Expect the Unexpected
Scripture - Genesis 28:10-17
Here in the house of God, let us open our minds, as we listen for the word of God.
You all know that Sheryl & I moved in January. The move was a good time to do a closet purge. I do not wear suits like I used to, so I gave a couple of them away. Thankfully, I had the forethought to go through the pockets before putting them on the giveaway pile. And it is a good thing I did; I found a $10 bill in the pocket of one of those suits!
It is a wonderful surprise to find something good in an unexpected place. When you stop & think about it, this is one of the joys of life – finding something good in unexpected places.
The Scriptures are full of this kind of experience. Most often, the ‘something good’ that is found in an unexpected place is God. We read this time & again in the Bible: Moses was brooding in the desert & working for his father-in-law, but he found God in an unexpected place: in a burning bush in the middle of the desert. Isaiah was in exile with his fellow Israelites, but he found God in an unexpected place: in a strange & pagan land called Babylon. In the midst of personal loss & tragedy, Job found God in an unexpected place: in his pain & suffering. Elijah was lying under a broom tree, wallowing in self-pity & thinking suicidal thoughts, but he found God in an unexpected place: in defeat & depression. Saul of Tarsus was on a vigilante hunt looking for Christians to persecute when he found God in an unexpected place: on the road to Damascus. Golgotha, the place of the skull, did not seem like a place where you would find something good. What good can there be in the midst of a Roman execution? Yet God was there!
Encountering God in unexpected places is exactly what Gen 28 is all about. Jacob says it for us in a powerful way: The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.
Can you relate to Jacob as he speaks those words? Can you identify with his feelings when he utters these words in a tone of hushed reverence? Has God ever surprised you? Like Jacob, you may have found yourself thinking, The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.
In our reading, Jacob is running for his life. Through deceit, trickery, plotting, lying & conniving, he has stolen his brother’s birthright. But he has been found out. He is running because he is scared of his brother, Esau. On the first night of his escape, he dreams of a ladder going up to heaven. In the dream God speaks to Jacob & makes a covenant with him to watch over him. God says: I am with you now, I will protect you everywhere you go, & I will bring you back to this land.
Now, Jacob is in a tough situation. He is weighed down with fear & guilt. He is struggling with remorse. Jacob is anxious, lonely, confused, afraid, & ashamed. Then suddenly, God is there - & Jacob says these words that have become one of the greatest statements of faith found in the Bible: The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.
To bring this closer to home, let us ask the question: “In what unexpected places can we find God?”
We can find God in unexpected places of stress. Jacob was stressed out. But even in that agonizing situation, God came to him in a powerful way. Sometimes the problems, tension, & stress of life simply pile up & overwhelm us. It may seem that we can find no way out of a particular situation. The suddenly, God reveals his presence – bringing peace to our raw nerves & troubled souls.
Man goes to doctor with eyes bulging out & ears are ringing.
Doctor removes his tonsils, but no improvement
Second doctor pulls his teeth, but no improvement
Third doctor tells him he only has 6 months to live
So, he decides to live it up. Buys a sports car, house on the beach, & goes to have a custom suit & shirt made to be buried in.
Tailor measures him: 34” sleeve, 16” neck
Man argues: I only wear a 15” neck
Tailor: if you wear a 15” neck, your eyes will bulge & ears will ring!
We can find God in unexpected places of stress. Like Jacob, we can say: The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.
We can find God in unexpected places of disappointment. Dr. Leslie Weatherhead, an English Methodist pastor, counseled a young couple who wanted to adopt a baby. They tried for many years to have children but were unsuccessful. One day, they entered his office, all smiles. After all those years, they had just learned that they were expecting. All 3 were thrilled.
A few months later, Dr Weatherhead received a call from the husband.
There was a problem & the husband needed his help
The little girl was fine except she had a malformed arm
“How do I tell my wife?” They decided to just take her the baby.
The mother took the baby in her arms & began to unwrap the blanket.
At first, she had a desperate expression, but then it became a smile.
Hugging the baby, she said, “God knew how much we needed her - & how much she needed us!”
The Lord can be found in those unexpected places of disappointment.
We can find God in unexpected places of grief & sorrow. It may be easy to find God in the beautiful, sacred, lovely places, & in those times when the breaks are going our way. But the truth is that God is never closer to us than when we are hurting with the pain of death & sorrow.
You hear it in the testimony of other Christians. As Paul faced death, he said to his Philippian friends with a heart of faith: I hope with daring courage that Christ’s greatness will be seen in my body, now as always, whether I live or die. Because for me, living serves Christ & dying is even better. Be glad in the Lord always! Again, I say, be glad! (1:20-21, 4:4)
Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch in the early days of the Church, was led to an arena to be thrown to the lions. He was reported to have said, “Grant me no more than to be a sacrifice for God, while there is an altar at hand. I would rather die & get to Jesus Christ than reign over the ends of the earth.”
On Sunday, 4/8/1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi concentration camp. He had just finished leading a worship service for his fellow prisoners. Just as he finished the last prayer, the door flew open, & 2 soldiers stepped into the room. One of them shouted, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us!” As Bonhoeffer walked out to his death, he said to his fellow prisoners, “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life!”
This week I read a wonderful poem supposedly written by a little girl with cancer, entitled, “Slow Dance.” It turns out to have been written by child psychologist David Weatherford, who has poems published in Chicken Soup for the Soul. He writes: “Have you ever watched kids on a merry-go-round? Or listened to the rain slapping on the ground? Ever followed a butterfly’s erratic flight? Or gazed at the sun into the fading light? You better slow down. Don’t dance so fast. Time is short. The music won’t last.
“Do you run through each day on the fly? When you ask, “How are you?” Do you hear the reply? When the day is done do you lie in your bed with the next 100 chores running through your head? You better slow down. Don’t dance so fast. Time is short. The music won’t last.
“Ever told your child, “We’ll do it tomorrow?” And in your haste, not seen his sorrow? Ever lost touch, let a good friendship die? Cause you never had time to call & say, “Hi”? You’d better slow down. Don’t dance so fast. Time is short. The music won’t last.
“When you run so fast to get somewhere, you miss half the fun of getting there. When you worry & hurry through your day, it is like an unopened gift, thrown away. Life is not a race. Do take it slower. Hear the music before the song is over.”
On Palm Sunday, 1994, a tornado suddenly destroyed Goshen UMC in AL. 20 people were killed, including the pastor’s 4-year old daughter, Hannah Clem. This same twister later struck Charlotte Douglass Airport, as its path lasted for 200 miles. The pastor & her husband’s faith in God sustained them through that tragic time of death & sorrow. Her first words to her congregation that day, after the worst was over, were, “We need to pray.”
It took years for the pain of losing her daughter to ease. She & her husband, also an UM pastor, spent 4 years as missionaries in Lithuania afterword. But, Kelly says, the tragedy also reaffirmed her call to ministry. She now speaks often on suffering & grief. “It’s okay to be angry with God,” she says, “but don’t stay angry.”
Friends, God can be found at the altar of the church. God can be found in the Scriptures. God can be found in the sacraments of baptism & holy communion. God can be found in worship services, Sunday school classes, Bible studies & even committee meetings. But God can also be found in the unexpected places of stress, sorrow, & disappointment. Surely God is present in those places even in our lives today.
May God grant us vision to see His presence in the unexpected places of our lives.