Taken by surprise

Notes from a Reader
Mapperley, October 2000

Andrew WallisAs I settle down to write this letter ‘Little John’ in the Council House strikes 9pm and I have just returned from seeing friends, who despite inviting us are probably glad that we left when we did. You see we haven’t seen them since our return from holiday and they were keen to share some of the experiences of our travels, little did they know that we would take our snapshots with us… all two hundred of them!!!

Well it’s been the holiday season hasn’t it, maybe it still is for some, and this year we ventured east to Jordan, Israel and Egypt and you might guess that because of the number of photographs we managed to take that we had a good time. It’s a wonderful part of the world and a land of contrasts with the flat barren landscape of the Negev desert giving way to the peaks of Sinai, and the bustling City life of Jerusalem and Amman seeming a world apart from the primitive communities that scrape a living together in the fertile Jordan Valley. ‘Petra’ was billed by the tour operator as the highlight of the visit, but for obvious reasons I suppose, I was thrilled by the prospect of visiting Jerusalem and the excitement began to mount as we made the precarious journey from Jericho along the mountain pass to the ‘holy city’. But as wonderful as the city was I have to say I was somewhat disappointed and I left feeling that its spiritual significance had become a little jaded by all the commercialism and the conflicting cries from various Christian denominations claiming authenticity for their sacred site. I expected the visit to be tremendously moving and a real boost to what is often a struggling faith, but whilst I was moved and received the ‘boost’ I hoped for, perhaps Jerusalem was not responsible for them.

A few days later we visited a quiet town called Umm Qays not far from the Sea of Galilee, which has a history, now very apparent because of the extensive archaeological excavations, going back to the fourth century BC. Our guide walked us round and explained that the town in ancient times was called ‘Gadara’ and after a while I realised that we were in the place where Jesus healed the demoniac known as Legion (you can read the story in St Mark, chapter 5). Here there were no signs to point to the place where the healing took place, no basilica to honour the miracle… just the haunting silence of an ancient ruin and the knowledge that the man from Galilee had walked along the street where I was standing - I was moved to tears and had to slip away from the crowd to savour the moment and that sense of the presence of God which happened upon me when I least expected it!

As I have reflected on our holiday, that moment keeps coming back as perhaps the highlight of the trip and I have been led to ponder further on that wonderful truth, that our God is one that often takes us by surprise and will reveal himself to us in the least likely places and the most unexpected circumstances. Because we are often creatures of habit, it’s perhaps comforting to think that faith is a predictable business founded on a predictable God, but that’s not always so and there is an unpredictable side to God’s nature and he can and does both comfort and challenge us as he takes us by surprise. But things haven’t changed much really and maybe the friends of Jesus and others were more unnerved by this than we, as he socialised with the publicans and sinners, talked with gentile folk, seemingly dashed hopes of success by involving himself in the scandal of the cross and above all by disregarding death and no doubt scaring the wits out of the disciples as he appeared to them on the evening of the first Easter day.

So, as much of our life is routine and because so much can be anticipated, what a delight it is that God may come to us without warning or signal and take us by surprise. A former Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem reflected on what this might mean for him and he said… “ my spirit can commune with him and His Spirit comes to me. At any moment, in any place, under any circumstance he can surprise me with his presence and with the speed of thought I can become conscious of him, talk with him, seek his advice, draw on his strength. But the great thing is not that I can go to him, but that he comes to me and that his presence is everywhere.”

This is of course what the incarnation is all about and it won’t be too long before we focus on that more closely again, but the implications of the incarnation are not for Christmas alone, the challenge to us who are Christ’s followers today means being daring and responsive and recognising God’s presence in our lives and in the world as he continues to come to us unexpectedly and take us by surprise!

Andrew Wallis

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd October 2000