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Surprise after surprise - Epiphany 2

Today is the second Sunday after Epiphany. Its other name is the Second Ordinary Sunday. I don’t like the name Ordinary Sunday, because the word ordinary to me means dull and boring. The same old hymns, the same old prayers, the same old readings, the same old sermon and the same old ordinary people. Some people don’t come to church because they say it’s boring and ordinary. They want excitement, surprises and all that sort of cool stuff and the church hasn’t got it.

How wrong they are! Ordinary Sundays are not ordinary at all. God is always the God who surprises us. Even after two thousand years of Christianity, there are still surprises galore.

Let’s look at the readings. The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

You can imagine the people around saying, “What are you talking about? Jesus is not a lamb! He may belong to God, but how can he take away the sin of the world?”

John answered them, saying, “Remember what I said about him? After me comes one who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”

And the people might have said, “I beg your pardon! How can Jesus be after you and before you at the same time? You’re obviously mad!” And then they might have hurried off, muttering to themselves about the mental health system in Judea.

The surprise is that what John says is true! Jesus the Lamb of God, Jesus who is both after and before, this man, Jesus the carpenter, is going to turn the world on its head. He is going to do things which will make the hair on the heads of those mutterers stand straight up with shock. The blind will see, the lame will walk, those possessed by devils will be set free, and then, and then Jesus will be killed, nailed to a cross. And here’s the surprise. This is the way Jesus will take away the sin of the world! How surprising is that? And the church is still puzzled after all these years. How does Christ save us? Is Jesus like a lightning conductor for sin so that the cross drains all the sin out of the world? Or is Jesus on the cross breaking through the barriers of this world into the Kingdom of God? Or is Jesus like the sacrificial Lamb whose life is poured out to save the lives of God’s people?

There are many ways to understand the cross of Christ, but however we think of it, the crucifixion was and is a shock and a surprise. St Paul said, “You might expect someone to give their life for a very good person, the surprise is that Jesus Christ gave his life for everyone, sinners and righteous together.”

Now I could go on to speak of the greatest surprise of all, the Resurrection. Even though Jesus told his disciples that he would be raised again on the third day, they did not believe him, so the resurrection took everybody by surprise. There are still people today, good faithful Christians, who are asking, “How on earth did it happen?” In fact I would be worried if we weren’t asking questions. But those are the questions for Easter Day, in April.

Today God has a whole box of surprises for us. One of the surprises is the way that the living LORD Jesus is right here among us, and that through the bread and wine we are made part of him and he becomes part of us.

But the surprise of the day is found in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Listen to me, he says, pay attention! I am going to tell you something which will make your ears tingle! The LORD called me before I was born; while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. The LORD said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Why should this announcement make our ears tingle? Who is the LORD God talking to? Who is it that is called before they are born? The first answer is that the LORD has called the prophet Isaiah. After all, the words are Isaiah’s words, Isaiah says, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb the LORD named me.” This makes good sense. The LORD did call Isaiah.

But the prophecy also refers to Jesus. The LORD sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she would have a child, Jesus was called before he was born. And while the child was still in his mother’s womb, the same angel announced his name, Immanuel, which means God is with us. And if we read Isaiah’s prophecy a little further on, the LORD says to his servant, “I will give you as a light to the nations; that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Does this sound like Jesus? It certainly does! No surprises here, we all know that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, so that God’s salvation could reach to the ends of the earth.

But let’s look even more closely at the words of the LORD. “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” The LORD names his servant Israel. So, who is Israel? Well, for a start, Israel is the name given to Jacob by the angel, when they were wrestling by the river Jabbok. But Israel is also the name of all Jacob’s descendants. They are called the children of Israel, or the Israelites, or simply Israel. They are also God’s chosen people. And when we hear of God’s chosen people, we know that God is talking to us. We are God’s chosen people and God is talking to us.

The LORD has called us before we were born; while we were in our mother’s womb the LORD named us. St Paul takes it further when he writes to the Ephesians. Not just before we were born; Paul says, “Before the world was made, God had already decided to call us to himself in Christ.” So here is the surprise! We are the ones who have been given to be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. Every baby who is baptized here is given a candle and told to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God. And if we ask the babies to shine, we’d better do some serious shining ourselves.

But some might say, “I can’t” or “I don’t know how to.” or “I’ve tried hard and nothing worked.” That’s okay, that’s not a problem. Isaiah said, “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” And Jacob, do you remember that he wrestled with the angel until the angel gave him a blessing. As for Israel, it would be hard to find anyone more cross grained and recalcitrant than the Israelites, God’s chosen people. Even Jesus himself prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”

God’s answer to all these complaints is the same, “Do not be afraid or surprised. I will be your God and you will be my people. I have great plans for you, plans for your good and not for your harm. Do not look at your mistakes or the things you cannot do. I am your strength and your honour. Your plans may come to nothing, but mine will come to fulfilment. It is my plan that all people shall see the Glory of the LORD. Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy one of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Let us now come before the LORD our God with praise and thanksgiving and pray that God will give us the knowledge and wisdom and power we need to shine to God’s glory in the world.

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