Surprise Is God's Other Name
When you come in contact with the God depicted in the Bible, you might as well get ready for surprises, because the truth of the matter is, "His ways are not as our ways, nor are His thoughts as our thoughts." Across the centuries God has proved to be a strange combination of faithfulness and unpredictability, and God has been that way from the very beginning.
As you know, the man Abraham was one of the finest human beings to get extensively involved with the Reality called Yahweh, and it took Abraham quite some time "to get on Yahweh's frequency," so to speak, that is, to learn how to relate to One Who made specific enough promises but then went about fulfilling them in totally unprecedented ways. What Abraham's many experiences taught him was that this God could always be depended upon but never anticipated precisely. Again, and again, surprise proved to be God's other name, and we can get a feel for God's way of dealing with persons if we will look carefully at the saga of Abraham as told in the book of Genesis.
It is obvious from the first that this Yahweh understood human nature, for the promises made initially to Abraham correspond exactly to the ageold aspirations of the human heart. For example, there was the offer of security—a piece of land that Abraham could call his own, something every wandering migrant has dreamed of. There was also the promise of decendents more numerous than the sands of the sea. A name made famous for posterity, and the chance to be of blessing to all the human family for centuries to come. These are precisely the kinds of things the human spirit longs for. So no wonder Abraham's whole being came alive with excitement. But how were all of these gifts to be attained, he wanted to know? The answer that came back from this promising God was surprisingly simple. Abraham was to learn to do two things—obey this God and then trust God to bring it to pass; to believe in the One who was doing the promising, and to follow instructions step by step and allow God to fulfill things. On the surface this may sound rather easy, but remember—this was a God whose ways were not as Abraham's ways nor whose thoughts were as Abraham's thoughts. If Yahweh had been exactly like Abraham and thus could be counted on to act in predictable fashion, then living out of the promise would not have involved so much venture and uncertainty. But the point is, God was not just like Abraham but infinitely more, both in his dreams and his ingenuity. Thus, learning to obey and trust this kind of God was a high challenge indeed. It involved unwavering trust in the content of the promises, but wide latitude as to the form the fulfillment would take. Carlyle Manney calls it "faithing it" into the future—being certain that God will keep His word but uncertain as to how and when and by what means all of this would come to pass.
I am sure Abraham had to give this whole promise business a great deal of thought. It was by no means "an offer he could not refuse." It involved a lot more than intellectualizing in an "armchair" fashion. Yahweh's proposals called on Abraham to act, to bet his whole life, so to speak, on this possibility, and that is never easy. I heard once about a man who got it in his head that he could walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. He began to practice in his backyard, and the neighbor next door saw him and inquired as to what he was doing. After some hesitation the adventurer decided to take his neighbor in on his dream, and to his great delight the neighbor embraced it enthusiastically and proceeded to encourage him toward the goal. Every time the venturer would have second thoughts and get "cold feet," his neighbor would say, "You can do it. I know you can. Keep on practicing." Finally the great day came. The rope was stretched taut across the great expanse, and the man successfully crossed over to the cheers of the onlookers. As is so often the case, one conquest led to another. Having successfully negotiated this challenge, he decided to become even more daring and attempt to push a man in a wheelbarrow across that same tight rope. Once again he began to prepare, and his neighbor proved to be right behind him as before. His expressions of confidence were what kept the venture going, but one night the tightrope walker really became afraid and proposed that he call the whole thing off. His neighbor protested, "You must go on! You have done it once. I know you can do it again." To which the man asked, "Do you really believe I can?" The neighbor said, "Of course I do." To which the man responded, "All right, then, I want you to be the one to ride
in that wheelbarrow." At that moment faith ceased to be an intellectual exercise and became an existential challenge!
