Our Unpredictable God
Based on Micah 5:2-5a, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45
I had it all planned out. I was certain that I had been called to be a chaplain in some institutional setting (e.g., hospital, nursing home, large continuing care community) connecting faith and organized healthcare into a seamless whole. Afterall, I had worked in healthcare for the better part of 30 years, I had run a small non-profit focused on connecting faith communities with organized healthcare, I had heeded the call to seminary and while there had interned for two years in southeast D.C. focused on developing a robust health ministry connecting a church to George Washington U. In addition, I was working with Wesley’s “Heal the Sick” program training and mentoring new health ministers in congregations around the Del-Mar-Va. I was in my final semester with just two months to go before I spent a year in a Clinical Pastoral Education Residency that would set me up to be a board-certified chaplain. Oh, and all along through this journey, I had promised my wife that I would never be a church pastor. Then…our unpredictable God acted.
All my carefully laid out plans were thrown aside and I found myself at the mercy of God’s plan – without a clue where in Virginia I might be appointed as a church pastor. All I knew was that I would have an appointment and it would be full-time. In the middle of April I received a call from my then District Superintendent and well…you all know the rest. Our unpredictable God’s plan was for me to come to this place for this season and to walk with you to help build God’s kingdom here on earth. To share our lives and ministry so completely, that we might just encounter Emmanuel.
You see, our unpredictable God’s love is constantly at work changing things for the better and upending all our carefully laid out plans. This is what our scriptures are teaching us again today. Let us go to God in prayer and thanksgiving that God ways are not our ways.
King David was from Bethlehem – which is why it is referred to in the Bible as the “City of David”. David had ruled and died almost 1000 years in the past when Jesus was born there. The minor prophet Micah speaks about how this town of past glory is to be the focal point of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Micah prophesies that this child, whose origins come from David “from of old” will “return to the people of Israel”. He shall be great and shall be living out of the majesty of God – and secure his people’s future and all will live under His rule in peace.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews has been writing about Christ’s sacrifice which takes away sin and is the final sacrifice to God. In our reading for today, the writer contends that blood sacrifice (that of animals and birds) was never enough to take away our sins and to sanctify us. This is why sacrifices had to be made routinely and why the High Priest sacrificed at Yom Kippur to remove the sins of the people each year. However, the sacrifice of Jesus – fully human and fully divine, once and for all time sanctified those who believe in him. This is why we no longer have to sacrifice to be in right relationship with God.
The scripture from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke tells of the meeting of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Mary is carrying Jesus and Elizabeth is carrying John (who will become the Baptizer). Upon entering Elizabeth’s home, Mary’s greeting was enough for the fetal John to leap with joy in his mother’s womb. The Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth and she exclaimed in a loud voice how blessed she was to be the unexpected host of the mother of God. She also exclaims how blessed Mary is for trusting the word of the LORD to be fulfilled through her.
Our scriptures highlight the unpredictable nature of our loving and faithful God. I mean, who would have thought that a teen-aged, unmarried girl, in a backwater small town, in a forgotten corner of the world’s mightiest empire, would be chosen to carry, deliver and nurture to adulthood the very Son of the Most-High God? In the first century, Bethlehem had about 500 residents. It had been a millennium since David had walked there. No one gave it a second look unless they needed to stop there on their journey to Jerusalem or unless they had to return there for a census, because that was where their ancestors had lived. Who but a handful of studious rabbis would even have on their radar screens the words of a minor prophet from 500 years previous? No, if there were bets being taken as to the landing place of the Messiah, odd-on favorites would have been Jerusalem or Rome or Alexandria or Damascus – some significant city where he would be noticed.
Our unpredictable God, however, chose differently. No one knows why God chose this way, but I’d like to think that God did so because God is always turning our expectations upside-down. God revels in the unpredictable choices…let’s review: Abraham, son of an idol maker and well into his seventies when God calls him to pull up stakes and follow – in order to become the father of many nations. Isaac, second son of Abraham who is almost sacrificed and goes on to bless his usurping son Jacob, who then fathers the 12 Tribes of Israel and wrestles God to a draw to get a blessing. Moses, child of Hebrews who becomes a prince in Egypt, only to run away after murdering an Egyptian. He stutters terribly, yet God picks him to deliver God’s people from Pharaoh. David, youngest son of Jesse is anointed by Samuel as king and goes on to make some huge mistakes and yet to father Solomon and set up a dynasty that will one day lead to Jesus. Along the way God calls one broken and inept person after another to fulfill God’s will (think Rahab, Esther, Saul, the Disciples, us).
The story of God’s interactions with God’s people (aka the Bible) is full of these surprising choices by God. A student of this text, or even just a person who is paying attention to how the stories are playing out as they are reading, should (before the end of Genesis) have a good idea that God is not going to do things predictably. God is going to do things that make sense to God and which often leave us scratching our heads or saying to each other, “I never saw that coming!”.
Now, I received pretty high marks throughout my time in seminary. I knew all the stories and knew all about how God had worked in the past. I had written papers and had preached about all the marvelous and mysterious decisions that God had made. Yet, in my own life, even after I decided to leave my first call as a pharmacist and follow God into the future…I still didn’t get it. It hadn’t sunk in that God’s unpredictability wasn’t just confined to the pages of the Bible, or was true only in other people’s lives. No, God sent Jesus in the most unpredictable way to the most unpredictable place and time to do the most unpredictable thing. God sent Jesus for me…and for you – for each and every one of us from the youngest to the eldest. God’s unpredictable plan was to send God’s-self to live with us to teach us how it was that we were to love each other and God as much as we could. God sent Jesus for me and for you to remove the one remaining barrier to right relationship between us…our sin.
Good people…this is not just a story we tell that has no other purpose but to remind us of days gone by. The story of the birth of Jesus is all about the lengths that our loving and unpredictable God will go in order to capture our attention and live in us today. It is our choice to move from thinking that the story is about someone else’s life to the realization that it is our life if we so choose. Lucinda asked me a few months ago what I thought I would be doing in five years, and I replied that I had given up planning – since I was obviously not as good at it as God. I choose to follow where God leads – never knowing exactly where I’m going, but trusting that God knows. Our unpredictable God offers us the opportunity to have Emmanuel born in us today. One unpredictable God, one unpredictable creation, one unconditional love story connects the two today and for all time. Thanks be to God for doing what no other god was ever able to do…to come and abide with us as Emmanuel. Amen! :