WHY Are You Surprised?

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

Easter Sunday
April 9, 2023

Scripture readings: Acts 10:34-43 and Matthew 28:1-15a

One of my favorite things is when the Lord surprises us.  We always seem to fall for it too…almost as if we didn’t expect the Lord to act…almost as if we forgot all we read in the Bible…almost as if thought we were on our own.

It’s almost too easy for us to be surprised, isn’t it?

Just consider that story that all of us have heard a million times over, in a million different places, with a million different actions that have NO rational explanation, NO scientific explanation, NO human explanation…but it happened anyway.  

For example: Consider a story involving a young child in a hospital.  The child is seriously ill, and doctors have done all they can to treat the child, cure the illness, help the medical process…but finally they tell the stricken family that nothing more can be done…the child will most likely die.  The family begins to pray, and they don’t stop.  The patriarch of that family tells the others, “The doctors have done all they can; we have done all we can.  Now it’s time for us to step back and let the Lord do what the Lord will do.”

The child makes a full recovery, the doctors are pleased – but also puzzled, and the family rejoices.

But ask yourself…and be honest: Why are you surprised?

  • Is it because other children die every day and doctors can’t do anything about them?
  • Is it because miracles exist in the Bible – but not in real life?
  • Is it because we are afraid to demonstrate the same level of faith – for fear that it will fail us?

No matter the answer, we are surprised.

Easter Sunday is a perfect day to examine this question of WHY we are surprised.  There is so much in the biblical texts that surprises us!  

Consider my very favorite biblical character: Peter the Apostle.  Look no further than his name to see all the changes:

  • He was Simon, Andrew’s brother, and they were fishermen.
  • He was named “Cephas” which means “Rock” by Jesus himself.
  • “Cephas” translates to “Petras” in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire and the language of the Christian church for hundreds of years.
  • Finally, he is “Peter” today – which is the English translation.

But I think our friend, Peter, changed a lot more than his name…

When he was summoned to the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, the first thing many Christians think of is the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his slave; or perhaps we think of the centurion who was at the crucifixion who muttered, “Surely, this man was the Son of God” when Jesus breathed his last.  But whatever our thoughts on this man, we were most likely NOT thinking of him like Peter would.

Peter was a true, steadfast believer and follower of Jesus Christ.  But Peter was raised as a Jew, and the early church struggled with how to honor their heritage and yet follow Christ.  For a leader such as Peter the Apostle, this was a learning process.  

When he heard of the vision of Cornelius – which was so much like the vision Peter himself had experienced – Peter realized that God had revealed something important to him: all of God’s creation – especially all of God’s children – were not to be called “impure” or “unclean.”  God’s acceptance was for ALL God’s children!

…even for flawed believers…

…even for outsiders…

…even for Apostles who loved Him and yet denied Him.

And in that acceptance, Peter changed forever;

  • Peter changed when he first encountered Jesus and said, “Go away from me for I am a sinful man!”
  • Peter changed when he followed Jesus for three years and saw all the miracles Jesus performed.
  • Peter changed when he denied he even knew Jesus – and he spent the rest of his life confessing it and trying to serve the best way he could.

When Jesus died on the cross, the Apostles were not there to witness it.  But they knew He was dead.  Despite all He had told them, they grieved for their dead Teacher and Master.  They didn’t cry for the torture Jesus had experienced; they cried because they dismissed all He had told them.

In a word, they were all…SURPRISED.

When the women went to the tomb that morning to wash and anoint the dead body of Jesus, they were surprised by what they found:

  • Stone rolled away by an angel;
  • Guards lying in a dead faint;
  • Angel telling them what they should have known;
  • Jesus himself greeting them as they ran to tell the news!

But make no mistake: they were surprised!

When the angel AND Jesus told them to tell the “brothers” to meet Him in Galilee, we might all be at least a little surprised when we realize that Jesus referred to his Apostles as his “brothers.”  This indicates that Jesus had already forgiven them for abandoning Him and Peter for denying Him.

Does that tiny detail surprise you a little?

When the guards woke up, found the tomb empty and the angel and women all gone, they reported to the chief priests and the elders; they didn’t report to Pilate.

Anyone surprised by that?

Then the religious leaders put their heads together, came up with a plausible story to explain the empty tomb, and bribed the guards to keep quiet.

Anyone surprised by that either?

 Finally, if you are looking for definitive proof of the resurrection and the four Gospel accounts are your evidence, you have a big problem: they differ in their accounts enough to cast “reasonable doubt” on the whole account:

  • Which women were at the tomb?  What are their names?
  • How many angels were at the tomb: one or two?
  • How did the stone get rolled away?
  • Were there guards or not?  If so, were they sleeping or fainted dead away?
  • Which Apostles can verify the women’s story?
  • Finally, if the so-called “resurrection” of Jesus didn’t really occur, then why didn’t those chief priests and elders – and even the guards – search everywhere and produce the still-dead body of Jesus of Nazareth?

Is anyone surprised by all this?  Anyone?

Throughout Christian history, the four accounts of the Easter morning resurrection are cherished by all Christian communities for their messy details, for their variations between Gospels, for their usual endings that seem almost to have been done to muddy the waters of belief.  Christians love the resurrection accounts as much – if not more! – than the birth narratives from Matthew and Luke. 

Those Easter morning accounts are universally cherished because of one important detail: In all of them, the tomb is empty – and His followers are surprised.

So, it stands to reason that today we should not be that surprised when the Lord still works among us.

We should not be surprised when things work out – despite our best efforts.

We should not be surprised when the answer to a prayer appears – even if we forgot to pray first.

We should not be surprised when we say to one another, “It’s a God thing” to answer an incredible, quirky set of coincidences that reveals God’s love in a way we didn’t expect.

God continues to surprise us today, Christians.

Perhaps we should stop being so surprised!

He is risen!  HE IS RISEN INDEED!

And that’s no surprise at all.