There are good surprises and there are bad surprises. A good surprise might be a bigger tax refund cheque than you are expected; an unexpected visit from someone dear whom you haven’t seen for a long time; a surprise party to celebrate your birthday.
A bad surprise might be something like this. A pastor went to visit Ted, an elderly member of his parish. He was warmly welcomed and invited to sit down while the elderly man went to make his visitor a cup of tea. As he waited, the minister spied a bowl of peanuts on the table and he thought to himself, "Ted won’t mind if I have one or two of his peanuts. One or two became three or four until the bowl was completely empty. At that point Bob came back with the tea and the minister said, "Ted, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve eaten all of those delicious peanuts". "Oh that’s all right", Ted replied, since I lost my teeth, I can only suck the chocolate off them anyway".
A surprise is something unexpected, unanticipated, unforeseen. That’s exactly what happened that day out there on Lake Gennesaret. Peter and his partners had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. Jesus tells Peter, "Push the boat out further to the deep water, and you and your partners let down your nets for a catch". Peter informs Jesus that they had been busting their guts all night but hadn't caught a thing, but he said, "If you say so, I will let down the nets".
Peter didn't believe for one minute that he would have any more luck than he had before. After all, who was the experienced fishermen here? Peter did this sort of thing for a living, day in, day out, and he knew when the fishing was bad. Ask any fisherman. There are certain conditions that are just not good for fishing, and you can try your hardest, but you won't catch a thing. But out of respect for Jesus, he would do as he said.
And what a surprise Peter got. It might have been the worst night for fishing, but what a catch. And not just a few sardines for the next breakfast, when they finally hauled this catch on board, it was so great that the boats began to sink. For a fisherman like Peter who knew all about fishing and the skills needed to bring in a good catch, this would have been mind blowing. All these fish when the fish weren't biting.
Jesus surprised his disciples many times. He surprised the local church people by eating with sinners and tax collectors; Jesus surprised on lookers with his words "Your sins are forgiven"; He surprised his disciples with parables about the kingdom of God that emphasised that it is the small and the least, those who serve others, who are the greatest in the Kingdom of God; he surprised the women on Easter morning when they discovered that he had risen from the dead.
In fact when you think about it the God of the Bible is a God of surprises. Look how he chose a shepherd boy named David to be the king of Israel; Remember God's surprising patience with the people of Israel who were always whinging and complaining even though they had been surprised by God's generosity and never-ending love so many times. Imagine how surprised the people of Israel were when Moses lifted up his arms and the water of the sea parted to allow them to escape from the pursuing Egyptians. Recall how surprised King Darius was when he saw Daniel walking around amongst hungry and fierce lions without being harmed. Think of people like Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Jonah, Mary, Paul, and others who were surprised that God should choose them to do God's work.
And then what about the greatest surprise of all? Even though you and I keep on doing things that hurt God and make him sad, even though we keep on doing our own thing and selfishly look after ourselves before anyone else, surprise of all surprises, God keeps on loving us. In fact, he loves us to the degree that he sent his only Son to die for us. Now that is a surprise. When someone keeps on aggravating us, we would hardly do something nice for them, let alone give our life for them. But there you have the surprising love of God at work.
Do you get the feeling that God is trying to tell us something here? Jesus is telling us through the story of the miraculous haul of fish and every other surprising event in the Bible, that followers of Jesus should always be ready for God's surprises. Just as Peter was surprised by what Jesus did, we are to be ready for the surprising things that the Lord will do in our lives. All we have to do is listen to what our Lord says to us, believe his promises, obey his Word, even if we do it reluctantly like Peter, and then be ready for the surprises that God works in our lives and in our congregation.
At times our reasoning will tell us that what we are being asked to do, and the project that is being suggested, is doomed to failure. We can be like Peter and say, it won't work because I have been there and done that before. There is no rhyme or reason why this should succeed. But it has been proven again and again, that God surprises us with what he can do in spite of what we think we can do.
