Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio (c.1600-1). Paul knew all about God acting in unexpected ways. He encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and was changed forever. Wikipedia

God's Word on Sunday: With God, expect the unexpected

  • March 27, 2022

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C) April 3 (Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11)

God can and does act in surprising and even shocking ways and cannot be confined by dogmatic formulas or learned treatises. Did calling one individual — Abraham — and staking everything on his fidelity make sense? Who would have ever predicted or reasoned the burning bush, the plagues of Egypt, the exodus, the giving of the commandments on Sinai and the entrance into the Promised Land?

The people of Judea ignored the warnings of the prophet Jeremiah, insisting that God would never allow His house — the temple — to be destroyed. But God did exactly that — Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and the people sent into exile in Babylon. In a classic case of “You haven’t seen anything yet!” God then warned them that something new was imminent. God told them to forget the “things of old” — the past, especially the ways in which they understood God. They would be dazzled and dumbfounded by the displays of divine power that would be revealed. God intended to clear a path for the people to go home to Jerusalem and would sweep away all opposition. The entire land and all its creatures would acknowledge the greatness of God. All of this was to be accomplished so that God’s treasured people could be cared for. All God asked in return was their thanks and praise.

In our relationship with God, we should expect the unexpected. No task is too great or too small for God, and no means of accomplishing it is ruled out. It is important to keep this in our minds and hearts at this very critical stage in our history. We are overwhelmed by the number and enormity of the crises and challenges that face us — war, disease, social unrest, as well as environmental and economic collapse. It is a time for fervent and unwavering prayer — we can tell God what we need, but not how God is to do it. We can wait and be surprised.

Paul knew all about God acting in unexpected ways. He had been quite satisfied with the way in which he lived his faith — even proud of his records and achievements. His zeal eventually led him to persecute the community of Christ followers. Unfortunately, many people do cruel things in the mistaken conviction that they are thereby serving God. Paul encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and was changed forever. It came as a shock that the one whom he had been persecuting was indeed the risen Christ. Doing a 180-degree turn, Paul spent the rest of his life as the apostle of Jesus Christ. He never looked back; he always strained forward to the future and the resurrection. Continually looking over our shoulder is not a helpful practice, for it can keep us trapped in the past.

People behave quite differently in a mob for they are given a degree of anonymity and lack of personal responsibility. They also operate from the darker and baser parts of the human psyche. A lynch mob had cornered a woman taken in adultery. They were out for blood and now saw a chance to increase their catch by trapping Jesus in a no-win situation. If He approved of their stoning the woman, then it negated all that He taught; if He disapproved, then He could be accused of violating and rejecting the law. But Jesus did the unexpected — He refused to meet their eyes; He was silent; He bent and wrote in the sand. By His unanticipated and bewildering behaviour, He derailed them and robbed them of some of their fury. He then uttered the phrase that has entered into our own culture: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And He continued to write in the sand.

Each of them turned inward, recalling their own darkness and sin, which they had been projecting on the woman. One by one they dropped the stones and slunk away, leaving only Jesus and the woman. He reassured the woman that He did not condemn her and sent her on her way with some sage advice: do not sin again.

The story is not about forgiveness — Jesus never condemned her. It is about the crowd — Jesus reminded them of their common humanity and their personal darkness and brokenness. Forgiveness is good, but far better not to condemn in the first place.