Sermons That Work

The Surprise behind the Door, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2010

January 24, 2010

A few years back, the Thompsons were invited to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary with their oldest daughter. To commemorate the couple’s ruby anniversary, their daughter had invited them to a lovely country club for dinner. When they arrived and opened the big double doors to what they assumed to be the dining room …


Over 200 of their friends and family members were gathered in the grand ballroom to celebrate the occasion with them. There were guests from near and far, marking the many blessings and periods of their lives – brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, high-school friends, college roommates, colleagues, children, and grandchildren. The evening was filled with stories, toasts, and there was a tremendous outpouring of love. It was a wonderful, love-filled, and unexpected surprise.

Sometimes we encounter God in the most unexpected and surprising ways. Holy scripture is filled with such stories. In the Book of Genesis there is the story of Jacob, whose lies won him the unintentional blessing of his father at the expense of his brother. Jacob is surprised to discover God’s presence through a dream of ladders. Then there’s Abraham and Sarah, who laughed upon hearing God’s intentions for the late-in-life blessing about to be bestowed on them, only to be surprised by the outcome. And Paul, a Pharisee intent on persecuting those who followed Jesus, encountered the risen Christ in a surprise encounter on the road to Damascus and was converted. Holy Scripture is filled with stories that tell of the surprising ways of God.

The lectionary readings for this Sunday contain several messages about surprises. In this morning’s letter from Paul to the Corinthians, we hear the familiar metaphor of the human body for the body of Christ, the Church.

J. Ted Blakely, in A Lector’s Guide and Commentary, explains the context of this passage from First Corinthians. He writes:

“Paul is speaking to Christians who consider certain spiritual gifts to be greater than others, with the result that those who exercise the so-called greater gifts are afforded greater honor, prestige and privilege than those who exercise the so-called lesser gifts.”

Paul’s implication is that in the Body of Christ, all people with their varied spiritual gifts are equally valuable.

Several years ago there was a recently widowed woman who was very grateful to the church and pastor who had held the burial service for her late husband. She went to see the pastor and expressed her desire to give back, but told him that her finances and, by her own estimation, her abilities were limited. They spoke about her late husband’s service, and in the process, she shared how challenging it was for her to host and coordinate the meal that followed the service at her home.

The two then hit upon an idea. What if the church was to coordinate, and prepare when necessary, a meal in the church hall following burial services? Today, as a result of this conversation several years ago, that congregation has a new church hall, a state-of-the art kitchen, and an entire team of people – mostly widowed – who volunteer their time to provide meals following burials and funerals, both for the church community and for the wider community. It is a financially self-supporting ministry that has helped many during a time of great need. The founding member was surprised at the result, as she never dreamed that God could have used her gift of hospitality in that way.

We are the body of Christ, each of us with a different, sometimes not readily apparent spiritual gift to give. It is essential that we remain open to God’s ability to shape us in surprising ways throughout our lives, for the good of God’s Kingdom. Each and every one of us has a gift to give, and we mustn’t let fear, modesty, or doubt stand in the way. And it is important that we look for, affirm, and encourage the gifts we see in others. After all, we are all part of Christ’s body.

Today’s gospel reading also contains a message about surprise. In this reading we hear the story of Jesus, returning to the place where he was raised. He enters the synagogue, and begins reading from the scroll:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The eyes of all are upon him as rolls up the scroll, hands it to the attendant, and begins to teach. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This story continues with Jesus’ teaching, and the listener’s eventual angry response.

William Barclay, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, explains that what must have angered those in the synagogue was that here was “this young Jesus, who they all knew, preaching as if the gentiles were specially favored by God. It was beginning to dawn on them that there were things in this new message the like of which they had never dreamed.”

For us, today’s listeners, this gospel reading holds a message about remaining open to the word of God, and how surprising it may be. We can remain open by reading a passage from holy scripture every day. Even if we have read a passage many times before, it is amazing upon re-reading it how it can appear to have a new message for us, or how we can see something that we have never seen before.

We can also read from and pray with Forward Day by Day, the free quarterly devotional journal offered by Forward Movement Publications, which allows us to hear the voices, interpretations, and reflections of a variety of contributors – new voices that might offer surprising interpretations that challenges us to grow in our Christian faith.

And we can remain open by attending church services and Bible studies with ears and hearts that are ready to listen and learn. Remembering that we are formed as Christians throughout our lives, and being active in the process, can help us to grow in and remain open to the word of God.

God surprised Jacob, Abraham and Sarah, and Paul. And God surprises us. During this season of Epiphany, the season when we commemorate the three gentile magi’s surprising recognition of Jesus as King of the Jews, let us hold fast to the hope of God’s ability to surprise us in our lives. Few people will journey through life without learning the painful lesson that life can change very quickly in sometimes devastating ways. This Epiphany, let us hold fast to the Christian hope that life can also change in magnificently transformative and wonderful ways just as quickly.

God can change our lives through using our gifts in ways we might not imagine. God can change our lives by opening us to new understandings through holy scripture. And God can change our lives in ways that we might not even be able to imagine at this moment.

So, like the Thompsons, who opened the door expecting to find a restaurant of strangers but discovered over 200 friends and family gathered in love, this Epiphany let us greet each day with the hopeful and Christian expectation that God is ready to bring about new and surprising developments in our life for the good of the Kingdom. It is time to open that door.


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Christopher Sikkema


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