Have you ever been surprised? I mean really surprised. So completely caught off guard that you really weren’t sure if it were for real or not. Like having your breath knocked out of you as you go down the first big hill on a roller coaster. Or like walking through a haunted house at Halloween time and having a strange hand reach out and grab your ankle in the middle of a dark hallway. Like biting into that piece of pie that you thought was banana cream, only to find out it was liverwurst instead?
At various times, I have been a party to a few surprises in my life.
One year in seminary, my wife conspired with two of her friends, each of whom was married to one of my classmates, to “kidnap” their husbands and take us away for a weekend getaway right after school was out of session. For weeks they had been planning this down to the minute details of the trip. Several weeks before the event, I began to notice some of my things were missing – like some clothes and various other things I would need on the weekend. I never really put it all together until one day my razor turned up missing. I finally asked Susie where it was. Her simple answer to me was, “Don’t ask!”
On the night they had planned for this “husband-napping” to take place, we had all planned to attend the seminary graduation ceremony together. After the events of that ceremony had completed, we returned to our home and our wives then put into play what they had been rehearsing for the past several weeks, binding us and blindfolding us before putting the three of us in the back seat of our two-door automobile, then driving us to a luxurious cabin they had reserved for the weekend on a lake about three hours away. It was a fabulous weekend and quite a wonderful surprise.
Surprise No. 22: When my mother turned 75 years old, our whole family drove from points all around the country to surprise her on her birthday in Oak Ridge, Tenn. While she had spoken with each of us that day, she thought we were in Virginia, Ohio, Georgia and Florida. In reality, we were all there in the hotel where we had invited her siblings and her complete family to join us. Mom was blown away. It was fun, not just to plan, but also to execute the plan and see the look of surprise on her face when she walked into the room at the hotel there that night and saw brothers and sisters and all her children, nieces and nephews and grandchildren – all there for her. Many of the people there she had not seen in years, but they came just to wish her a happy birthday. What a wonderful surprise.
But celebrating our anniversary just a couple of weeks ago reminded me of one of the most phenomenal surprises of my life which happened in the aftermath of our 25th anniversary. My bride and I had taken some time off to celebrate that special milestone in our lives together by going on a cruise – our very first one. This anniversary vacation had been in the planning stage for several months and we were so looking forward to a vacation without the kids. We also figured that would give them some time off from us, which would be a vacation for them too. But, much to our surprise, our three children had used that time to plan and pull off a 25th anniversary party when we returned. Unbeknownst to us, they had invited friends and relatives from all across the nation, from our current church as well as from each of our former churches, who showed up to wish us a happy anniversary. And yes, we were surprised.
One of the dictionary definitions for surprise is “to strike with wonder or amazement, especially because unexpected.” And we certainly were struck with wonder and amazement. I was very favorably impressed that our children could do something like this. And it was unexpected. Oh, we had our suspicions. But nothing like what actually occurred. So many friends and so much food. It was also tremendously exciting to see so many people working together to pull it off.
But you know, even that surprise won’t quite hold a candle to the surprise that awaits us someday. The Bible says that we will face a wonderful and amazing surprise someday when “the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
I am also convinced that we will be very surprised when we get there, too. Surprised by who is there as well as surprised by who is not there. Some of the “best” people in the world will miss out on heaven, and some of the least likely people on the face of the earth will be there. Will you be there?
John 5:24 says what the criteria is for getting there. According to Jesus’ own words, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has (not “will have” or “hopes to have”) eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
My prayer this week for you is that you will not be surprised where you end up – and that it is heaven.
Chuck Tabor is a religion columnist for The Times-Gazette. He also serves as pastor of Port William UMC.