Now this is precisely what Abraham faced as the promise was laid before him, and to his everlasting credit, he "climbed into the wheelbarrow"; that is, he put his life where his faith was, and set out with Yahweh on a brand new venture of learning to obey and trust a God who could always be counted on but never anticipated. It represented a radical shift of lifestyle from what Abraham had known up to that moment. Before this encounter, Abraham's anxieties had clustered around the question of resources. Like most of us, Abraham probably felt he was pretty much on his own in this world and had to look out for his own needs and provide for his own security. Now all that had been taken over by Another. He was no longer "selfemployed" in the universe, but working for Another and "on an expense account," so to speak. This meant the stress point of anxiety had shifted from providing for himself to obeying and trusting Another, and this is such a fundamental shift in the way of doing life that one should not expect to negotiate it overnight. Abraham certainly did not. His attempts to live this new way involved slip after slip and failure after failure, and the fact that God did not always act as Abraham expected him to was the root of many of his problems.
For example, as soon as Abraham arrives in the land that had been promised him, a great famine struck and the food supply which he had brought with him began to dwindle like a cake of ice on the Fourth of July. At first he remembered the promise of Yahweh "to supply all of his needs according to His riches in glory" and thus he kept waiting for a good rain or the discovery of fruit or some kind of provision, but nothing at all happened! Finally, when he was within a matter of days running out of food completely, Abraham said in effect, "To heck with this business of promise and the mysterious ways of God. I've got to eat!" So he reverted back to the old pattern of being selfemployed and having to look out for his own provisions. He took matters into his own hands and fled down to Egypt where he heard there was a supply of food, and in the process got himself involved in an unbelievable mess. You may remember that when they arrived in Egypt, his wife Sarah's beauty caught the eye of the ruler there and he made inquiries about her status. Abraham by this time was so panicky that he was afraid to admit she was his wife lest he be
killed. So he lied and said Sarah was his sister, and before he knew it Pharaoh began making plans and Abraham found himself about to be invited to his own wife's wedding! I have often wondered what Sarah mush have been thinking about Abraham at this point. If it appeared back in Haran that he was "off his rocker," how much more ridiculous did he look bumbling around there in Egypt! Fortunately for everyone, Yahweh intervened at the last moment in this comedy of errors, and got Abraham back on the script of trusting and obeying. He said to him in effect, "You jumped the gun. I would have come up with something for you to eat. After all, you had two or three loaves left. Why the panic?"
This was an experience of real learning for this beginner in faith, and for several years thereafter Abraham walked securely in the power of the promise rather than the old ways of anxiety. An important part of what Abraham had been promised was a line of descendents, and as the years went by Abraham watched once beautiful Sarah growing older and older and nothing coming of their union. How long was this God Yahweh going to wait around? After all, none of our human powers last forever, and some go quicker than others. So finally, just as years before he had gotten panicky over the food supply, once again fear overtook Abraham and he stampeded off into another adventure of desperation. It was the same old problem of God not acting when and how Abraham had anticipated. This time both Sarah and Abraham proceeded to take things into their own hands and tried to establish a link with the future on their own. They concocted a scheme of Abraham taking Sarah's handmaiden and marrying her and having a child with her, which occurred. But the son born to Hagar was not the link of promise that Yahweh intended, so one day He visited Abraham's tent and said quietly that He would return again the next year, because by then Sarah would be the mother of a son. Sarah was standing behind the tent flap eavesdropping on the conversation, and when she heard this word she laughed out loud: "Me, have a child at my age, after what has occurred to my body? It is the most incredible thing I have ever heard!" To which Yahweh responded, "Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too hard for God? Are you daring to equate your perception of what is possible with a final definition of the depths of reality?" To make a long story short, exactly one year from that time, Sarah did bear a son in her
old age and they named him Isaac which is the Hebrew word for "laughter." He was named this not only because of the joy he brought into the lives of this aged couple, but also as a testimony to this God "Whose ways are not as our ways nor Whose thoughts are as our thoughts." Little Issac was a living witness to this God Who can always be counted on but never anticipated. Through this experience Abraham and Sarah learned more clearly than ever what it is "to faith it" with God; that is, to relate simultaneously to both the certainty and the uncertainty that goes with dealing with a God whose other name is surprise.
