March 15, 2015, Fourth Sunday of Lent
Imagine yourself planning a surprise party for someone you really love, someone who, all unsuspecting, goes about their business unaware of your plans. There are scenarios drawn up, people invited to participate, gifts prepared, place, hour, and refreshments chosen, environment organized and a plot created to get the honoree to the right place at the right time, obstacles to be cleared and secrets to be kept.
You are filled with anticipation and great glee when it all goes off well and your person is completely amazed at the event. They had no idea what was coming from a totally unexpected direction, involving so many people and so many coordinated bits and pieces in maximum secrecy.
In the first reading today the Jewish people, sad, dispirited, living as slaves in Babylon, are joyless and depressed. There are no songs being sung, their musical instruments are silent except for an occasional dirge, and they watch with lackluster eyes as one king replaces another as ruler of Babylon for 70 long years – a seemingly endless and dreary captivity. They are cut off from the homeland and places of worship which only the very oldest among them can remember from a dim childhood. The saddest tormenting thought is that they had brought this on themselves, refusing to pay heed to continuous messengers sent by God. Those prophets strove, vainly, to turn them away from their self-destructive behavior. Now their future seems hopeless. They are going down into darkness.
A pagan king from Iran, who knows nothing about them or their God, raises an army and conquers the Babylonians. Cyrus of Persia, upon entering the new territory, liberates the Jewish people and sends them home to Israel. Cyrus has his own agenda and he probably thinks that his reasons are good political ones. It is common sense to rid himself of a potentially disruptive group, at the same time making them grateful for his generosity in freeing them from slavery and getting them out of Babylon.
Unexpected, without president, a pagan king, a living instrument of the God who loves these people despite their failings, gives them their longed for freedom and restores them to their home. Imagine the joy for unexpected deliverance by a totally surprising savior – one they never could have imagined. Cyrus was not what the Jewish people had expected in their wildest dreams – a savior who didn’t even know the god whose plans he completed.
Paul speaks of this amazing God who overlooks transgressions because he loves us. A God who, from a pure gift of love, showers us with grace, life and kindness. By grace we have been saved Paul tells us – a gift unearned, gratuitous, lavish and immeasurable, not because of good deeds but just because God loves us. We were dead, but
God gives us life in Christ freely and without limit.
Then, Says John, there is Jesus.
The people’s leaders didn’t know what to think of him. They expected a Savior, they believed God’s promises, but Jesus, said many of them, could not possibly be the one they were awaiting. Jesus didn’t match up with the humanly developed portrait of what their Redeemer would be like, a portrait that had been built up over centuries of longing. That portrait was sharp in some aspects, but blurry and distorted in others. People had decided how God would act. It wasn’t that they were telling God how to present his salvation, but a common human failing is to decide that we know what God will do and how it will be done. We have particular expectations.
The one who presents himself is a poor man, a working man. The crowds gravitate toward him, but the leaders distrust. He is not orthodox enough and his liturgical sense seems hopeless. He doesn’t observe the Sabbath and he consorts with sinners, eats with them ! He makes the unapproachable God common through his parables and teachings. Abba – Daddy – Really !
Our God is a God of Surprises, a God of the unexpected, a God who likes to catch us off-guard.
Who has known the mind of God or who has been His councilor ?
Can we imagine the glee of God as he prepares surprises – light over darkness, a resurrection, a reversal of babble at Pentecost, an overwhelming voice coming in a tiny, whispering sound, life conquering death ?
We have been given this Lent as a gift to help us realign ourselves with God’s ways, to give up our stubborn behavior and accept the tremendous gift of grace freely given. We strive to put aside our predetermined ideas about how God will act. We struggle to be more responsive to others and to the needs of justice and peace in the world. Lent gives us time to appreciate and emulate in our own small ways the magnificence of Jesus’ sacrifices and offerings, the free gift of grace that is offered to us because of the tremendous love that surrounds our every moment.
The God of the unexpected is not done with us yet. What will be the next surprise ?