[From a message given at Downtown Baptist Church on January 27. You can listen to it here.]
Something I’m learning is that God works in a way that is—and this may be understating it somewhat—a little unexpected.
In Genesis, we read about how God created the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them; how he created the trees and the flowers and the fish and the birds; how he made all things good. And in Genesis 1:26-27, it says:
Then God said, “Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Was God somehow less God before what we read about in Genesis? No, God has always been God: higher, holier, divine, infinite. And yet this community of love that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, chose to create us, chose to craft human beings with the freedom to love and the freedom to choose, to love and choose God or to love and choose things that are not of God.
Think about it: that the Divine would choose to complicate matters with things like love and freedom and choice; that God would choose to make it an option for folks to turn their backs on him (after all, that’s the only way that a decision to turn to him could be truly authentic, isn’t it?); that our Creator would choose to involve himself with people—that’s a little unexpected.
I mean, people are messy and complicated: they demand things of you; they make you do things you didn’t think you would—good or bad; they disrupt your schedule and your dreams and your best-laid plans. And we’re reminded of this often in our daily lives:
- when someone cuts you off in traffic,
- or cuts in line in front of you,
- or says something harsh to you;
- when you fall in love with someone,
- when you get hurt by someone,
- when you’re roommates with someone,
- when you teach in a classroom of kids that you come to care about,
- when you work in a hospital with patients that you come to care about.
Any time you care about someone, it complicates things. And so for God to choose to care about someone, about every single one of the billions of someone’s that have ever lived on this earth, to allow life to get messier, to allow life to get more complicated … well, that’s a little unexpected, isn’t it?
This is a pattern throughout Scripture:
God says unexpected things, God does unexpected things, God uses unexpected people.
- He calls an Israelite who grew up spoiled in the palaces of the Egyptian Pharaoh, who murdered a man and then ran away to a life in the wilderness for forty years—he calls this man, Moses, to lead his people from slavery to freedom.
- He says to a forgotten shepherd boy named David, “You will be my chosen king”; and when this boy becomes a man—a man with a terrible fondness for married women and a tendency to neglect his own children—God uses this man to be the one who unites the nation.
- Years later, God lets his chosen people be taken captive, carried away to a foreign land; he lets the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been understood as his dwelling place, be destroyed; he allows the Promised Land to be occupied by Assyria and then Babylon and then Persia and then Rome.
This is not how things were meant to be; this is not how things were meant to go, is it? This is all a little unexpected!
And then when God hatches his grand plan of salvation … well, that’s a little unexpected too, isn’t it? He chooses to take humanity on himself, to become flesh and blood; the God of the universe, the infinite Creator of the heavens and the earth chooses to limit himself not just to the form of finite man but, more than that, to the tiny, vulnerable form of a baby, born into poverty.
This man Jesus came from a no-name town called Nazareth, he worked in relative obscurity as a carpenter until he was thirty years old, and then he marked the beginning of his public ministry by being baptized by a locust-eating wild man. And when he spoke, he said things like:
- “Turn the other cheek” in Matthew 5, and
- “Give all you have to the poor” in Matthew 19, and
- “Not all who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will be saved, but those who care for the least of these—the lost, the lonely, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the marginalized—to those, I will say, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance.’”
God becomes a baby; the Lord of all serves his disciples by washing their feet; and the Savior of the world accomplishes his mission by giving himself up to his enemies and dying on a cross. It’s a little unexpected.
Oh, and then he rises from the dead. That’s a little unexpected too, isn’t it?
But the mission and work of God doesn’t stop there. No; instead, he gives his Holy Spirit to be, as Jesus says in John 14, “another Advocate, a Helper, to teach everything, to guide in truth,” and as he says in Acts 1, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses.”
Note to whom he gives this mission: his followers. Remember them? That motley crew of folks who, most of the time, just didn’t get it; that band of bemused brothers who fought among themselves about who was the greatest; that dysfunctional body of doubters and deserters and deniers that became the body of Christ.
In one sense, it’s a little unexpected that God chooses Peter, who denied his dearest friend and Lord three times; and John, who ran away from the confrontation in Gethsemane so fast that he left his clothes behind; and James the brother of Jesus, once counted as one of his detractors; and Mary Magdalene, a woman with a very troubled past.
These are not the top tier candidates; these are not the cream of the crop, the ones who have passed all the tests and acquired all of the necessary qualifications–these are zealots and tax collectors and fishermen. When Peter and John preach the gospel, Acts 4:13 says, the people listening “saw [their] boldness and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, and they were amazed and took note that they had been with Jesus.”
You see, in one sense, all of this is a little unexpected; from the world’s perspective, none of this makes sense.
- The greatest being the servant of all.
- Giving up your life so that you might save it.
- Choosing to love—to seek the good of—those who hate you.
- Forgiving when you have been wronged, even if they never ask for it.
- Standing up for the poor and the marginalized, those who have no way of paying you back.
- Speaking truth to those who perpetrate injustice, to those who profit from systems and structures of oppression, to those who have become complacent and comfortable, and challenging those in power to use that power for good and for God—that’s a risky thing; that can be a scary thing.
But from God’s perspective, it makes complete sense, it is completely expected. It is what our Father has been doing since the dawn of time, because it is who God is; because God is and always has been love; because the heart of God has always been for his creation, for his people; because God has always desired that we would be in right relationship with him and in right relationship with each other, and that we would work with God to make the world all it could be—and this is the way we were made, this is what we were made for.
In one sense, the story of The District Church is also a little unexpected. A small group of about ten people—teachers, non-profit workers, grad students, none of whom had ever intentionally started a church before—came together and did just that, and God has grown us in the last two and a half, almost three years, to almost 400 people, and we’re about to plant a community in a new location. People are coming to know the Lord and people are coming back to the Lord—we’ve seen 15 people baptized in the last five months. We don’t have slick church growth strategies or fancy gimmicks or polished Sunday services.
But from God’s perspective, it makes complete sense, it’s completely expected. God is and always has been about doing unexpected things in unexpected places with unexpected people.
To be honest, this is not the way I would’ve done it; this is not the story I would’ve written; this is not the world I would’ve created; Jesus is not the Savior I would’ve expected; this is not the mission I would’ve asked for; this is not the challenge I would’ve taken on; and this is not the dream I would’ve come up with. It is far more messy and complicated than I would’ve liked; I’m far less comfortable than I would’ve liked; I make less money than I’d like; I see the mess that people bring and carry far more often than I’d like.
But I wouldn’t trade it for the world, because it’s all so much better, because it feels right at the deepest level, at the soul level, that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.
So I’d encourage you to be mindful, to be attentive, to be open:
Just because something is a little unexpected, a little uncomfortable, a little out of the realm of what you dreamed or imagined, don’t pass it up. It might just be God doing what God does.