It was before we had kids, a Friday. Candy I went to a fast food chicken place near our home, Popeye’s. A group of women in the long line in front of us were talking away, carrying on. I don’t remember if I made a comment, or how it happened, but before I knew it, we were in their conversation. That’s when the river of time began to flow and all Candy and I could do was ride with the current.
The women discovered that I was a pastor. We discovered they were all wives of the head coach and assistant coaches of the local high school football team. It was just across the main road. They were buying the pre-game meal for the coaches. They invited us to come to the game with them.
Once there, they got word to the coaches that a pastor was sitting with them. Candy and I thought of ourselves not as pastor and pastor’s wife, but as a happy couple out on a cheap date. Without knowing it, we were caught up in something God was doing. After the game, one of the parents of one of the players asked if I would come down and lead both teams in prayer. It seems that the previous night, in the JV game between the same two teams, a player sustained a spinal chord injury. So, I did what was requested. I found myself, for the first time since playing over decade prior, on the field. This time, I was in the role of pastor leading young men, shaken up by recent events, in prayer. And, the team asked me twice to come back and lead them in pre-game devotions.
How did all of that happen? Candy and I willingly engaged in conversation with strangers, they extended an invitation out of spontaneous kindness, and we responded. God stepped in from there.
That won’t happen to you. It won’t happen to me again. Some of what took place occurred because of my official role in church, but much of it just happened. That’s the way unexpected experiences come. They just happen. Maybe something takes place in your life because you are a mom or because you are over 55 or because you work at a University or because you are shopping for batteries; whatever the causal event, the unexpected pops, well, unexpectedly! Then what?
He was in prison and deserved to be there. His name was Jesus Barabbas, and the gospel writer Matthew called him a ‘notorious prisoner’ (27:16). Commentaries say that Greek word was used to describe bands of thieves who would hide out in rural areas. They attacked processions of Romans, so in a sense, they were political rebels. However, they also robbed Israelites who traveled the remote roads. In those instances, they were common thugs, feared by all.
This one, Jesus Barabbas, was caught and scheduled to be executed by the merciless Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Resigned to his fate, he bided his time, undoubtedly engaging in gambling and fistfights with the other inmates in the hellhole that was Pilate’s prison. Some dreamed of being freed.
Pilate, as a way of controlling the Jews through gaining their favor, would give amnesty to one criminal every year at Passover. He would invite the crowd to shout out the name of one destined for a crucifixion. Whichever criminal had his name shouted loudest was freed. It was a twisted game, one more way the Roman overlords manipulated the conquered peoples they ruled. No one among those incarcerated could honestly hope to the one freed. Still, some dared to dreamed about it.
But, Barabbas was as Matthew said, notorious; feared by soldier and peasant alike. He had to know his name would never be called. When the guards summoned him, he had to expect that it was his time for death. Did he pray for a quick death? Did he tremble, the savage killer now struck with fear at the miserable execution that awaited him? He had seen plenty of crosses. He knew what was coming. What did the notorious one think when he was released? How in the world did the crowd call his name?
Surely, Barabbas would eventually learn that Pilate limited the choices for amnesty to him and the controversial miracle worker, that other Jesus, the Galilean they said was the Messiah. Barabbas surely knew that that Jesus didn’t kill people. He healed them. Surely Barabbas knew that that Jesus wasn’t really guilty of a horrible crime; it’s possible he hadn’t done anything at all. He was arrested for political reasons. Now, he would be nailed to the cross that had been reserved for the notorious bandit.
This was unexpected. What would Barabbas do now?
I was at my former church when the call came in. Someone in the neighborhood had died. A lot of people who came to Washington DC for government jobs in the 40’s and 50’s lived in that neighborhood of duplexes in Arlington, VA. The decades passed and that community was flooded first by Vietnamese boat people, then by refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, then by people fleeing political unrest in Ethiopia, and genocide in Sudan. It was a complete hodgepodge.
Those post-WW II governments workers who flocked to the DC area from Western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Western Virginia, and Tennessee were mostly retired when I moved there in 1997. They were aging as the community changed. And one family of one of the old residents called because their mother had died. They wanted to donate her furniture to the church, which we would then give the furniture to needy families.
We set that up, and the day came to transport the pieces of furniture back to our church parking lot. As I recall, I was moving a coffee table that we were going to use in the church building in one of the classrooms. It was so close to the house, I could just carry the light coffee table the two blocks back to our building. As I did, a taxi cab sort of pulled up beside me and rolled down the window. The driver, a woman, asked what I was doing with all this furniture? Could she have some?
