Surprise!

I like surprises. I suspect we all do. Actually, truth be told, I like surprises that aren’t too surprising. I suspect I’m not alone in that, either. One surprise I remember occurred about 25-30 years ago, when I discovered that I had been spelling surprise incorrectly the first half of my life. The spell-check in WordPerfect pointed that out to me. To my horror, I had been spelling it suprise, neglecting the first “r.” That means many letters, memos, and presentations contained my creative spelling of surprise. To this day, I cannot get my fingers to type surprise correctly, so I’ve had to set up an auto-correct option in the various apps on my computer.

When our children were young, we would read to them from the book, Theirs is the Kingdom. It was a wonderfully written story of Jesus and the early church. It is not a children’s bible, per se, especially related to the life of Jesus. It is more a aggregate narrative of all the gospel writings. The title of one of the sections of the book particularly captured my attention: The Surprise of the Kingdom. I remember thinking the title was apropos of God’s character displayed through the centuries and especially through Jesus. Everything Jesus did and said was a complete surprise to all witnesses. Thus the statement, “Get used to different?

A surprising story in the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, can be found in Joshua 5:13-15. The context of the story was Joshua’s preparation of the Israelites to enter the land God had promised them centuries before. It wasn’t to be an easy task because others had occupied the land and weren’t about to give it up without a fight. The fortified city of Jericho was a major obstacle to their entrance. As the story begins:

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

The first thing that catches our attention is that fact that Joshua engaged in a conversation with a guy who had his sword drawn. Earlier God told Joshua to be strong and courageous, but I don’t recall that God told him to be strong and reckless. The surprise, however, was the guy’s response to Joshua’s question, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

Neither? That answer certainly must have surprised Joshua! I suspect he was anticipating one of only two possible responses – our side or their side. For either of those two anticipated responses, I suspect Joshua knew how to react. But “Neither?” Not what Joshua anticipated. God’s messenger surprised Joshua with a response that was completely outside the scope of possibilities, likely shattering Joshua’s expectations and even his self-confidence. God does that ALL the time! Any reading of the scriptures reveals such, thus “The Surprise of the Kingdom.” God continually surprises us with outcome different than we anticipate.

I am reminded of a statement by David Hubbard (Fuller Seminary) in the introduction of his book, The Communicators Commentary: Proverbs:

“Another limit of Proverbs is even more important:  the mystery of Yahweh’s sovereignty... Our fear of the Lord ought to place major restrictions on our self-confidence.  We cannot use Proverbs like subway tokens to open the turnstile every time.  They are guidelines, not mechanical formulas.  They are procedures to follow, not promises we claim.  We heed them the best we can, try to gain the wisdom that experience can teach, and then leave large amounts of room for God to surprise us with outcomes different from what our plans prescribe.”  (My emphasis)

Joshua, when confronted with an outcome outside the scope of his thinking, responded rather appropriately. Recognizing God’s sovereignty, he hit the dirt:

Then Joshua fell face-down to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

As we discover how to follow Jesus, may we learn from him, gain wisdom along the way from our experiences with him, and then leave large amounts of room for God to surprise us with outcomes different from what our plans prescribe. After all, he is sovereign!