The Third Sunday in Lent

Ah, the unexpected! I was heading home on Sunday from Coventry along the A14 when the tell-tale signature of red tails lights said I wasn’t going anywhere. I stopped. Fire brigade, ambulances, police all came past. We waited. Four hours later Highways turned the cars around – having got all the lorries to move to the edges – and we slowly headed back 2 miles or so to the turnoff to resume our journey. Now I had expected to live those four hours of my life differently but I still lived them – dozing, reading, talking with my daughter in Australia.

I was at a Churches Together in England meeting for the group of which the ELCE is a member. We rarely meet in person – there are some advantages with online meetings! – but this meeting was a farewell meeting for some member churches and some church representatives. And then the unexpected happened! Those who were leaving said that their churches had made recent decisions which meant that they were not departing! Then another church leader announced an unexpected departure. ‘At least we can eat the farewell cake with a good conscience’ I said! The news was unexpected – on both accounts.

From time to time, I meet people who want me to tell them the future – even in detail – about them or the ELCE or Ascension or about me – and I give general answers. I might talk about ‘trajectories’ – if we stay on this course of action then this outcome will probably happen – or I talk about processes – if you take this course then this door will probably open for you. I hope I mention that God is faithful to us in all our decisions and circumstances and particularly in the unexpected. The couple, at the altar, want the ‘happy ever after’ but the unexpected can happen and yet each person can commit to following Jesus in their marriage no matter what happens – especially when it is unexpected. Yes, our commitment to Jesus varies as is evidenced by our behaviour but we can daily return to our Baptism – to Jesus and who he says we are – and then for that day seek to be committed to him again which is lived out in our daily vocation (as it applies to us as child, friend, spouse, parent, worker, employer, citizen, ruler, congregational member, pastor). Our living is both planned – it is good to make plans for the future – but also constantly dealing with the unexpected – we don’t know what will happen by sunset today!

James wrote to dispersed Christians: 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” – 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15 ESV).

For people who need to be in control or have certainty, the unexpected can be particularly challenging – as is an uncertain future. We all know the adage ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’ so planning itself isn’t the issue. I planned to go home from Coventry and I eventually did exactly that. But there is a human illusion and mixed with hubris that the best life is about minimising the unexpected and achieving what I plan to achieve. I think that can produce ulcers and disappointment and dissatisfaction. I learnt a long time ago – and especially when I had accepted a call and then it happened that the congregation fell into an environmental and political crises and I felt like I was leaving them in the lurch – that God is with us in our todays and tomorrows and forever – and nothing is unexpected to him. So we use our sanctified commonsense to work out how to live today (whom to serve) – and grow in a confidence that whatever the unexpected – it wasn’t unexpected to God – and so we now have an unexpected moment to discover what good God is bringing about – and that discovery and way of living is engaging and exciting – even if you’re frustrated when stuck in a traffic jam!