The fun of eating at a Chinese restaurant is, of course, the fortune cookie. I think they always put it with your check so you’re in a happier mood when you see the bill. Last week I ate at one of my favorite places and this is what my fortune cookie said: “You will receive unexpected help this week.” “Oh boy! I can’t wait!” I thought, “What is going to happen to me?” And would you believe it, the funniest thing happened to me this week. I didn’t get anything! Not even a nice phone call or a check in the mail. Darn those fortune cookies and their lies!
And as I see it in my mind’s eye, Saul eats at his favorite Chinese place in Jerusalem before his big journey to Damascus. He wants a big meal of Won Ton soup and orange chicken before his trip. So Saul goes to his favorite Chinese place in Jerusalem with the high priest, and he talks about how many Christians he’s going to capture while he’s in Damascus. At the end of the meal, the check comes. Saul lifts his tunic to get at his wallet and then opens the little plastic wrapper on his fortune cookie. Saul breaks open his fortune cookie and reads: “You will receive unexpected help this week.”
Saul says, “Oh boy! This trip is going to be even better than I thought! I’m going to catch a bunch of Christians! Maybe the synagogue in Damascus will help me out. I bet this will get me a promotion.”
On the very same night, while Saul is eating at his favorite Chinese place in Jerusalem, Ananias, who is a disciple of the Lord Jesus, stops by his favorite Chinese restaurant in Damascus. Ananias, because he’s a Christian and can’t be out in public, has to take-out his Chinese food. Christians were in danger of being persecuted and beaten for their beliefs. And as Ananias cleans up his Chinese food from in front of the TV that night, he opens up his fortune cookie: “You will receive unexpected help this week.” “Oh boy,” Ananias thinks. “Maybe this bad guy Saul will fall off his horse and break his neck. Maybe they’ll let us Christians live in peace.”
And the funniest thing happens – their fortune cookies are true. Both Saul and Ananias receive unexpected help.
As Saul is walking to Damascus, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus, something happens to him. He’s knocked flat on his face. He’s struck blind. And Saul hears a voice, “why do you persecute me?” The voice of the Lord sends him on to Damascus where he receives unexpected help.
Ananias is praying, and the Lord gives him a vision. The Lord sends Ananias to Saul, the same Saul who is there to persecute Ananias. The voice of the Lord sends Ananias to the street called Straight, to meet Saul, and to receive unexpected help.
Ananias prays over Saul. Ananias baptizes Saul. And immediately, Saul regains his sight. And Saul begins to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God. Saul has received his help.
Thanks be to God for Saul. He comes to be known as Paul. This is the man who established churches throughout the ancient world. This is the man that we have to thank for phrases like, “in the twinkling of an eye,” and “In Christ there is no male and female.” This Paul, the same man who wants to kill disciples of Jesus, becomes one of the most celebrated disciples of Jesus.
For Ananias, Paul was unexpected help. Because Paul spread Christianity far and wide. Paul quit persecuting Christians and become one himself. Ananias has received his help.
And thanks be to God for Ananias. A man who overcame his fear and went to Saul, even when it was known Saul was out to capture Christians. Ananias, a man who was faithful to the Lord Jesus. Ananias – the man who showed Paul has to follow Jesus.
The fortune cookies were telling the truth. They received unexpected help.
I know the unexpected has happened to you. How many of you would have ever expected that you’d be sitting in Holy Comforter Episcopal Church? How many of you would have ever expected to be living where you live, working where you work, doing what you do? In this life with God, the Lord Jesus shows up and does all sorts of unexpected things.
On this day, we are baptizing two new people into the household of God. Chelsea Everett and Lloyd Heckman. At our baptism, God makes a promise to us. God promises to love us and carry us through this life. God promises to make us children, and to give us new life even when we die. At our baptism, God gives us a fortune cookie that says, “I will give you unexpected help.”
Chelsea, Lloyd, right now you may be rubbing your hands together, “oh boy! I can’t wait to see how God is going to help me.” And all of us, when we hear of God’s promise, start thinking to ourselves, “oh boy! Maybe God will bless me with lots of things. Or maybe God will bless me with an easy life. I can’t wait to see how God is going to help me.”
But be careful. The Lord Jesus pops up in all sorts of unexpected places and unexpected ways, and does all sorts of unexpected things for us.
Like Paul, and Ananias, what God does for us is exactly what we do not expect. Paul expected to catch Christians, but got knocked flat on his face. Ananias expected to run from Paul, but instead he baptized Paul. As trite as it is, I am fond of this saying: “If you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.”
I guarantee you, in this life of baptism, you will receive help from God. But it will not be the kind of help you expect or even necessarily want. Be careful what you pray for, because God might just answer your prayers. God promises you eternal life, but you first have to die. God promises you riches, but these riches must be stored in the heavenly kingdom. God promises you happiness, but only if you pick up the cross.
Chelsea, Lloyd, welcome to this new life of the baptized. It’s an unexpected life we lead, because we are never quite sure what God is going to do for us. Christianity is not so much a religion as it is an adventure. An adventure full of surprises and blessings from on high.
The check is on the table. The cookie is in its wrapper. Brace yourself. Get ready for what the fortune says, and what God says. Get ready for something unexpected.