When the Bubble Bursts

Surprise is very often how grace arrives in our lives.

David Zahl / 5.4.21

The following is a transcribed sermon of mine that was included in Issue 17 of The Mockingbird, themed surprise. For the heart of why we chose this particular theme, look no further:

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest
of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
(Isaiah 2:1-5)

Are you shocked? Scandalized? Did your pulse quicken a little when you read those verses?

I assume that the answer is no. More like par for the course, Old Testament-wise.

Among their original hearers, though, Isaiah’s words would have caused quite a stir. The prophet is describing what’s coming to the people of Israel: the king and the kingdom on the horizon. He is outlining what they are waiting for and what they should expect of God. Sounds like standard prophet stuff, but the particulars are not what anyone present would have predicted.

Indeed, there is something deeply surprising in what he reveals. The surprise has two main aspects. The first comes in the verse above: “All the nations shall stream to it.” Not just “nation,” singular but “nations,” plural.

Isaiah’s audience would have been very accustomed to thinking of the nation of Israel as separate, as chosen, maybe as persecuted, but nonetheless God’s instrument and God’s people. And yet here we have this moment where Isaiah is saying all the nations are going to stream to the Lord’s house.

This is what we might call “a great zoom-out moment.” The scale of what’s to come, the scale of the good news, is so much larger and so much better than what they — and we — are imagining.

This would come as a surprise to a population that lived in a bubble. You see, the Israelites lived in a cultural-ethnic-religious bubble. They didn’t interact much with those beyond the boundaries of their tribe.

Of course, we live in bubbles today still. They’re more technological and ideological in nature, but the membranes are just as impermeable.

Along comes Isaiah’s news that the coming kingdom is going to burst all the bubbles. The scale of God’s action will far exceed the national borders they’ve erected. What great news for the people on the outside, who feel like they fall on the other side of the righteousness division.

And yet, like all surprises, as exciting as it surely was for some people, it would have rankled others. You can almost hear the Israelites’ incredulity: “Isaiah, are you saying that we’re no longer special? Are you taking something precious away from us?”

Most nights in my household, we go around the table to talk about what we’re thankful for. Well, if I’m being completely honest, one of the things I’m most thankful for this past year is TSA PreCheck. I know that sounds like a really bougie thing to say. For those of you fortunate enough to avoid air travel, this is what I’m talking about: When you get to the airport, there’s a security line that every passenger has to go through, where you take off your shoes, take out your laptop, and unpack whatever liquids you’re carrying. It’s arduous.

But directly on the other side of this queue, there’s the TSA PreCheck line, where you don’t do any of those things, You just breeze on through. All you have to do to get “approved” for TSA PreCheck is to make an appointment at the DMV and show them a few papers.

When I first got TSA PreCheck, I was overjoyed. It completely transformed my experience of going to the airport. Before long, I grew a little smug about it. I’d show up 40 minutes before my flight took off, look at all the irritated flyers in the general admission line, and think to myself, “Wow, you guys are chumps.”

Then came one morning a few weeks ago. I arrived at the airport at 6:00 a.m., 30 minutes before my flight was scheduled to take off, only to find that PreCheck was … closed. Both of the security agents on duty were trying to deal with upwards of 80 tired and visibly annoyed passengers.

I was not happy about this surprise. How dare they close PreCheck?! In a flash I realized: I didn’t want my special status taken away. What initially felt like a privilege had become a right.

Kind of trivial, I know, but a long-winded way of saying that when the bubble gets burst, oftentimes those on the inside get upset.

The second big surprise in Isaiah’s words is the phrase about swords being turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. What he’s saying is that, in this coming kingdom, weapons will be rendered into farming implements. The implements of war will be transformed. That which is used to destroy will be used to create and cultivate.

In other words, the coming Lord will not be a militaristic king primed to conquer and vanquish but a Prince of Peace who will redeem the instruments of aggression and will make it so that

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Again, this ceasing of divisions would have come as a major revelation to those in attendance. We think of Jesus as a Prince of Peace, or perhaps you do. I know I do. But it’s easy to forget how jarring that title would have been in its original context.

One of my favorite books to come out in the past couple years is Dominion by Tom Holland. He’s a British popular historian, sort of their David McCullough. He writes the following about the spread of Christianity. In the ancient world,

Divinity […] was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself: to nail them to the rocks of a mountain, or to turn them into spiders, or to blind and crucify them after conquering the world. That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque … Not merely blasphemy, it was madness.

