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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Expect the Unexpected

John 12:1-8
“Expect the unexpected” –that statement might serve us well as a motto for life. Expect the unexpected. But just what does it mean? It’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? Totally contradictory. Because, if you expect something, then by definition, how can it be “unexpected?”
Yet we all know about unexpected things – the chance encounter, the fateful phone call, the serendipity. Some unexpected things are good, some wonderful, some challenging, some downright breathtakingly difficult. Expect the unexpected? How can we do that? For some of us, to live our lives expecting the unexpected might lead to a kind of paralysis – to shutting down all the possibilities of life because of the risks truly living, expecting the unexpected, implies.
And yet it was those words – expect the unexpected – that came to me this week while I was reading this gospel. The words seemed familiar, but I really wondered if I had just made them up, because they also sounded so ridiculous: expect the unexpected?
So, I did what everyone does when they want to know more about something. I “Googled” it. As I typed ‘expect the unexpected” into the Google search engine, just a few hits turned up.
I learned that there really is a definition for the phrase “expect the unexpected.” It’s in the online dictionary connected to that other trusted online source of all information - Wikipedia. According to Wiktionary, to “expect the unexpected means “To not be surprised by an unusual event. Anything could happen, and probably will.” Sounds kind of like another of Murphy’s Laws, doesn’t it?
So, this is what I learned from my computer search: this expression has been around awhile – thousands of years, in fact. Back in about the 5th century BC the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it, for it is not reached by search or trail.” Truthfully, that makes about as much sense to me as just about anything written by an ancient Greek philosopher.
 But in the last century or so, Oscar Wilde, the late Irish playwright, novelist and poet, quoted this phrase and then tried to qualify it: “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.”
Serendipity, chance meetings and love at first sight aside, to expect the unexpected for many of us has come to mean being prepared for the next bit of bad news, to remain alert for signs of oncoming calamity, and perhaps, to be suspicious of the people around us, because we know that we’ve been burned by being unaware or unsuspecting so many times before.
What kinds of unexpected things can catch us unaware?
A child lost too soon, a scary diagnosis or medical outcome; the betrayal of a friend; an accidental injury; the sudden loss of a loved one; the divorce of a child or neighbor; the results of an election; natural disasters.
Sometimes the unexpected thing is the realization that we have been wrong, we have injured others, we have failed to be the people God intends us to be. Even our own conflicted feelings, motivations, and actions can surprise us at times, when we realize through self-examination how immune from sin we are not.
When we read the scriptures, both Old Testament and New, we see how often God has worked in unexpected, and surprising; and through unexpected and surprising people. People like us. People who were flawed and vulnerable. Truth be told, God almost always behaves in ways that are unexpected by the tunnel-vision of the world.
Could the Israelites have ever expected they would be freed from Egypt or that the means of their liberation would be God working through an imperfect prophet named Moses, a series of plagues and a passing angel? Could they ever have expected the Red Sea to part, and only for them; or to be fed by manna which fell from the skies and water that poured out from a rock?
Could barren old women and teenage virgins ever expect to not only bear children, but ones who are sent by God as prophets, kings, and even the Savior of the world? Could the prophets and patriarchs have ever imagined or expected the effect they would have on world history?
Could a devout Pharisee named Saul, the persecutor of a fledgling church of Jesus followers ever have expected that God would not only strike him blind but then restore sight to him, and give him a new vision of the divinity of Jesus Christ; or that his letters would serve the faith of followers of Christ for generations?
Today’s gospel narrative is full of unexpected things too; in fact, most of the actions, and images and scenes depicted here are things which would be unexpected and even shocking at the time.
Unexpected happenings begin earlier in the Gospel of John and are often given the name “signs and wonders” – things like Jesus raising the dead to life, Jesus loving tax collectors and sinners, changing water into wine, and healing, forgiving and transforming the lives of the hopeless.
Not long before the dinner scene from our gospel took place, Jesus does one of those things by raising Lazarus, Jesus’ friend who had been dead for days and was already sealed in a tomb. Not only did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, but we are reminded of his restoration as the gospel writer states twice in today’s gospel that not only is Lazarus alive, but he is present in the house that day, gathered together with Jesus and other his friends and at that he even sits at the table – the most unexpected of guests.
