Jesus there are moments of sudden and great revelation or realisation that can come to us. We can still always be surprised by God.

We see this throughout Scripture where God breaks through the granite of hard hearts and does something new. For example, Noah being called to build a huge boat because it was going to rain even though it had never rained before (Genesis 6:9-27). Or Abraham called by God at 75 to leave his home and follow God into the unknown and to become a father (Genesis 12,15). Moses encountering God in a burning bush (Exodus 6:1-6). We think of the Magi from the east who first started to look for the infant Jesus in a palace. What is a surprise it must have been for them to find him in a stable. And then there is the Apostle Paul meeting the risen Christ on a dusty road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). Which brings us to the passage for today from Mark 1:4-11 where we read of the Baptism of Jesus. The point of the season of Epiphany coming just after Christmas is to progressively unveil more and more about Jesus, whose coming we have just celebrated and where we find one surprise after another.

Firstly, we think of the surprise for John the Baptist. Now he knew Jesus was coming. He had been called to live in the desert and prepare the way by preaching about repentance, for a sea change in people’s lives. In Mark 1:7,8 we find the crux of John’s message: ‘The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptising you here in this river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism – a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit – will change you from the inside out’ (The Message). John knew he was just the forerunner. The main act was coming. And what an epiphany John had: ‘I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptise with water told me. I have seen and I testify that this is the son of God’ (John 1:33,34). Imagine his surprise! Not only was this the person that John had been waiting for the Messiah that God had long promised, but this person was coming to him to be baptised! We know from Matthew’s Gospel that John tried to deter Jesus: ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matthew 3:14). Then Jesus explained why – to fulfil all righteousness, to publicly announce the start of Jesus’ ministry, to identify with sinful humanity and give an example for us to follow – and John consented. We know from John’s testimony that he saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in a physical manifestation like a dove (John 1:32). What a surprise! This moment was unique but when we come in obedience and faith to follow Jesus through the waters of baptism, this is figuratively what we experience. Baptism is a church ordinance (and together with the Lord’s supper) is a place of special grace. Baptism is a picture of what has already happened in the heart of the believer, the outward demonstration of the inward reality of becoming a Christian – going through the water, dying to the old way of life, coming up from the water, rising to new life in Christ. It can also be a kairos moment of special revelation, the opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do something powerful and new in our hearts in that sacramental moment of rising that symbolises Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. This is the testimony of countless numbers of people. Praise God, he can and does come to us anywhere at any time if we are open to receive him, but as with Jesus, baptism is a key event. As John saw – ‘a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit that will change you from the inside out.’ Are we ready to be changed from the inside out? Are you prepared to be surprised by God?

Secondly, we think of the surprise for the crowd. Mark 1:5 refers to ‘the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem’ that went out to be baptised by John. We know from Luke’s record of Jesus’s baptism (Luke 3:7) that John had some pretty strong things to say to this crowd. Sometimes God’s word comes to us – either through preaching or from our own reading of scripture underlined by the Holy Spirit or by a direct Holy Spirit prophetic utterance – and it is a hard message, hard to hear and hard to receive. Whenever we hear something we don’t want to hear our minds can automatically, instinctively close the door, pull up the shutters and forget what we’ve heard. It is the same when we have some kind of life changing epiphany, when we receive a special revelation which might be difficult and costly to us, we immediately distract ourselves and so forget it until it melts away to nothing and we can pretend and go on as if we have never heard it. We need to be aware of this when we are tempted to close our minds to God’s surprises. And what happened next was really surprising. A voice came down from heaven. In this passage in Mark’s Gospel and in Luke’s the words are spoken to Jesus: ‘You are my son whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ In Matthew’s Gospel (3:17) it is ‘This is my Son,’ as if it is addressed to everyone there to proclaim the identity of Jesus as the beloved and only begotten Son of God. When we experience God speaking to us, often through a still small voice in the silence of our own hearts and minds, it changes everything. It changes the whole course of our lives and we can never be the same again. Are we ready to hear God speak to us – no matter what he has to say? Are you prepared to be surprised by God?

And, thirdly, what about Jesus himself? What was the surprise for him? Was it a surprise when he came up out in the water and in that very moment saw the astonishing sight of heaven being torn oven and the surprise of physically seeing the Holy Spirit? Imagine the joy he must have felt when he heard his Father’s voice. What an assurance this must have given him; experiencing the Holy Spirit in such a way that brought a deep assurance of the love and acceptance of his Father. This deep assurance of the love and acceptance of God by and through the Holy Spirit is available to us all. One of the most surprising events recorded in Scripture happened to the Disciples on the Day of Pentecost that we read of in Acts 2. What were they expecting? God is a God of the unexpected but the violent wind, the tongues of fire, the Holy Spirit inspired speech, out on the streets at 9.00 am declaring the wonders of God? What a surprise indeed! Are we ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit in such a dramatic way? Are you prepared to be surprised by God so much so that in this Epiphany ‘season of surprises’ you might actually have an Epiphany?!

Julia Binney

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