It has been said: Always expect the unexpected!
It was in fact Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who died around 425 BC, who first coined the phrase: he wrote: If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.
I’m not quite sure exactly what he meant by that – certainly not by the second part of that saying! He seems to have made a habit of being deliberately enigmatic. He also came up with such gems of philosophical thought as:
There is nothing permanent except change
and – see what you make of this one: The way up and the way down are one and the same.
Always expect the unexpected!
Oscar Wilde emphasised the importance of expecting the unexpected by updating that quote from Heraclitus. Wilde, in his usual manner, said: To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.
One thing that is manifestly clear from reading the gospels, is that Jesus was always doing the unexpected. And you might have thought that the disciples although not having a modern intellect as Wilde puts it, having seen what Jesus has been doing, would have learned to expect not just the unexpected, but the downright impossible! Already by this point in Jesus’ ministry, according to the write of John’s Gospel, they have seen him turn water into wine, they have seen him heal an official’s dying son from a distance, they have seen him heal an invalid at the pool of Bethesda. By now they should have been ready to expect just about anything. They may have had no idea what Jesus would do, but by now they were surely at the point where they could have reasonably thought that Jesus might just have a cunning plan up his sleeve!
And yet it seems that still couldn’t get their minds around the reality that the impossible was possible when Jesus was involved! Constantly they found their faith in Jesus being put to the test – deliberately put to the test – by Jesus. Expect the unexpected? It seems to have been completely outside the disciples’ mindset to expect Jesus to do unexpected things, even though by now they should have been prepared for just about anything!
in our gospel reading this morning we see two impossible situations where the disciples have their faith put to the test. We see Jesus’ disciples face two impossible situations; will they respond in faith? Will they trust that despite the situations they face that Jesus has everything under control?
Jesus is followed by a massive crowd to a remote place, and we are told that Jesus test Philip by asking him where they can buy bread for all these people. He knows what he is going to do, but he wants to find out how Philip will respond to the situation. Note that there is no indication that these people are actually hungry – but Jesus has decided to feed them anyway.
Philip responds to the test in a very human way: he considers the finances and concludes that it is totally impossible as they would need a huge amount of money to feed everyone, more than half a year’s salary. Then Andrew chips in, mentioning that he has found a boy with five barley loaves (the cheapest, least palatable bread) and two fishes (which were likely to be no more than small pickled fish), but states this small amount of food would be little help in feeding the crowd.
Both disciples look only at their own resources to deal with the problem and, as such, believe it to be irresolvable. Jesus shows them that what is impossible for them is possible for God and proceeds to feed the entire crowd so amply that there are twelve baskets of food left over: more than there was to start with!
Afterwards, Jesus vanishes and retreats into the hills alone and does not return by nightfall as the disciples appear to expect. Being well acquainted with the temperamental nature of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples realise that they can wait no longer if they are to cross before a brewing storm breaks. So they set off leaving Jesus behind. However, three or four miles in, after hours of hard rowing, exhausted, with conditions deteriorating and still only halfway across the lake, they are clearly in trouble.
Again, they are in a truly hopeless situation: all alone and believing Jesus to be too far away to help. Indeed, when Jesus does approach them upon the water they fail to recognise him and are petrified. They may have recently witnessed him miraculously feed five thousand, but they still seem to struggle to believe that he could be there to help in their desperate situation. Yet, of course, Jesus once again comes to the rescue and miraculously sorts things out.
The point the writer of the gospel is trying to get across in his account of the feeding of the five thousand is not that five thousand people are fed. It is that Jesus is testing his disciples to see whether they have now realised that the unexpected, the impossible, can happen. “What are we going to do to feed these people?” he asks. And when, yet again, the disciples show their faith, their understanding of Jesus, to be lacking, he goes ahead and distributes the five loaves and two fish among the people.
And when he comes walking across the sea to them in the middle of a storm, if we like them fail to recognise Jesus, then like them we fail to see the power of Jesus at work among us. “It is I; do not be afraid.” He says to them. As we face the storms of life he says to us, “It is I; do not be afraid.” And just as he then brought the disciples to their destination so if we will let him he will bring us to our destination – our eternal home.
Jesus tests the disciples. Have they learned that with Jesus they can expect not just the unexpected, they can expect what those without faith would think impossible? In today’s gospel reading they are not yet there and they didn’t really get there until after the resurrection. The writer of the gospel, though, is putting the same test to those for whom he is writing his gospel. Those who will read his words – or more likely hear them read – and who live in the light of the resurrection. He is saying: Do you have the faith to believe that Jesus can work miracles, that Jesus can use his power to overcome the natural order of things.
Jesus responded to problems in ways that the disciples didn’t expect. They didn’t expect him, despite the evidence, to work in a miraculous way in their lives. And we can so often be like the disciples. When a problem comes along we all too often don’t expect Jesus to actually do anything – and like the disciples we fail to trust in Jesus, fail to hand our problems over to him.
Of course, it is far from easy to keep exercising faith in situations such as when we lose our job, or are diagnosed with a terminal illness, or our marriage breaks up, or a loved one dies unexpectedly, and so on. For Jesus doesn’t always respond in the way that we might, at one level, want. He doesn’t wave a magic wand and make everything go back to how it was. But, as with the disciples, he is there, ready to support in the ways that he thinks best, and help us find a way through.
It was in difficult and seemingly unsolvable situations times that Jesus took the opportunity to try and inspire faith from his disciples, because those times should have forced them to look outside themselves and seek God’s help through Jesus. It was clearly important to Jesus that his disciples had a growing faith and if the disciples needed to develop their faith, so do we.
So may we encourage our faith to grow, putting it into practice each day by choosing to believe that Jesus can and will help us, no matter how difficult our situations. That Jesus can use his power among us: for what is impossible for us, is possible for Jesus! Always expect the unexpected when Jesus is at work in your life! For Jesus will if we let him work in power through his ?Church and through us.
Saint Paul was very clear in the extract from his letter to the Ephesians that we heard this morning that God strengthens us through the power of his Spirit, and that through faith Jesus dwells in our hearts – through faith. Basically, we need to put our faith in Jesus, we need to expect the unexpected where Jesus is concerned, and to have the power as Saint Paul puts it to comprehend just how great the love of God is for us.
I finish with the words of Saint Paul which end our extract from his letter to the Ephesians, our New Testament reading today. We used it regularly during worship at the Church Army College when I was there, and it has become one of those prayers that I know by heart and use at opportune moments. This is the version from the Common Worship prayer book.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive, by the power which is at work among us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all ages. Amen. (Eph.3.20-21)