Faith in the Unexpected
by Dudley Delffs, PhD
At this time of year, we enjoy surprising others with gifts that let them know how much we love and appreciate them. For many people, the joy of the season is often about the delight of giving a present the recipient didn’t expect. It might be a hard-to-find toy, a homemade delicacy requiring dedicated time in the kitchen, or an extravagant luxury they would never buy for themselves. Exceeding expectations has become a key part of our holiday celebrations.
This kind of surprise is certainly at the heart of the Christmas story. For generations, the Jewish people waited on the Messiah to appear in their midst, Immanuel, God with us, a Savior who would deliver them from their sins. When God chose to fulfill His promise by sending His only Son, Jesus, as a human baby born in a cattle shed in the back-of-beyond town of Bethlehem, it wasn’t what anyone expected. The Wise Men likely assumed they were looking for royalty, an infant born into wealth and a prominent family. Shepherds keeping night watch over their flocks might have assumed the Messiah would arrive in Jerusalem, not in a stable just over the next hillside. Even Mary and Joseph probably did not expect Jesus’ birth to happen the way it did.
Jesus’ humble birth foreshadowed the rest of His life on earth. When He began His public ministry, rarely did He seem to meet the expectations so many people held. He wasn’t a military leader or political zealot, He didn’t come from the religious establishment or abide by cultural and social standards, He didn’t ask for money or demand luxury. In fact, Jesus’ lifestyle on earth was just the opposite. He consistently turned others’ expectations upside down to make a point: God wants our hearts not just our obedience. And He wants relationship with every single person—rich and poor, young and old, male and female, Jew and Gentile, religious insider and cultural outcast.
Jesus’ reversal of public expectations also reminded people that our human imaginations are sorely limited compared to the creativity of our Creator. We see things one way over and over again and assume they will stay that way. We want events to transpire in our favor and set our expectations accordingly. A key part of exercising faith in God, however, requires us to let go of what we want in order to experience what He wants. This goes not only for ourselves but in the way we challenge and encourage one another along the way.
Over the past few years, I’ve examined some of my personal heroes of the Christian faith and learned to expect the unexpected. Looking at the life and faith of Dolly Parton, I discovered an authentic dedication and practice to following the example of Jesus amidst a world of sequins, songs, and superstardom. Dolly doesn’t preach or try to tell others how to live their lives necessarily; she simply demonstrates what it means to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
A similar, no less surprising, faith emerges in the life of Queen Elizabeth II. Serving as the longest reigning monarch in British history, Her Majesty also heads the Church of England as part of her many duties. Instead of merely making her role ceremonial or historical, however, Queen Elizabeth has shown us in ways both large and small that her Christian faith is personal. In her annual Christmas broadcasts, which she has been sharing for over six decades, the Queen consistently focuses on Jesus’ example, as she did in 2016: “Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.” (https://www.royal.uk/christmas-broadcast-2016 )
I have always been inspired by the faith of people who are not pastors, ministry leaders, or professional Christians. Perhaps I assume that these people should demonstrate their faith in how they live and lead. When someone’s personal faith emerges in ways that aren’t required or expected, however, I take notice. They inspire me to do the same, to be who I am and do what God calls me to do, while trusting Him and following Jesus along the way. They remind me to surprise others by treating them better than they treat me or to fill a need without posting it on social media.
I believe the Christmas story surprises us the same way, reminding us that whether we’re a shepherd or sage, the Queen of Country Music or Queen of England, a student or CEO, a working mom or retired grandparent, God sent His Son for all of us. No one expected the King of Kings to be lying in a manger in Bethlehem, but there He was. Instead of surprising our loved ones with a special present under the tree, maybe the best gift we can give is to show them God’s love all year long.
Dudley Delffs, PhD, is an award-winning novelist, poet, and biographer. His latest book is The Faith of Queen Elizabeth (Zondervan, 2019). Dudley and his wife have three grown children and live in Sewanee, Tennessee. Follow him at www.dudleydelffs.com.
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