In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I wonder if you remember the TV series from years ago, Tales of the Unexpected? The series dramatized short stories by Roald Dahl- stories with a twist in the tale, usually a bit macabre. We enjoy being entertained by stories with a twist, or films where something we don’t expect to happen.
In real life, the unexpected can be a pleasant surprise, but often it isn’t something we welcome. Americans talk about events ‘coming at you from left field’- that’s a baseball term- I think it means that the ball suddenly comes from somewhere you didn’t expect. We are usually don’t like things come from ‘left field’, because too often the unexpected event is unpleasant- and accident, for example. But the unexpected, even if we are not prepared for it, is not always unpleasant. When the unexpected happens, it can shake us out of our comfort zone and change our life for the better.
Today our Bible readings are ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. Like Roald Dahl’s tales, they are strange tales indeed. They shock and surprise. But they also make a difference- a positive difference- to the people who are surprised by them. And through these people, God does great things, things that no-one could have predicted.
After the events of the first Easter, Peter and some of the other friends of Jesus go back to Galilee- back to their own district, back to their own homes. Despite all that’s happened, they must still earn a living, and Peter does so in the only way he knows how. As night falls, they push Peter’s boat out onto the lake, and sail off for a night’s fishing. But it is a disappointing night. As the dawn breaks over the Galilean hills, their net is still limp, lying limp in the water- they haven’t caught anything. Disappointed, they begin to make for the shore.
In the dull light of the morning, they can make out a figure standing on the beach. The stranger hails them: ‘Haven’t you caught anything, lads?’ ‘Not a thing’, Peter replies. ‘Well’, replies the stranger, ‘You’re fishing on the wrong side. Throw your net out on the right side of the boat’- and for some reason, Peter takes the strangers’ advice. Does he have an inkling of what it going to happen? Does he remember another time when someone gave him advice like that? ‘Pull the net in, lads,’ he cries, ‘and we’ll try out the other side!’
And so the net is hauled in, and then thrown in the other side- as if that would make any difference! But in few minutes the net is bulging, and the fishermen are struggling to hall it aboard or drag is ashore. And then one of the disciples tells Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’- and Peter, delighted to see his friend once more, jumps into the water (with all his clothes on!) and swims ashore.
I guess you would be surprised and delighted if you went fishing and met up with a friend whom you’d seen dying a few weeks before. Even although Peter already knew that Jesus was back from dead, this was still a wonderful surprise. Because Jesus had turned up when Peter was at work.
Peter and his friends were at work- earning their living. As they steered the ship, as they tried to find the fish, religion might have been far from their mind. In their disappointment at having to return home, apparently empty handed, they meet Jesus (although they don’t yet realise it’s him!). He transforms the situation- they catch a big load of fish! And when they come ashore, he’s made a fire, ready to cook kippers for breakfast for them.
An office, a factory, a building site, a fishing boat. An unexpected place to meet Jesus? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is if you think that religion is a Sunday thing, or that you can only meet God in a church building. But you’re wrong. God is at work in every area of our lives. The teacher in front of a class, the nurse on a hospital ward, the man typing at a computer screen- whether they know it or not, God is there with them all. No matter what we are doing, we might, unexpectedly, encounter the risen Jesus.
Saul was also at his work when he met Jesus. Saul was in the religion trade. He was good at his work- enthusiastic, committed, he strongly believed in what he did. He was on a business trip- on the way to Damascus. He’d got permission to go and hunt down some more of these Christian heretics who were upsetting his Jewish faith. And on that road to Damascus- an overpowering light, a voice which speaks to him- wham, bam- it’s a googly from left field.
By the time he gets to Damascus, Saul has become a believer in the faith which he had tried to persecute. It is one of the ironies of history that someone who started off as toughest persecutors of the early church should go on to become one of its most effective missionaries. Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, began a zealot who wanted to wipe Christianity off the face of the earth. But after that Damascus Road experience, he went on to travel around the Roman Empire, taking the message of Christianity with him- one of the most important missionaries in the history of the Church.