But you know what, it seems that so often we don’t want to be surprised. We make excuses; we expect failure rather than success; we are happy to keep on doing the same old thing because we don’t want to face the possibility of change. We hear people say: You’re asking me to do that? You must be kidding!! (Moses said the same thing and look how God surprised him). I can’t believe you’re asking me to talk to others about God! (Jeremiah’s reply to God was the same but wasn’t he in for a surprise?) I’ve worked hard all these years and look what all my effort his brought – very little. (Didn’t Peter say that after fishing all night?)
Let's face it: we get used to not expecting too much. We get used to having little to show for all our efforts that our expectation of a surprise from God is almost nil.
An elderly parishioner told me the surprise that God gave him. In the early days of his congregation, he had gone around the neighbourhood collecting children for Sunday School. He did this faithfully year and after year. Children came and went over the years – very few remained in touch with the church. For 30 years he believed that he had wasted his time.
Then God surprised him. One by one many of them came back. Some looking for support and help with life’s problems. Some with partners wanting to be married or to have their children baptised and wanting for their children what they had received through the congregation and its Sunday School. Some wanting to take up where they had left off in the church 30 years before. Our God is a God of surprises. Who knows what surprises God has in store for us individually and as a congregation of God's people?
Perhaps you can recall a time when you have been caught out by the surprises of God just as I have been, and just as Peter was. Note Peter's response when he saw what had happened. He fell on his knees and said: Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man! Peter recognised the power and authority of Jesus as well his own sinfulness and fell on his knees in repentance.
You and I are setting out on a journey together as we serve the Lord in our churches and in this community. And I believe the story of this amazing catch of fish has something important to tell us about what to expect as members of the kingdom of God and members of this congregation. Just as God surprised so many people in the Bible, he will also surprise us as we carry on his work in the churches today.
Remember, Forrest Gump, and his famous saying, "Life is like a box of chocolates" - you never know what you are going to get. Today I would like to say this: Life in the church is like a box of chocolates because you never know in what ways God will surprise us.
In fact, I would go so far as to say, that if we haven’t been surprised by God lately then most likely we haven’t been listening to him very carefully or have been too ready with our reasons why God couldn’t possibly be talking to us. Our God is a God of surprises.
Without a doubt, sometimes the surprises will make us feel uncomfortable. This wasn't what we were expecting at all. We had things planned out differently. Or we have tried this before and it didn't work (remember Peter). Other times God's surprises will embarrass us. We feel bad because we had put up so many excuses and thought that God couldn’t possibly be talking to me. But as uncomfortable and silly as we might feel at times, and even sorry for not trusting God as we should have, God has a purpose for his surprises, namely, that the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ reach out and touch the lives of more and more people.
As you and I serve the Lord together here, I am looking forward to seeing the surprises God has in store for us both personally and as a congregation. I'm sure that some of those surprises will excite us and some will terrify us, but we will always need to remember who it is who is challenging us. It is God, the God who loves us, who died for us, who rose again, who sends us out with his message of love to others.
I can't say in what form this surprise will come. Maybe using your gifts in ways you had never imagined before. Maybe giving time to someone or some cause that you had never entered your head until you were challenged. Let’s be ready to respond to the unexpected, the unplanned, the unanticipated. Let’s give God room to surprise us. Let’s not shut him in the small confines of our imagination. Whatever the situation that comes up, we ask God to give us the faith, the humility, and the boldness to do whatever is necessary to further the work of his kingdom. May God's blessing go with us.
God of Surprises - Gerard W. Hughes
Vince Gerhardy Blog
God of All Things - Andrew Wilson
Surprised by Hope - Tom Wright
God of Surprise: The Life-Changing, Unexpected Ways God Works for Our Good - Bill Crowder
The God-Shaped Heart - Timothy R Jennings
Awaken -Priscilla C. Shirer
Dying to Meet Jesus - Kay Randy
Every Thing Is Sacred - Richard Rohr, Patrick Boland