Reliability and Surprise

Not long ago I came across the insight that “besides reliability, God’s other name is surprise” (Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Reading for Preaching, Eerdmans, 2013). I can confirm this in my own experience. At times I am overwhelmed by God’s reliability as in the constancy of His provision and His care for all of creation. God is reliable alright. We know to an amazingly accurate degree what to expect from God, for instance, His grace and forgiveness offered again and again in Word and Sacrament.

At the same time God never fails to surprise me as my best-laid strategies for this or that are trumped by God’s better plans. Proverbs 16:9 offers this corroborating bit of wisdom: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (ESV). God’s grace may be downright predictable in how it comes to us.  Yet who hasn’t been surprised by the new direction in a church’s mission or the sudden transformation of a scoundrel through the power of the gospel?

“Besides reliability, God’s other name is surprise.” Still, those of us who have been around the gospel most or all of our lives, we may miss the surprising side of God. People who read the MN South Supplement in the Lutheran Witness likely fit into this category. We’ve heard the stories of our faith for so long the unexpected is gone from them. Reliability eclipses surprise. God comes in human form, water turns to wine, a leper is healed, Jesus calms a storm – well, of course. Grace can become less than amazing.

Nowhere is this lack of surprise on our part more the case than in the story’s move from cross to resurrection. Easter falls early this year – March 27. That may be surprising for us in itself, but it shouldn’t be. Setting the date is as reliable as the Council of Nicaea’s decision in 325 AD that the Feast of the Resurrection would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. There. Easter is, well, reliable.

But is the Feast of the Resurrection surprising? It is certainly comforting. It is unabashedly, exuberantly joyful. The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is beautiful with its lilies and triumphant music. But surprising? I would like to make the simple observation that the surprise of the resurrection is more likely when we face death more realistically. Those who have lost loved ones recently will tell you. They’ve lived with the sting of death.

Perhaps an early Easter helps with this. Walking through a cemetery on Easter with snow still on the ground makes life after dying even more the surprise. Will winter ever end? Is death final? Questions like these give an early Easter its surprise. Talk of life with death all around us gives it more poignancy. 

On the other hand, to hold these two in tension – God’s reliability and God’s surprise – can make us at home even with the surprise of our rising. In the end the surprise of Jesus’ resurrection and ours is the single greatest affirmation of God’s complete reliability. This, after all, is what God has promised all along to those who trust Him. “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Nowhere is God more reliable and more surprising than in the resurrection. A blessed Easter!

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