Last week I had the great pleasure of being able to return to my dear city of Durham, where I spent my very happy undergraduate years. (That makes it sound like it was so long ago, and in a way it feels like it was – I keep having to remind myself that earlier on this year I was still writing essays and very much in the swing of student life!) There were so many people I wanted to see, but I also thought it would be great fun to surprise them, so I only let a couple of people know I was coming. Being ‘discovered’ by everyone was such tremendous fun, and amid the slight shock I think it’s fair to say that people were pleased to see me, so it was a success I think!
As it was quite a novel experience I have been thinking about surprises quite a lot ever since, and as I’ve also been thinking about Advent quite a lot the two ended up being merged in my head, the result of which is this blog post.
It’s fair to say that our God is a God of surprises. If you will just look at how He goes about things in the Bible, especially with Jesus in the New Testament, His followers are constantly taken aback by how He goes about things.
(Side note: Aside from everything else, I like to take this as evidence for God’s sense of humour. Take the story of the walk to Emmaus, for instance. I know that there’s a lot of theological significance in the fact that the disciples didn’t recognise the Risen Jesus who joined them on their journey, but don’t try to tell me that Jesus didn’t find it absolutely hilarious. He had risen from the dead, and was overjoyed to be walking beside His friends once again, but they didn’t even know about the Resurrection, let alone the fact that they were talking to Him. If you want further proof, look at how He left them in that instance – He blesses the bread, they recognise Him, and then poof! He’s gone! (Ok, maybe not ‘poof’, but effectively so.) Can’t you just see their bewilderment and elation, and hear the divine chuckling going on?)
Christmas, too, is such a time of surprise. The surprise of the fact of it – the almighty, all-knowing, eternal God born as a tiny, vulnerable, human Child. The King of the Universe not even having the comfort of a cradle to sleep in in His first night after being born, and having to lie down in a feeding-place for animals. Jesus surprises us, and challenges us in that surprise.
Now, part of the nature of a surprise is that it seems to come out of nowhere, and because of this it’s easy to forget that well-executed surprises take careful planning. When I returned to Durham, I calculated my trains, the routes I would walk, the times of my movements, so that I would not be discovered until the right moment when everyone was gathered. Earlier on in the year, I was presented with a surprise birthday present: a scrapbook, which my friends had all worked together to create, often right under my nose, but without me knowing. The final product was the accumulation of so many hours of love and creativity, and to receive all of it in one moment was such a beautiful and overwhelming experience!
These are just a couple of examples I can think of at this moment, but my point is this – if we as humans can put so much thought and planning into surprising the people we love, how much more must God plan? He is a God of surprises, and those surprises break through into our lives at the most unexpected times and in the most unimaginable ways, leading us to double-take and rejoice that He is with us. But we must not forget that in the quieter times, in-between surprises and signs, He has not forgotten about us, and is indeed planning and working and moving in our lives.
Advent is one of those quieter times. It is easier to feel close to Jesus at Christmastime, when we are surrounded by the rejoicing that comes with Him, the Christ-Child in the manger. But in Advent, the quietness and the stillness before that burst of joy is a call to hope and faith: hope that He is indeed coming, and faith that in the stillness He has not forgotten about us, and is indeed working for us, just beyond our sight.
P. S. Here is a link to article that I found today, which also talks about Jesus being a God of surprises – I started writing my post before I found this article, so it just happens to be a fortunate coincidence! So if you want to read something Advent-y and far more well-written, now’s your chance.