This is the first lesson we must all learn if we would deal authentically with the God of the Bible, but how hard it is and how slow we are in comprehending it. Our tendency is to set limits on reality according to our perceptions; to create a set of expectations out of our own past experiences and then judge everything by them rather than making room for wonder and surprise. What we need to do is realize that God is the only adequate predicate for words like "possible" and "impossible." Who are we, "who know in part and prophesy in part" and "who see through a glass darkly," to speak dogmatically about what can and cannot be? According to Saint Paul, the God of the Bible is One "Who can make things that are out of the things that are not, Who can make dead things to come to life again." If this is so, how can we ever set limits on God or dare to reduce God down to our pathetic images of what is possible or impossible? Yet we do this—again and again we embrace despair about the future or this or that situation and decide ahead of time that nothing can be done. We are like the man in John 1:43-51. When Philip told him one day that he had encountered the Messiah and that he was named Jesus and was from Nazareth, Nathaniel reacted just as Sarah had centuries before. He said, "Out of Nazareth? You have got to be kidding! I know that town. I grew up in Cana, only three and a half miles away. I have been over there time and time again. I know its streets like the back of my hand. I know the people who live there. There is no way that a Messiah could come from that kind of place. It is not in Nazareth to produce so heroic or beautiful." But how wrong Nathaniel was! You see, just like Sarah of old, he was failing to reckon with the God whose other name is surprise. He was super-imposing his vision of the possible on the One who can make the things that are out of the things that are not, and Who can make dead things come alive again. How mistaken can one be? As D. M . Baillie has pointed out eloquently, good did most assuredly come out of Nazareth; in fact, the Greatest Good that has ever befallen humankind was nurtured and developed in the seemingly unpromising context of that Gallilean hilltown.
This ought to say something very important to all of us about life. Just what are your expectations for the next few weeks or months or years of your life? What kind of hopes do you entertain for your own growth and development, for that of your marriage and children, for your vocation or the future of this country? Martin Buber has reminded us that there is a radical difference between the past and future. What has been is most emphatically not the full measure of what can be. This was the trouble with Nathaniel. He concluded that because nothing stupendous had ever happened in Nazareth before, then nothing ever could. He was letting the past totally dominate the future, which is something one has no right to do wherever the God of the Bible is concerned. Remember—God is the God of Isaac and of Jesus, the One who brings new life out of old bodies and nondescript provincial towns. Even the sky is not the limit for this kind of God, but how hard this is for us "Nathaniel types" to remember.
And this morning, this is my challenge to each of you. How wonderful it would be if we could let hope be born in our lives all over again. God who called us forth out of nothing, knows our human nature. What God wants to give us is similar to the promise given long ago to Abraham; it corresponds to the deepest hungers of our hearts. But never forget—the ways of the One who promises are not as out ways; nor thoughts our thoughts. Thus, the challenge is to learn to trust and to obey, "to get in God's wheelbarrow" and set out across the fire, confident that God will keep God's word, but flexible as to when and how and in what form God will do it. About the only thing you can safely expect is that what God will do will not be what you expected—rather something bigger and better and vaster than you ever dreamed. The worst sin of all against this kind of God is the sin of despair—to label as "impossible" some "Nazareth" and say, "No good can ever come out of here." The truth of the matter is—good did come out of Nazareth and Sarah and thousands of other unlikely places, and if this be so, who are you to give up hope on your life or your circumstances or your future? "Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, neither has it entered the heart of man what a God can do Who can make the things that are out of the things that are not and make dead things come alive again." With that kind of God, despair is presumptuous—it is concluding something about the future you have no right to conclude. A far better image is that which Herb Garner uses for the title of his play A Thousand Clowns. A central figure in the drama is a man named Murray, who knew what it was to make room for wonder and "faith it" through life day by day. In talking to his nephew one day, he compared life to a circus and each day to those little midget cars that drive into the center of the ring. He said, "To look at those things from the outside, you would not think a single person could get into one, but then suddenly the doors burst open and out jump a thousand clowns!"
This is precisely how persons of faith ought to approach every day under God. Who knows how many clowns God can draw out of a tiny circumstance? If God could bring Isaac out of Sarah and Jesus out of Nazareth, who knows what this God of surprises can bring out of the day by day events in your life?
Make room then, for hope, for wonder. for the unexpected. With the God of the Bible, "the past is prologue," or translated another way, "Hang on, my friend, you ain't seen nothing yet."
John R. Claypool (presently rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Birmingham, AL)