Eternal Surprise

At the height of the pandemic, I was invited by one of my best friends to preach at his church in Manchester, which of course meant via Zoom from my living room.

This collided with the height of our house renovations—we had a labourer in to strip the old plaster off the halls, stairs and landing, and then plasterers in to board and skim. We do our own plastering, but we want to be precariously perched on a ladder halfway up the stairs about as much as the average tradesperson does.

Because they’re a law unto themselves, the plasterers announced on the Saturday that they would be back on Sunday morning to do some more. I carefully explained that I was preaching that morning, hoping to dissuade them, but they just assured me they would be quiet when we needed them to be.

So that’s how on the morning before the church meeting started, I was in the kitchen with the kettle on making everyone a drink and chatting with one of the plasterers about what church was like. We’d been talking earlier in the week—he was Irish, and it emerged he was a lapsed Roman Catholic who had walked away from the church long ago. He was deeply curious about faith, and this morning asked what I was going to be speaking about, so I told him the story from the gospels (Luke 7) that I was preaching from that day.

Jesus encounters a funeral procession outside of a small town. There’s a widow, who is accompanied by the town to bury her only son. Her beloved child is dead, and with his death her livelihood and hope for the future has gone. She has nothing left, no one to care for her. She is bereft.

Jesus stops the procession, comforts the mother and then reaches out to touch the bier his body is placed on. This is a taboo act, you don’t willingly touch the dead—the death transfers to you, spiritually speaking. Which is, by the by, the logic behind the Old Testament food laws, though I didn’t explain that to the plasterer.

He was rapt listening to the story. I’m a good storyteller, but this was a bare bones narration in the kitchen while I stirred a mug of tea for him to drink, the story was doing its own work.

Then we come to the climax. Jesus looks at the young man, who he is not afraid to touch, and says “get up.” In a beautifully understated line in Luke’s narration,

And the dead man sat up

The plasterer looked at me, eyes wide, and viscerally expressed his surprise in a way I will not repeat in print.

I’d love to say that I then moved on to explain the ins and out of the gospel, or even sketched that Jesus wasn’t afraid to touch him either, and that a touch from Jesus is stronger than death—his life sticks to us. I’d love to say I told him he too could be a dead man who sat up, but I didn’t. I gave him his tea and a story to chew on, perhaps the word will do its own work.

Here’s the thing that caught me: he taught me something. His simple, almost childlike surprise struck me. How often am I surprised by the truth of the gospel? Or by what Jesus is like? At the time I thought little more than “that’s a good illustration” and used it in my message that morning, but it stayed with me.

When Jesus meets a dead man, I am unsurprised that the dead man gets up. On the one hand that’s a good reaction, I’ve learned the basics—when death meets the living Christ his cruel tricks are silenced, his reign of terror ended. Death cannot sustain in Jesus’ presence. I expect Christ, our life, to change every room—every heart—into which he enters. This is a good expectation and will keep my eyes open to spiritual realities around me.

On the other hand, I allow my knowledge to cool my wonder. We might think this is inevitable, wonder is an act of surprise and it will fade. Otherwise, we would be like Wen the Eternally Surprised from the Terry Pratchett book The Thief of Time, constantly delighted and yet to the outsider seemingly dim-witted. To be surprised by every thing would put us out of touch with reality. Yet, we desperately need wonder.

Our knowledge is good! It is good that we know the character of the Lord and how he typically works. We should fight to keep our wonder though, even if it is not genuine surprise. Last Easter for the first time in a long time I felt like I experienced the morning’s bright surprise for the first time. Not just joy in the risen Lord, but the thrilling abandonment of the death of death that makes all the colours of Spring’s array burst brighter. And, for context, I’m almost completely colour-blind, and that’s still what it looked like.

What made that Easter different? I had recently tasted death. The laughter that booms as it echoes around an empty tomb was a shocking comfort to my weary soul.

There’s a lesson here, how can you recover wonder? By truly feeling the gross weight of sin, the brutal, senseless grief of death, the fetid stink of shame. To understand the wonder of freedom you need to have some comprehension of slavery, even if you have not truly experienced it.

This is my prescription: to feel the expletive laden surprise of my plasterer at a dead man sitting up, and a humble king who can raise the dead with a command, we have to remember our chains. Many of you will think that’s a stupid suggestion—how could you forget? You barely slip them off in the morning and find them slithering around you more often than you can count. But, I expect, there is still wonder in your heart at the earth-shattering truths we proclaim: God saves sinners, Death is dead, God loves you.

For the rest of us, perhaps some time contemplating the sin and shame and death that tars us would do us good. But when you do, make sure you rise up afterwards, and turn your face to the heavens and cry tears of quick delight as you remember that God in Christ is for you. How do you know? Because he shut the dragon’s mouth, he bore the burdens we can’t set down after prising them from our grip, he made himself a spectacle of shame so we could be honoured as royalty. Because God loves you, and he wants you, and he has come to get you.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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