Psalm 23 is probably the most familiar Psalm in the Bible. To those who see God as nothing but an angry grumpy tyrant, ready to blast us out of existence for any mis-step, this picture of a tender and attentive shepherd can come as a surprise.
Surprises – they pop up in our lives all the time. Everyday surprises are not always as obvious or extreme as these, but here are some examples.
The Wonderful Surprise –
“You’ve just won the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes”.
The Anticipated Surprise – a.k.a. the surprise you know is coming
“I need to talk to you next Thursday about something really important.” Or maybe walking into what should be an empty room on your birthday and hearing a group of people yell “Surprise!”
The Unwanted Surprise
“Come to the ER. Your child has been in a terrible accident.”
In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel, slaves in Egypt, are led away to freedom by Moses, headed to a country of their own that God has promised them. Great surprise! God must really love them!
Suddenly they’re trapped between the Red Sea and Pharoah’s army. Terrible surprise! How could God let this happen?
God holds the army with a column of fire, parts the waters, the Israelites cross to safety. God puts out the fire, and as the Egyptians cross the sea bed, the waters collapse on the army. God must love them (again). The people burst into song. And who wouldn’t after such a great surprise. But the Bible tells us that every time unwanted surprises came, they whined and complained and threatened to head back to Egypt.
The truth is, God was good the whole time. He delivered on His surprise. Israel just had to work through the rough wrapping to get to the treasure inside. So it is with us.
As a young adult, I remember vividly my mother listening as I poured out my fear and concern about a crisis point in my life, one that could shape my whole future. What if I fail? What’s going to happen? She listened and then said this to me – “God is not sitting on His throne, wringing His hands and wondering ‘Oh, no, what am I going to do’? When I think about that, I almost always chuckle. It is indeed a ridiculous thought. God’s got this. He knows what’s going on with the great surprises. He knows what’s going on with the unwanted surprises.
Sometimes an unwanted surprise causes irritation – rare is the person who enjoys having to change a schedule to deal with an unexpected situation.
Sometimes an unwanted surprise brings fear – what can we do about this? Will everything be okay? Ever?
Often an unwanted surprise elicits a question in us – a question that asks “Could I have done something to change this?” or more often “Could I have done more?” Usually that’s a normal, but invalid, emotion that invades the sensitive soul. Sometimes it’s a legitimate assessment of our own priorities, and how we invest our energies in the lives of others.
Either way, it can lead us to the gift that was hidden inside the roughly wrapped package.
It might be fair to say that sometimes our loved ones have brought some unwanted surprises, especially as they became less well and more dependent on others. As loved ones and friends we’ve worked to comfort, to help, and have done our best to prepare for and prevent unwanted surprises. And yet . . . they still come. Those unwanted surprises can be challenging, exhausting, and sometimes devastating.
But if we take our cue from the Israelites, we’ll look a little farther, and see a little deeper. We’ll discover and remember the events that are nuggets of blessing. We’ll reflect on the times when, despite all the challenges of the situation, we’ve shared a moment we’ll never forget, and possibly that will influence us for the rest of our lives.
In that moment the rough wrapping of unwanted surprises can be laid aside, and we can discover one nugget of treasure among many – the assurance that no matter what has come before, God is not surprised and He is in control. It’s a reminder to make all of our interactions with others the wonderful surprise that God intends our lives to be.