She was from the North of England, middle aged, not very attractive, very plainly dressed, when she waddled out on stage before a packed house, three judges and a television audience of millions.
You could hear the low rumble of chuckles from the crowd. The three judges – two men, one of whom was the much beloved Simon Cowell of American Idol, and one really beautiful young blonde woman, looked at the contestant before them, looked at each other and, you could see, they gave each other the eye. Clearly they were thinking, “Oh my goodness, this going to be a disaster.”
So they asked her “Who are you and what are you going to sing?”
She said, “My name is Susan Boyle and I am going to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables.
I remember one of the judges responded, in a dismissive way, “Well, all right, away you go.”
And then this “dumpy” Susan Boyle opened her mouth began to sing. And the crowd became enraptured. The judges leaned forward. The beautiful young blonde woman wiped tears from her eyes. Every time I see this on YouTube I get choked up too. The voice was so powerful and so beautiful. The explosive power of this reality – that was so NOT what you expected – from this mousy woman was an epiphany. At the conclusion the audience erupted from their seats in an ovation of cheers.
Everyone had her pegged, had her judged – knew that her voice was going to match her looks. The expectation was a given.. until it wasn’t.
Only the older folks (I’m included in this) are going to get this reference but in the words of Gomer Pyle: “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!” You and I are always being surprised, blown away by realities that don’t match expectations, or exceed expectation.
Having expectations can, I suppose, help navigate you through stressful times; knowing what to expect from the side effects of chemo can keep you from being too anxious when the hair falls out. If you want to go to Harvard you had better be aware of their academic expectations; why set yourself up for failure?
But expectations can also hinder you. They keep you from experiencing other things – like being open to surprise. And often the burden of unfair expectations – both of self and others – is sinful. We expect the kid with droopy jeans to be a gang member, someone with low test scores to not be very bright, an Hispanic to be an illegal and an Muslim to have nefarious connections. We box people in.
We do the same with God – we expect God to be a certain way, to answer our prayers in ways that we perceive – but frankly most of the time our expectations are trumped by far deeper currents of divine movement.
The gospel of Jesus Christ at all times and in all places seems to declare: “Expect nothing and live frugally on surprise.” God’s way is full of mystery and madness and if I could wrap it all up in a sentence I would have to say Christian faith is not about certainty, rather it is trust in the uncertainty of it all – always expecting the unexpected, being open to surprise, because you just never know.
“When John (the Baptist) heard in prison what Jesus was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (v.2)
Clearly Jesus was not living up to John the Baptist’s expectations. Jesus was a big disappointment. Historically the relationship of John to Jesus is notoriously difficult to describe with any accuracy. But it is pretty clear that John is behind bars thinking: “I’m in prison for this guy? This was not what I expected. ”
John was into “hell, fire and brimstone.” John was into the “wrath” of God. In Luke we read of John’s diatribe: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the (unquenchable) fire.” (3:7-8) John was into separating the saved from the unsaved and going out with a blaze of glory!
Of course John was a weird character in his own right and upset the apple cart of expectation – from the desert, wild skins wrapped around him, eating insects – but then again you expect a radical to act radically, no? As Jesus himself said, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? Someone dressed in soft robes? A prophet?”
Jesus was into doing other things. He didn’t have time for the hypocrite, but he still invited them to the table. He didn’t threaten sinners, he reached out to them. Yes, trees needed to be pruned but it was so that the tree could then bear fruit and live – it wasn’t for destruction in the hellfire, Jesus was set on putting out the hell fires with the living heavenly waters. He wasn’t into locusts and wild honey – he liked good wine and was always sitting down to dinner; I never remember Jesus turning down a meal.
Jesus wasn’t about cleaving with an axe of separation. Jesus was about cleaving with the balm of Gilead bringing everyone together into the kingdom. [CLEAVE is one word that can mean opposite things – cleave can mean separate with a knife or cleaver and it can also mean to adhere closely to, in other words join two things together.] John was about separating, Jesus was about joining things together. John was about partisan camps. Jesus was about the beloved community in which everyone had a place. John was about scarcity, Jesus was about abundance!
John the Baptist just didn’t expect him to be this way – it was a great surprise to him that Jesus responded to his disciples with the words, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
John thought the end time was coming soon – Jesus seemed to act as if it was already here.
But leave it to Mary, a really unexpected character in her own right, to have the proper expectation of what her son was going to be about. In her praise poem that we call the “Magnificat” she knows that her son is going to blow up the expectation of most folk. Jesus, mild and gentle, was going to be at the root of a tremendous disorder, the whole social order was going to get turned over, the expectation of the faithful was going for a ride, the least expected ones were going to get the choice seats, the poor were going to replace the rich, the proud and powerful were going to be scattered, the lowly would be lifted up, and the hungry would be fed. This is still not what we want to hear, it doesn’t match the expectation of the 21st century any more than of the 1st.
That beautiful hymn was not what was expected back then and it is just as off putting and not expected now. Jesus the baby, Jesus the man, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the dead and raised is still not meeting expectations; mine or yours. He hardly ever answers the prayers in ways that we expect. God doesn’t seem to be doing things the way we would expect. The Christmas plans go bad. Good people die. Our best intentions fail. The least deserving sometimes seem to get all the breaks. The person you saw as perfect is no longer so. Plans made have backfired.
Don’t ever get too comfortable with Jesus or expect him to act a certain way. He may be shepherd and friend – he is also LORD and therefore unable to be controlled or bounded or even properly understood.
We, as a nation, have our political discussions, our economic discussion about job and wealth creation and what we have to do to turn the economy around – Republican and Democrats have their opinions – but the economics of Jesus is rejected by both houses. The powerful and the proud still rule and the hungry are still left empty and most often the poor and hungry are blamed for their emptiness. We expect awesome military power to solve things and then we are surprised, our expectations disappointed, as we find ourselves in another quagmire.
We expect Jesus on our side – whatever side we are on. Jesus walks away and says, “follow me, come and see, be on MY side!” I want Jesus as a liberal and you want Jesus as a conservative. Jesus comes blasting us both – but he is always on the side of the poor.
Jesus still afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted – and we can’t get our minds around him – we can only give our hearts to him – we can only cleave to him as we cleave ourselves from those things that distract us from the essentials – justice, mercy, love, peace, humility – but even our expectation of what these words means have to be rethought in the light of Jesus.
As Christians we throw into the fire false expectations and we hold our hands open to receive a gift and our eyes open to see new things, and our minds open to think new thoughts – beyond the expectations into the surprises that await us.
Consider those places in your life where it is not going as you expected – and I am telling you right now – THAT is where the spirit of God is most present – the tensions in your life are precisely the place where engagement is happening and you are being worked on by the unexpected power of the Spirit of Jesus.
Jesus will continue to surprise you – that little baby in the manger – so get close but be aware – he is not just cute. And Susan Boyle will sing, and the dead will be raised, and you and I will be surprised again and again. It is a whole new world that awaits us. Be open.
Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!