Lest we presume that this conception was confined to the Roman Empire or first-century Judaism, it should be said that it’s still true today. Those to whom we ascribe godlike status are still the beautiful, the influential, the innovative, and those who triumph over adversity. Not those who succumb to it.

And so Christ’s coming onto the world’s stage represents a major surprise — ideologically, religiously, and historically.

It is also a surprise personally. Because you might not be a person of violence. You may have never held a weapon in your hand, never even thought about holding one. You may think of yourself as proudly pacifistic. And yet for most of us, when we are hurt or offended, our first impulse is to strike out at the offending party — and then to justify our anger in the name of fairness. When we feel wronged, we want payback. Indeed, so much of what we call “justice” today is actually rebranded revenge.

The witness of Jesus Christ runs against the grain of a human nature that insists on an eye for an eye. Grace contradicts these all-too-human instincts. We are deeply surprised, not to mention skeptical and sometimes enraged, when someone withholds judgment or simply refuses to exact what we feel are rightful consequences. If you need a case in point, just watch, listen to, or read Les Misérables again. It’s all there: the offense of grace, but also the transforming beauty of it.

Jesus Christ upsets our carefully balanced apple cart of deserving. He confounds our precious tit-for-tat way of thinking. He defies our expectations, which is a big part of what gets him killed. This man refused to escalate aggression, refused to repay sin with more sin.

And he is full of surprises, even at the very end, when, after being shut away in a grave for three days, he rises again and comes to his disciples. These are men who betrayed him. Men who categorically failed to live up to the charge he gave them at the Last Supper. Yet instead of coming to them with a wagging finger or an outstretched sword, he comes to them with mercy and an embrace. He doesn’t rescind their privileges but gives them more.

This is why nothing makes me sadder than when I hear someone say that they hate surprises. Of course there may be some past trauma involved, but 95% of the time, what someone means when they say, “I hate surprises,” is “I really, really, really like control. I like security. I like to know what’s coming. I do not want anything that’s not expected.”

Well, welcome to the human race. I too want to know what’s on the horizon. I too want to know what’s coming. But when we cut ourselves off from surprise, we cut ourselves off from so many of the good things in life and so much of what God has in store.

If you are at all like me, you find yourself in a season of moving rapid-fire from one thing to the next, shoulder to the grindstone, so bogged down in the day-to-day that you don’t have time for any surprises. You cannot allow yourself to be distracted. There just isn’t a moment to spare.

Or maybe you’ve come to believe that there are no surprises left in life. They are all in the past. Yet experience tells us, and the Bible confirms, that surprise is very often how grace arrives in our lives: from falling in love, to the birth of a child, to the sudden opportunity you never saw coming. When your plotline is overturned, God is usually in the mix.

Let me give you a final story. My older brother, who’s a clergyman in New York, tells of meeting with a young couple who had asked him to perform their marriage. This is something that he does a lot. Amanda and Seth were their names, and he noticed right off the bat how bubbly they were. In fact, they seemed so compatible that he was concerned. Their pie-in-the-sky language made him worry whether these two idealistic young people were “cruisin’ for a bruisin’” when it comes to the trenches of being married to another human being.

And so, before agreeing to do the wedding, he asked them how they met. Amanda proceeded to say that they had connected online and arranged to go on a date, which went pretty well — not great, but enough to warrant a second one. The second date also went well. Again, no lightning striking, but enough to warrant a third.

On the way to their third date, Seth had a seizure and drove his car into a telephone pole. He was hospitalized in a coma, and the doctor said he would be in that hospital bed for six months, minimum.

Amanda found herself in a very awkward position, not unlike when you start dating someone right before their birthday. But x 1000. What should she do? She likes this guy, but they’ve had two dates. And he’s going to be in that bed for six months minimum?

Her family, naturally, advised her, “You are under no obligation here. No one will think less of you if you walk away, if you get back on the horse and maybe check in with him in eight months.” She thought about it, and yet, when Seth finally opened his eyes a month later, much to his surprise, the first face he saw was Amanda’s. In that instant he knew that this was the woman he wanted to marry.

Seth stopped the story at that point and looked at my brother and said, “This is why I can’t believe I’m actually saying this to you, but that seizure and that crash were the best thing that ever happened to me.”

That’s a surprise. The surprise of the Gospel is that darkness is not all there is, not for the world and not for you. Cause-and-effect — predictability — has been thwarted. And what’s more, it will be thwarted again. I promise you. Hallelujah.

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