Again, it’s unexpected. Saul is going about his work, and he meets Jesus. Even although Saul is an enemy of Jesus, he is chosen to preach the Christian message. For Christianity is all about change, and the possibility of transformation. That’s why it’s strange that so many religious people seem to be conservatives (with a small ‘c’) at heart- they don’t like change. But Christians believe that God is at work in the world, and that transformation is possible.
We Christians are supposed to believe that people can meet God in the strangest places, that God can do unexpected. We believe God can work through unexpected people. The Bible, and the history of the church is full of such stories. And many of you sitting here could tell similar stories. Maybe your story is not so dramatic as Saul’s story, but many of you can tell stories of how you met God unexpectedly, or how God did unexpected things with you.
In this season of Easter, we recall the most unexpected event in history. Easter was definitely a left-field event. Once Jesus had been put to death- executed in public- and buried in his tomb, people would have thought that that was the end of Christianity. But then, suddenly, the news is out- he is alive! And a new movement is born- Christianity will soon sweep the world. And why is it so popular? Because it’s such a positive message, this Easter message: He is risen! They tried to kill the good guy- but he’s back. Just when we thought there was no hope left, God does a new, unexpected, amazing, impossible thing. And God is still at.
It’s strange how, so often, we think of our religion as something unchanging and predictable. But the Bible is full of people finding God in unexpected ways, of God doing unexpected things, of people changing their lives in unexpected ways- and of God using unexpected people to do unexpected things. Abraham, in his old age, emigrates to a new land and becomes the father of the nation. Moses, on the run on a murder charge, hears the voice of God from a burning bush, and becomes the liberator of his people. Isaiah goes to worship in the Temple as usual, and has an amazing vision of God calling him to be a prophet. A young peasant woman in a small town, Mary of Nazareth, becomes an expectant mother in the most unexpected circumstances, and gives birth to the saviour of the world.
Christianity is nothing if it is not about transformation, of the possibility of change, of renewal. I’m sure that what stops a lot of people from being open to change is their past. ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ we say. And so close ourselves down to the possibility of change. There are people who if they met Jesus on a beach or in a blinding light on the road would shrug their shoulders and carry on as before, they are so inured to the possibility of change. That’s because they can’t shake off the burdens of their past.
I recently heard a minister say that one of the things which had saddened him during his ministry were all the people who could not let go of something in their past. The man who still lives with his father’s nagging voice telling him he will never be good enough. The woman ashamed of some mistake in her past. Christ invites us to leave the burdens of our past behind, and to make a clean start.
For something even more miraculous happens to Peter when he meets Jesus by the lake. Just a few days before, as Jesus was on trial for his life, Peter had been asked three times if he was one of Jesus’ followers. And three times, Peter denied Christ. And then we are told that the cock crowed, and Peter remembered that Jesus had said, ‘Before the cock crows you will say three times that you do not know me’ (John 13.38).
Now, at the lakeside, Jesus asks Peter- three times- ‘Peter, do you love me?’ And each time, Peter answers that he does- of course he does. And Jesus simply accepts what Peter says, and appoints him to look after his followers: ‘Take care of my sheep’. Jesus places the responsibility for the future of his Church in he hands of a man who, not once, not twice, but three times had denied his Master. But Jesus does not hold it against Peter. It is a beautiful act of grace.
The actions we regret, the things we said, the burden of the past that we carry. All of that can be forgiven by God. Peter who denied Jesus, and Paul who had persecuted the followers of Jesus, were the unlikeliest of men to be used by God, but they became the towering figures of early Christianity. The faith that they spread around the world would set the world on fire- it would outlive the Roman Empire that had put Jesus to death, and continues to this day to bring hope and transformation to millions of people around the world. For Paul and Peter both somehow experienced the risen Christ. They realised that Jesus, who had died on the cross, was alive, and that they were forgiven.
The resurrection of Christ was the most left-field event in history- completely unexpected and unpredictable. And people who believe that Jesus is risen are people who believe that God still does the unexpected. Where there is despair, God brings hope; where there is death, God brings life, where there is sin, God brings forgiveness, when we think evil is triumphant, God’s love shine through. This is the hope and promise of Christianity: we Christians are to celebrate the possibility of new life, the new life which is offered by the God who raised Jesus from the dead. And this is a God who may still come to from left field, and surprise us anew with his love.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo