June 9, 2013 Galatians 1: 11-24 Luke 7: 11-17
Rev. Catherine Purves
How many genuine surprises have there been in your life? How many times have you looked back and said, “Wow, I never saw that coming!”? How many twists and turns has your life taken that have truly shocked you? I expect that for most of us there are only a handful of completely unexpected and life-transforming events or changes of heart that we could name. And that’s rather a shame, because it seems as if God is most identifiably at work in situations and at times when we suddenly have no idea about what’s next.
Children love surprises. Adults, not so much. Sometimes it seems as if our capacity for novelty and change hardens along with our arteries. Adults want to know what’s next. They want to control the future, or at the very least predict it. That’s why we have retirement accounts, why we go to the dentist, and perhaps, in part, it’s why we go to church. We want to know what’s next whether that means planning for old age, preserving our teeth, or securing a place in heaven. Having an I.R.A. and making your 6-month dental check-ups might provide sure assurance about what’s next. But being in Christ’s church is not going to add to the predictability of your life. When you belong to Jesus Christ, what’s next is up to him.
The Bible abounds with examples of this, and we have only read about two of these this morning. The brief summary of the apostle Paul’s life which he gives in his letter to the Galatians is a case in point. He takes pains to emphasize that his conversion was a complete turnabout. He was raised as a strict, law-abiding Jew who was so zealous for his faith and his traditions that he was a persecutor of Christians. He became a devoted lover of Christ who courageously defended the gospel and traveled all over the Mediterranean planting churches. No one who looked at the old Paul could have predicted what came next for him. He records what people were saying about him: “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” No one could have seen that coming, least of all Paul himself. It was certainly not the future he had envisioned or planned for.
We know that Paul was not easily influenced or prone to change. He was harder to de-rail than a speeding freight train. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is determined to show that he did not change his mind (and his entire life) because of any human influence. This was an act of God in his life. The risen Jesus appeared to him, called and commissioned him, and sent him out to spread the gospel and to start churches. This is what happens when you pay attention to the risen Christ. You often find yourself with a new job description and a changed life. The train is de-railed. What’s next? You find yourself on an entirely new set of tracks.
An even more vivid example of God’s ability to shock us with what’s next is given in our Gospel reading. If there is one thing that we feel fairly confident about predicting it is that after someone dies he is buried. The inevitability of death and the finality of death is something that most adults have come to accept through personal experience. Despite the clichés that we use to soften the harsh reality of death, when someone dies we know what’s next: mourning, a sense of loss, a painful absence, weeping, and prolonged sorrow. When someone dies, this is always what’s next, except when Jesus shows up.
The raising of the widow of Nain’s son is more than just one of the many miracles of Jesus. This is one of just three occasions when Jesus actually brought someone back from the dead. The others are the raising of Lazarus and healing of Jairus’ dead daughter. In each of these accounts the people felt sure that they knew what was next. In the case of Jairus’ daughter, messengers from his house said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” Outside Lazarus’ tomb, when Jesus told them to remove the stone, Martha said, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” And the widow of Nain and those mourning the death of her only son walked inevitably toward the family grave, until Jesus stopped them and said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”
In anticipation of his own victory over the grave, Jesus confronts death in each of these three miracle stories and he claims his unique power to determine what’s next. Nothing can resist his will. He is the source of life, even in the face of death. What’s next is not determined by anything or anyone other than Jesus – in life or in death, this is so. Once Jesus is in your life, words like inevitable, predictable, and unavoidable are no longer very useful. Because we don’t know what Jesus might do or how Jesus might change what’s next. If, in the power of Jesus Christ, not even death is inevitable, predictable, and unavoidable, and if, when confronted by the risen Jesus, even someone like Paul can have his life turned around completely, then, at any given moment in our lives only God knows what’s next.
In just a few minutes we are going to commission Gloria Sipes and send her off on her mission trip to Belize with our good wishes and our prayers. I’m just guessing here, but I don’t expect that when Gloria decided to take early retirement from teaching in the Pittsburgh School System, she thought she might be travelling to Belize in order to work with the poor. I imagine that she anticipated taking it easy, doing a little volunteer work here and there, and having more time for the things she enjoys. When we visualize ‘retirement’ that’s generally how we think about what’s next. Sometimes Jesus has other ideas. We need to be ready for those other ideas. Today we give thanks that Gloria was ready, or is getting ready, (because it’s hard to be ready for Jesus and to anticipate what he might do next in your life).
And so, what about you? Are you ready for what’s next? Are you willing to have your expectations transformed? Will you welcome Jesus into the center of your life, knowing that he will take over and change you? Are you going to trust him with your future? Can you take those words, inevitable, predictable, and unavoidable out of your vocabulary? As a Christian, those words shouldn’t be in your vocabulary. Instead, we should be using words like surprising, unexpected, and new. Every once in a while, when Jesus shows up, the word impossible is also appropriate, as in, “it sounds impossible, but…” Because all things are possible with God. Turned around lives and even life out of death – when Jesus shows up, that’s what’s next!