December 15, 2013: The Biggest Surprise of My Life

Posted on : Dec 12th, 2013 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

Thirty-nine and a half years ago, I had the biggest surprise of my life.  I was walking along the shore of Lake Erie. It was then that I “heard” God’s call to ministry.  It was totally unexpected.  I had other plans in mind for my life.  However, there were two angels who had been preparing me for this experience.  One was a good friend who was a Roman Catholic sister (“nun”) and the other was an older woman who was also Catholic, and was a woman of great wisdom and insight.  Both of them were always asking me if I was sure I didn’t feel God’s call into ministry, because they were sure that was my calling.  I assured them at the time that I did not feel called into ministry.  But then it happened during that quiet afternoon walk along the lake, and there was no denying that God was present and calling me.

It was such a strange thing, a “religious experience” like I had never had and it was unsettling and unexpected.  I remember trying to figure out who I could talk with about this.  I wanted some verification that what I had experienced was true.  I thought about talking to my Catholic sister friend.  Certainly she knew about “callings,” but I immediately ruled her out as too biased.  I did decide that I could talk with my other dear friend, Florence, but I needed a little more time to “sit” with this experience and pray about it.  I wanted to be sure it was real before I shared it with anyone else.  A number of days later I sat down to talk with Florence.  I had stopped by her house the day I had the experience, but didn’t say anything to her.  When I told her about it, she said, “I knew something profound had occurred in your life the minute you walked in the house on that Saturday afternoon.”  Florence was a great friend to me as I went through my time of discernment.

Many years have come and gone since that experience.  One of the big changes in my life is that I have learned to be much more open or attentive or receptive (I’d like to say “always” but I’m not there yet!) to the Presence of God in my everyday life.  God does have a way of being present in our lives that is surprising and confusing.

This Sunday we’ll focus on two stories of faith about how God was present when God was least expected.  The first is story of Sarah and Abraham.  This wonderful story – about angelic visitors (3 men) coming to Sarah and Abraham is ironically the story which precedes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  What a shame that those who use the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) to put down gay and lesbian people didn’t take the time to read the story that precedes it.  It’s the same three angelic visitors that come to visit Sarah and Abraham that go on to visit Lot and his family in Sodom.  But the outcomes are very different!  Abraham and Sarah immediately sense that these visitors are sent from God.  The men of Sodom don’t have a clue.

The story of Abraham and Sarah begins with three men (visitors, travelers, wise men?) who “appear” in the heat of the day at the door of Abraham and Sarah’s tent.  Abraham and Sarah were nomadic people who lived in tents in the desert.  Abraham, being very old and very wise, perceives they are “guests sent from God” and graciously welcomes them.  He asks his servants to prepare a huge feast for them.  Sarah, being an inquisitive woman, was eavesdropping – secretly listening to their conversation – from behind the door to their tent.

It didn’t take long for Abraham and Sarah to discern that these “visitors” were sent to them with a message from God.  The message was that Sarah was going to become pregnant – at the age of 90-something!  When Sarah heard this, she broke out in laughter.  And God heard her.    God asked, “Why is Sarah laughing at me?  And why does she not believe me?  Is anything too hard for me (to do)?”  The story concludes:

God was gracious to Sarah as it had been foretold, and did what had been promised.  Sarah conceived and gave birth to a child for Abraham, who was now in old age, at the very time God had promised.  They named the child Isaac, [which in Hebrew means “Laughter”] and Abraham circumcised the child when he was eight days old, according to God’s command.  And Sarah said, “Now God has given me laughter, and all who hear of this will laugh with me.”

This same story is repeated quite similarly as an angel of God appears to Mary to “announce” to her that she is the one God has chosen to bring the long awaited “anointed One” to life.  Mary doesn’t laugh, nor does she believe what she has heard.  “How can this be?” she asks the angelic visitor.  Then she runs off to talk with her aunt whom she recognizes as both older and wiser than she.

Like Sarah and myself, and almost everyone who has encountered the life-changing presence of God, when God appears in your life in a totally unexpected way and at a totally unexpected time, you are surprised. Startled?  Unsettled.  After many years of rushing through life, I am now much more open and attentive to the angels that come to me and the times and places God reveals God’s presence to me.  Magnificently, each time that happens, I am always amazed that God is there in the everyday ordinariness (and sometimes extraordinary-ness) of life.

This Sunday as we continue our Advent theme, “It’s About Presence, Not Just Presents” we will focus on “Discovering God’s Presence When You Totally Don’t Expect It.”




~ This Sunday’s Scriptures ~

Genesis 17-18

When Abram was 99 years old, God appeared and said, “I am El Shaddai [a Hebrew name for God which means ‘the God who nurses you.’]  Walk in my presence and be blameless.  I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.”

Abram fell on his face before God, and God said to him, “This is my covenant with you:  you will be the ancestor of many nations.  You are no longer to be called Abram [which means ‘respected Parent,’] but Abraham, [which means ‘The originator of a Multitude,’] for you are the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  I will make you most fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and rulers will spring from you.  I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you, and your descendants after you for generations to come.  I will be your God, and the God of your descendants after you.

God continued, “as for Sarai,” her name will now be Sarah, [which means ‘noblewoman.’]  I will bless her, and I will give you a child by her.  I will bless her, and she will become nations; rulers of peoples will come from her.”

Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Is a child to be born of a man who is 100 years old?  And will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”  So God finished speaking with Abraham and left him.

God then appeared to Abraham by the oak grove of Mamre, while Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Looking up, Abraham saw three travelers standing nearby.

When he saw them, Abraham ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, said, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by our tent.  Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves beneath this tree.  As you have come to your faithful one, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves.’  [Then Abraham prepared a banquet to welcome them, and they ate.]

While sitting under the tree, they asked, “Where is Sarah?”

Abraham replied, “There in the Tent.”

One of them said, “I will surely return to you this time next year, and Sarah will then have a child.  Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, just behind him.  Now Sarah and Abraham were old, well on in years, and Sarah no longer menstruated.  So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am so old and my husband is even older, is pleasure to come my way again?”

God said to Abraham, “Why does Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really deliver a child, at my age?’  Is anything too extraordinary for God to do?”  And God said, “At the appointed time, at this time next year, I will return to you, and Sarah will have a child.”

God was gracious to Sarah as it had been foretold, and did what had been promised.  Sarah conceived and gave birth to a child for Abraham, who was now in old age, at the very time God had promised.  They named the child Isaac, [which in Hebrew means “Laughter”] and Abraham circumcised the child when he was eight days old, according to God’s command.  And Sarah said, “Now God has given me laughter, and all who hear of this will laugh with me.”


Luke 1: 26-38

The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the child of God.

Six months later, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman named Mary; she was engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one!  God is with you!  Blessed are you among women!”

Mary was deeply troubled by these words and wondered what the angel’s greeting meant.  The angel went on to say to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.  You’ll conceive and bear a child and give him the name Jesus.  His dignity will be great, and he will be called the only begotten of God.  God will give Jesus the judgment seat of David, his ancestor, to rule over the house of Jacob forever, and his reign will never end.

Mary said, “How can this be, since I have never been with a man?”

The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you – hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God.  Know too that Elizabeth, your kinswoman, has conceived a child in her old age; she who was thought to be infertile is now in her sixth month.  Nothing is impossible with God.”

Mary said, “I am the servant of God.  Let it be done to me as you say.”  With that, the angel left her.

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