Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Place Your Bets (2 Timothy 4:6-8: 16-18)

Probably everyone’s heard the phrase, “expect the unexpected.” It warns us to be ready if things don’t go the way we plan, and it’s good advice.

One of the things Paul says in this passage reminds me that when we’re dealing with God, “expect the unexpected” is more than advice – it’s pretty much standard operating procedure.

Paul tells Timothy how he survived a time of trial. The people around him deserted him, but God stood with him and prevailed. God “rescued him from the lion’s mouth” he says. That passage reminds some of us and probably reminded nearly every Jewish person who heard it of the story of Daniel, thrown into a den of lions because he defied King Nebuchadnezzar and stayed true to the Lord.

Although he faced more than one lion, Daniel survived unharmed. God protected him.

Had Las Vegas betting operations been around back then, I imagine they wouldn’t have even taken bets on the contest. Sometimes some events are so lop-sided they’ll refuse to list them, and one man versus several lions defines lop-sided. Common sense tells us the lions will win. They are bigger, stronger, have claws and bigger teeth and there are more of them. Everyone would bet on the lions and no one would bet on Daniel, so the bookies would close it down because they couldn’t make any money on the contest.

Most things in the world work that way, though. If an 8-man high school football team lines up against professional football players, common sense tells us the pros will win and the kids don’t have a chance. Sure, they might win. It’s not impossible, but it’s so unlikely that no one would risk anything on the matchup.

God’s standard operating procedure, though, calls us to expect the unexpected. Found a nation through which salvation will come to the world? Use a 100-year-old childless couple. Establish that nation as a stable operation to create the culture that will bring that savior to the world? Pick a group of people 400 years in slavery.

Time to give that nation a real king as its leader? One shepherd boy, coming up. Need to give that culture and people the finishing touches that will get them looking to the coming savior? Destruction and exile, at your service.

Bring the savior into the world? One poor Jewish teenager, please. Finish his work, re-uniting sinful broken humanity with its Creator? I’d like a shameful execution, if you don’t mind.

Paul credits his ability to stand and testify when he was on trial to God, not to himself. He was down for the count, with the referee already finished saying “t-” and halfway through “-en.” God rescued him from the figurative lion’s mouth of fear and inability to speak just as he rescued Daniel from the actual lions. Paul too stands in this pattern of God using the unlikeliest way to get his work done – a persecutor of the faith became its greatest preacher.

Why would God work this way? Just for the fun of it, to make people go, “Huh?” Sure, he probably chuckles some at the head-scratching, but I think there’s more to it.

For one, when things run so completely opposite of what we would expect them to do, we see God’s work more clearly. We often use the word “miracle” to describe it in fact, clearly labeling it a work of God. Well, it’s obvious God was involved, we say, because no human effort could have done that.

I believe God also works that way because of who he is – the Creator. The medieval church called the creation of the universe creatio ex nihilo, or “creation from nothing.”

Maybe you and I haven’t been in Paul’s deep mess, but most of us have probably found ourselves without much hope in some situation or another. It’s probably not all the way to “nothing,” but it’s close enough to make us believe the game is over in whatever area we’re dealing with, and there’s “nothing” to be done.

And that’s when the God of expecting the unexpected says, “Step aside” and creates something from what we thought was nothing. A new idea, a new inspiration, a new hope, a new start – he’s got a lot of good outcomes where we saw only bad ones.

Which is why, no matter what the oddsmakers say and no matter what it seems like is certain to happen, what you might call the divine tip sheet always tells us to bet on Daniel. His God saved him, and if his God is our God, then we just might be saved as well.

And that’s the good news.

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