On the Element of Surprise
December 26, 2021
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Today’s sermon is titled On the Element of Surprise.
Remember those toys called Jack-in-the-box? I can still here the tinny notes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” coming from the metal box as the handle turned. I was surprised to find they are still made and marketed for young children. In our quest to make everything as safe as possible, I thought sure that children had been injured by the lid flying open, or pinched by the hinge of the lid. But there are plenty of Jack-in-the-box style toys available, featuring clowns, rabbits, monkeys and even Winnie the Pooh. I watched a short video of a Jack-in-the-box toy featuring Curious George, the monkey, and in that video, the monkey did not exactly pop out as I expected; it was more like he was just waking up from a nap; maybe safety standards have changed things.
My childhood Jack-in-the-box meant business coming out of his box. The lid would fly open so fast and Jack would come up out of that box like a rocket. I remember trying to turn the handle to just before the point where the clown would pop up out of the box, stopping just short of the instant where the latch would give way. Even though I knew exactly what was about to happen, it was always a bit of a shock and part of me loved that shock, apparently.
Imagine what a shock it must have been for those shepherds when an angel appeared out there in their fields that night. The scriptures say “the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified.” It doesn’t say what the glory of the Lord looked like, exactly, although it’s been portrayed as light in so many paintings, that’s what immediately comes to mind. The angel speaks to them, speaks the most repeated phrase in all the scriptures. “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, I am bringing you glad tidings of great joy,” the angel says, “to you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
“To you is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” This may arguably be one of the most important phrases in the scriptures. I remember the way it was emphasized in a children’s Christmas pageant. The three angels in their tinsel halos announced, “To you is born a Savior…to you, and you, and you and you.”
I imagine those shepherds may have answered, “A savior has been born for me, for the likes of us?” Yes, to you shepherds, a savior has been born. To you, shepherds, who are not allowed in the temple because you are unwashed, to you shepherds, who are a motley crew of people from various religious traditions all over the near east, to you shepherds, who do not necessarily stick to all the required observances of holy days because you are working and sleeping with the animals 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to you a Savior is born who is Christ the Lord.
“This will be a sign for you. You will find a child, wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger.” Notice how very personal and almost intimate this exchange is. This divine angelic being appears and speaks directly to some of the most earthly people of the times, the shepherds, to announce that God has come in the form of a child. What astonishing news that is! We have heard it so many times we know it by heart, but think of what it must of been like for those shepherds to see that angel and hear those words, spoken directly to them, these following phrases: “I am bringing you glad tidings…to you is born a Savior…this will be a sign for you…you will find a child.” And to drive home the message, just in case the shepherds were unsure about how legitimate this whole thing is, we read “…suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God.” To say that the shepherds must have been surprised is an understatement; they must have been absolutely flabbergasted.
This element of surprise was probably a critical part of the divine plan. There is a tremendous amount of brain research that verifies what we already know through our experience of surprises. The authors of a book titled, Surprise, during an interview on NPR, said that every single person, when genuinely surprised, either pleasantly or unpleasantly, goes through the following “surprise sequence”: Freeze, Find, Shift and Share. We freeze (for at least 1/25th of a second), then we try to find (figure out what is happening), we then make a shift (incorporate the new information and decide if it’s a threat or a pleasure), and lastly we are compelled to share our experience with others. Neurologists at Columbia University have identified the amygdala as the area of the brain most engaged by surprises. The amygdala is one of the most evolved areas of our brain; we need it for survival, for how we react to surprises can be a matter of life or death.
For the shepherds, it was a matter of life, new life, in the form of a child. Because they were so surprised, they were more receptive than ever before to receive the message from the angel about the birth of what is more accurately translated as Kurios Christos, the Lord’s Christ. The Infinite has come into being. “You will find him,” the angel says. The shepherds did. They found him and they told everyone who would listen about their experience. The shock of their surprise was the catalyst for their searching, for their seeing, for their believing, and for their testifying.
We don’t hear much about the heavenly multitudes appearing in fields these days. And we have grown wary of surprises. So what can we glean from this ancient story of the shepherds’? I hope to remember their acceptance of the heavenly message and their willingness to go, as the angel suggested. I hope to remember that however sure I think I am about how something will turn out, or how a person will react, or how a person is, I shouldn’t hold on too tightly to these preconceptions because I could be surprised.
In closing now, and as we look ahead to the beginning of a new year and to Epiphany next Sunday, it seems fitting to make a little more room in our hearts and minds for surprises regarding the nature of the divine. After all, it is not our hand turning the handle that could, at any time, release the glory of God in our midst. Angels come in many forms, from the youngest to the oldest among us, so today I urge us to welcome surprises, welcome changes; let in the light and the love that is God. Amen.
God of endings, God of Beginnings, God of life, and God of death, all we have and all we are come from You. We are grateful, especially when all is well. Help us, Lord, to hold fast to our gratitude even in times of hardship, when we are hurting, when we are melancholy, when circumstances within and without are pushing us to our limits. May our hope in You be a rock to stand on; may the view from there give us the clarity we need; may Your Holy Light be our focus and our guide. May we be surprised at finding you in unexpected places. May our love for You and for each other sustain us, like a prayer, through all of life’s demands. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the first chapter of John, verse 5:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”