If we were following clues to a story, here is clue number one found in the unexpected details in this story – Lazarus, the formerly dead friend is present that day. What do you do about the religious prohibitions regarding contact with the dead when an undead one sits at your table?
Then there is this whole business of Mary, her perfumed oil, and her hair. Clue number two – you wouldn’t anoint a person’s feet unless they were dead. You might anoint a person’s head, but then only if he was a king or priest.
Further, anointing was a mainly socio-political action, performed man – to – man. Women had no part in anointing unless it was in attendance of a dead person’s body. Yet Mary turns this anointing of Jesus into something prophetic, intimate, holy, and wholly unexpected.
Clues three and four also involve Mary; the perfume she used so lavishly was expensive; her actions interpreted as both extravagant and wasteful. Conspicuous consumption by ordinary people was unheard of in that time. Then Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Women did not unbind their hair except for a husband. This was an intimate act, done in public, no less. Mary’s is an act of unexpected, reckless beauty, preparing Jesus not for burial but for the walk to his death on the cross.
Five – Jesus is the guest of honor at this dinner, where the expected tone of conversation would be polite and respectful, honoring the gift of the host. Yet Jesus speaks of his death and then argues with one of his disciples at the table.
Number six – one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas would never be expected to raise the stink he does, as a guest at this dinner, as the disciple of this man, nor as one who needs to lie low, since we know, as Jesus himself knows, of his nefarious plans.
As Jesus reclined at the table that day, unexpected things were occurring all around, things his disciples probably reflected on long after his death. In the days ahead, the fragrance of the oil will linger with Mary, and she will likely be reminded of all the places those precious feet had been, and their being pierced in the end. She will likely remember all Jesus had done, and the love he had shared with his friends, his followers, and those he met along his path.
We are reminded through the gospels, through the story of this dinner party, and through the witness of our own lives, that in God we should expect the unexpected. In Jesus, unexpected things abound with, for and through unlikely people and events.
David Lose writes, “people expected the messiah to look like King David; what they got instead was a former carpenter and itinerant preacher. The crowds who welcome Jesus a few verses after these expected Jesus to throw out the Romans; instead he is crucified by them. Even his followers expect his crucifixion to be the end of the story; it turns out to be just the beginning.”
As we near the end of this journey of Lent, expect the unexpected. Through Jesus God does the most unexpected thing of all. In Jesus, sinners receive the unexpected goodness, eternal love and boundless mercy of God. In Jesus, God is bringing us new life not only through the forgiveness of sin but also the invitation to follow, accompany, and serve the mission of God in the world.
Jesus heals through spit and mud and touch and profound acceptance and love. The blind see, the lame walk, and sinners are transformed into saints for the good of the kingdom of God.
The same God who gave Israel kings, and prophets, restored exiled people to life, loves us into an unexpected kind of existence. Here, in the name of Jesus we stand, and embrace the loving and unexpected grace of God toward all people. We are reminded of the pathways of love that bind us to Jesus Christ through our baptism, and to one another as Jesus declared his liberating presence for all people. Through pathways of love as unexpected as a woman sitting on the floor at the feet of her Lord anointing his feet, God calls us all to the table where we are transformed as unexpected blessing for the sake of the kingdom of God.  
What kinds of unexpected things is God doing in your life? In the world? In answers to prayer, spoken aloud and in the silence of sleepless nights? What unexpected places is God showing up today? How is God unexpectedly calling you and me into the richness of kingdom life and service, through the breathless washing and wiping of tears, the cleansing of sin?
Whom might God work through in unexpected ways next? In what way might God be working unexpectedly through you?
As we reflect on the meal in a house in Bethany, we are called to expect the unexpected and in Jesus we are commissioned to perform works of mercy and love in the name of Christ – things like making quilts for refugees, providing food for the hungry, going out and sharing the story of the unexpected and pleasing surprises you have discovered as a child of God.
Heraclitus was right – we do not discover the unexpected through searching for it, it is already here, surprising us, and warming us; it has already claimed us in the name of Jesus Christ, most unexpected gift of all.

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