Can anything surprise God?

Football - Absa Premiership 2012/13 - Chippa United v Orlando Pirates - Athlone Stadium

Football - Absa Premiership 2012/13 - Chippa United v Orlando Pirates - Athlone Stadium

by Carl Brook
Originally published at are we dancer?

The senseless killing of Bafana Bafana goalkeeper and captain, Senzo Meyiwa, has shocked many soccer fans around the globe. In conversations and news reports one might hear of his ‘untimely death,’ or that his life was ‘cut short.’ The general feeling is that here was a life ended in the most unfair and iniquitous fashion.

But is death ever fair?

One of the great truths about God that most of us learned from a young age is that He is omniscient – He knows everything. This leads us to believe that there are, of course, no ‘accidents’ with God, that He knows about events (even tragedies and disasters) before they happen. In this sense death cannot be described as untimely, since our times are in His hands. As Job confessed, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

A danger with this way of thinking is the temptation to fatalism, the idea that we have little or no influence over what happens to us. It’s essentially a pagan worldview in which humans are mere pawns in a cosmos controlled by fickle supernatural powers. Not so different to what we see in the world today! The powers have different names, that’s all. Even our religion – that aspect of life in which we strive to escape fate – can be subject to those powers.

The story of Lazarus is important because it shows us that while Jesus was not surprised by death (he knew that his friend has died before anyone else did), he became angry at its cursed effect. Death was never part of God’s original plan for humanity; it was the result of sin. As the apostle Paul points out, it is Christ’s death and resurrection that redeems this sad situation and gives us hope here and now.

Death may not have surprised Jesus, but there are at least two occasions in the Gospels where we read that Christ was ‘amazed.’ One is at Nazareth (Mark 6:6) and the other at Capernaum (Luke 7:9). The common denominator in both these episodes is faith.

Nazareth – the absence of faith, where you might expect it

The people are impressed with Jesus’ wisdom, at first. They’re struck by the truth and authority of his message. In fact it moves them out their comfort zone so much they forget their manners, and we see familiarity breeding contempt. Because the people think they know him (‘isn’t this the carpenter?’), because they know his family, they won’t believe what he has to say.

Does familiarity breed contempt today? To say we KNOW Jesus often means to say that we OWN Jesus. He’s our boy, our carpenter. Familiarity breeds contempt by possession: we have our own ikon, or (dare I say) idol of Christ in our pocket, created in our image. When that happens, our faith is reduced to religion; the gospel  to something we do on Sundays. We tend to domesticate Jesus, but – as Lucy is told in Narnia – Aslan is not a tame lion!

The shame of Nazareth is that its synagogue was a place where one might expect to find faith. Instead, it’s noted by the absence – not presence – of faith. If Jesus ‘could not do any miracles there’ because of a lack of faith in the house of God, how can we expect him to work in our churches today? His rhetorical question in Luke 18:8 is thus really disturbing: ‘when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?’

Capernaum – the presence of faith, where you might not expect it

What was it that so upset the congregation at Nazareth? In the parallel passage in Luke 4, we see how Jesus’ sermon rocked the boat, defying expectations. Notice who it is that receives God’s mercy: not the Israelites, but two foreigners: a widow in Zaraphath and Naaman the Syrian. In other words, God extending grace to those outside the ‘household of faith.’

Jesus’ ministry follows much the same pattern, extending grace to people whom the Pharisees felt did not deserve it. Looking at his lifestyle, we see this is what got Jesus into trouble all the time – hanging with the wrong people: Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, tax-collectors.

Why? Why is it that a Roman centurion in Capernaum understands the nature of Christ’s authority better than so many pious Jews? “I tell you, I have not found such great faith – even in Israel.” A remarkable assessment for a man Jesus had not even met!

The presence of faith where we might not expect to find it.

Does this resonate with you? Jesus took grace into dark places – and was pleasantly surprised to see a reflection of light, an echoing response of faith.

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Carl Brook and his wife Elma direct CFC, an evangelical mission on the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Carl also edits the e-zine of ANiSA, the Anabaptist Network in South Africa. Follow Carl on Twitter – @arewedancer.

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