Surprise is at the heart of punchlines, ironies, new discoveries, and Christmas gifts. Life without surprise would be like a world without sunshine, a world without lightning, and a world without taste. In fact, one of the many surprises of this life is that food actually tastes good. It was not a requirement of the Creator to make it so, but he surprised us with beautiful flavours. As Douglas Wilson has said,
“He could have made all food quite nourishing, but which tasted like wadded up newspaper soaked in machine oil. Instead He gave us the tastes of watermelon, pecans, oatmeal stout, buttered corn, apples, fresh bread, grilled sirloin, and 25-year-old scotch.”
The surprise is that food actually tastes good! Life is full of other surprises. Think of the punchline of one of your favourite jokes: “What did one snowman say to the other snowman?” (the answer is in the footnote). The humour comes from the unexpected, the twist in the meaning, the irony of a snowman smelling anything. When someone makes a new discovery, it is traditional to yell out the word, “eureka,” meaning “I have found it.” There is surprise in response to discovering something new like the displacement of water in a bath, gravitational waves, Higgs Boson particles, and black holes (the last three were all discovered within our lifetimes).
When I was a small child growing up on the farm, Christmas was a time of spectacular surprises. My parents worked hard to create a joyful Christmas atmosphere with a tree cut from the local riverbank, tinsel, and ornaments, and a turkey large enough to feed the guests at our Christmas meal. On Christmas morning the cows still had to be milked and fed and given fresh bedding, and so when my sister and I were still quite small, we would wait in her bedroom listening to Christmas records on a portable turntable while our parents finished the chores. We wanted so badly to go out to the tree and see what it looked like all decorated, with wrapped presents beneath it. We could barely wait for the signal that it was time to see it for ourselves. The greatest moment was always that moment when we could see it all – before the destruction of Christmas paper and ribbons and the opening of the presents. I wanted that moment, that view, to freeze there and last forever, before the surprises were revealed. Oh, sure, the gifts in the pretty boxes were nice, but it was the anticipation, the moment of surprise, that was the true reward for excitedly waiting for our parents.
The Biblical Christmas story is filled with surprises as well. If we look at it through the eyes of Mary, we see these and many more surprises.
- Matthew 1: Mary, heard “do not be afraid” – as an angel stood before her; while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit; Joseph, heard “do not be afraid” to take Mary as your wife – again, this was spoken by an angel, a messenger from God.
- Luke 1: “Mary, your cousin Elisabeth is pregnant in her old age.”
- Luke 2: A choir of angels appeared to unsuspecting shepherds in the field; the shepherds found Mary and the baby just as the angels had told them; Mary was surprised that shepherds visited her baby.
- Matthew 2: Mary received distinguished visitors in the form of educated men from eastern lands who brought expensive gifts; and in an unwelcome surprise, Mary and Joseph were shaken to find that they had to flee to Egypt to save the life of this Son of God.
In the midst of the year 2020, a very unusual year, where everyone has been affected by the world-wide pandemic and social unrest – anticipation and surprise have been welcome distractions. Many of us were surprised to find that we could enjoy working from home and be efficient at getting our work done. We learned that the church could still be the Body of Christ even when separated into our own homes. We learned that we could still celebrate Christmas without the same feasts and large parties, and that the New Year would still materialise even if a large crowd did not gather in Times Square to watch a ball drop.
I pray that we have also been surprised by how we have continued to love one another, as we each made space for the other’s work, study, play, socializing, and worship. I pray that we were surprised to find that our problems were smaller than someone else’s. Many of us realised that we could not travel, but that we did have a warm and safe home in which to isolate. We recognised that some did not even have a roof. As the shelves of grocery stores and other retail outlets became bare, and as we watched news of death and unrest from around the world, we may also have been surprised by some dark emotions. I pray that we were surprised by, and came to grips with, the racism, greed, and meism that lurks in all of our hearts. I pray that we realised that we needed to ask God to deal with our sin. In short, I pray that Jesus, yes, the tiny one in the manger, has surprised and will continue to surprise each and every one of us with gifts of joy. I pray that we might welcome him into our world and welcome him into our decisions in 2021. May we be truly surprised by his goodness.
 Douglas Wilson, Is Christianity Good For the World: A Debate, Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson, 2008.
 “Do you smell carrots?”
 It is said that Archimedes (287 to 212 BCE) shouted “eureka” and dashed out of his bath as he realised that he could measure the volume of an object by measuring the water it displaced. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes
For information regarding the painting see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_of_Vy%C5%A1%C5%A1%C3%AD_Brod