Sure! But a lot of it was back at the church. We met over there and loaded a few things into her car. She had her 23-year-old daughter with her. The young woman and I started talking and it was quickly clear that she needed two things very badly, a Bible and a job. It just so happened that we needed someone to answer the phones during the day and put together our newsletter.
As an aside, I do not recommend that churches fill important staff positions haphazardly. When we hired her, Jessica was not even a believer. She was seeker. I don’t recommend hiring unbelievers or seekers onto the church staff. Employees of the church should be followers of Jesus Christ. But this was a special case. I knew God was in this. I couldn’t identify specifically how God was in this, but God was definitely in this. I was terribly conflicted. We gave her a Bible, and we hired 23-year-old Jessica as our church secretary.
Then, she started coming to church for worship on Sundays. Then, she joined the church choir. And she formed friendships in our church. Next, she started bringing her family, her sisters and nieces and nephews to church with her. Finally, she gave her heart to Jesus and was baptized. And through my five years, here at HillSong, away from there, I have kept in touch with her through Facebook, and she had stayed connected with the church.
How did it happen? I did not expect for someone in the neighborhood to donate furniture. But we said, sure, we’d get it to people who could use it. I did not expect one of those people to request a Bible. I don’t know if this would surprise you, but in the churches I have served, we probably get 50 people who request financial assistance for every 1 that asks for a Bible or asks for prayer. But she did ask for Bible and she really did want it and she really did read it and take seriously what it says.
What do we do when the unexpected comes?
Simon came to Jerusalem for Passover. Many commentators believe this Simon was in fact Hebrew and had migrated to Cyrene which was in Egypt. He was part of the Jewish Diaspora. There were Jews all over the Mediterranean world and as far south as Arabia and as far east as present-day India. They made pilgrimage to the city of David annually so they could celebrate Passover at the temple. Simon was African and was also Jewish. He may have been a Diaspora Jew or he may have been a dark-skinned African person who converted to Judaism, a proselyte. Either way, he was in Jerusalem to worship not to get mixed up with the Romans.
But it was 33AD. It was the toxic, combustible climate of an occupied country that included people who had dreams of God’s intervention and some were willing to provoke violence to spur God on a bit. Roman soldiers were everywhere, and poor Simon got caught in the crowd when they moved to execute a rebel.
Did Simon even know who Jesus was? There was talk of all kinds of would be Messiahs. Jesus, after having undergone the vicious Roman flogging which some men did not survive must have been a sorry sight. Bloodied. Beaten. Mocked. Now he had to carry this heavy beam on his shoulders to Golgotha, just outside the city. There, he would be nailed to it; the Son of God, killed for the sins of the world.
Simon did not know this crucifixion would lead to the salvation of humankind. But then, that’s the thing about the unknown and the unexpected. We don’t know what God is doing behind the scenes. All Simon knew is he couldn’t avoid involvement. The Roman soldiers compelled him to carry the cross the weakened Jesus could not bear. The disciples had fled and were in hiding. But here was Simon, unexpectedly and perhaps unwittingly, standing on the precipice of history.
The Bible doesn’t give further explanation related to Barabbas or to Simon of Cyrene. Church tradition lists Simon among the thousands saved at Pentecost. Did that happen? And Barabbas, the other Jesus, the one whose life was spared when the priests convinced the crowd to call for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, what of the “notorious criminal?” What became of the bandit and the bystander?
More importantly, what happens in the unexpected moments and events of our lives? I deplore the phrase “all things happen for a reason,” especially when it is said in relation to an illness or a death. I hate it because people don’t attempt to discover the reason. All things happen for a reason. People say it because they don’t know what else to say when bad things happen or tragedy strikes or the unexpected comes.
Instead of passing off the unwanted and unexpected with All things happen for a reason, passionately devoted followers of Jesus Christ respond in faith. We earnestly seek the leading of the Holy Spirit. There may or may not be an unseen, divine reason for our experiences. Either way, God sees all things and God, omnipresent as God is, sees us in the places of our lives. God is with us in what we go through.
We know about being stewards with our money, resources, and time. We also need to practice stewardship in our experiences, even those we did not see coming. Is what I am going through an opportunity to share my faith or invite someone to church or practice kindness or love someone with the love of Jesus or aid someone who is in great distress or learn something about God that I didn’t know before that will affect me going forward or trust God in a way I not trusted God before?
In the week and month that is coming, the unexpected will happen in your life and mine. When it does, seek God in it. Represent Jesus and share his love. Think and act as one who is full of the Holy Spirit so that the unexpected is not an unwelcome surprise. Rather it is a divine appointment in which we are part of the story of God saving the world.