Expect the Unexpected

Joshua Bell

“Expect the Unexpected”
Mark 13:24-37
Rev. Todd Buegler
November 29-30, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus the Messiah, who comes to each of us. Amen.

The Washington Post decided to try an experiment. They wanted to see how much the context and location of something affected people’s ability to “notice” or to “see” it. In short, if something is out of place, will people be more, or less likely to notice it?

So they approached Joshua Bell and asked for his help. Joshua Bell, in his early 40’s, is one of the world’s most accomplished classical violin soloists. He has been featured with the finest orchestras here and abroad. He’s played on TV and movie soundtracks. His violin of choice is a hand made Stradivarius, made by Antonio Stradivari himself in 1713. It is valued at $3.5 million dollars.

When Joshua Bell is in concert, it is typically for crowds of thousands, dressed in black tie and formal gowns. The average ticket price for one of his performances is in excess of $100 per seat.

So, when Bell was asked if he’d be willing to put on street clothes and perform as a street musician in Washington DC at rush hour, he said:   “Sounds like fun.”

He dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. He set himself up at the top of the escalator at the L’enfant Plaza subway station in Washington DC. He pulled out his $3.5 million dollar violin, and shrewdly dropped a few dollar bills and some change into the violin case to prime the pump. He turned to face the crowd coming up the escalators, and he began to play.

He played for 45 minutes; a total of six classical pieces, including one by Bach that is known to be one of the most difficult of all violin pieces. He played beautifully; he played flawlessly.

His performance was captured on video by hidden cameras the Washington Post had installed. I’ve embedded the video of the performance here:

During the 45 minutes he played, the Post observers counted approximately 1200 people coming through the subway station. Of that 1200, the total number who stopped to listen? Seven. Seven. Of the seven who stopped, the one who stood and listened for the longest did so for a total of 9 minutes. He was interviewed later, and described himself as a “classical music enthusiast.” He was asked why he stopped. His reply? “That guy was pretty good!” Ironically, that gentleman had $125 tickets to hear Joshua Bell play just a few nights later. He heard the music, but he never recognized the musician.

And how did Joshua Bell do? At the end of the day, he collected from his violin case a grand total of $32.17 for his efforts.

Why did 1200 people miss an impromptu concert by one of the world’s greatest violinists? Because they didn’t expect it. And in all honesty, who would?

If you’re paying $125 for a ticket, walking in to Orchestra Hall for example, and sitting down for a concert, you would expect to hear a world-class performance.

But if you’re coming up the subway escalator on your way to work, and you hear the sound of an instrument playing, you expect to hear a street musician, playing for loose change; and that’s what 1,193 people coming out of that subway got.

It’s really amazing how much our own expectations help to shape the reality of what we’re ready and willing to see and experience.

There probably is no other season that is more based on expectations than the one we enter this weekend: Advent. In these four weeks before Christmas, we all have expectations and hopes of what this season will be like for us.

As we approach Christmas, we envision time together as families… Christmas lights…laughter…baking… Christmas specials on TV (Charlie Brown is my favorite)…gifts…feasts…

I have expectations too. This past week I went out and went Christmas light shopping. After moving to Owatonna 4 months ago, The Buegler family is living in a new home, and my theory is that we need to rethink our whole Christmas light strategy. I’m sure our neighbors have wondered when they’ve seen me just standing in our driveway, staring at our house. “What is he doing out there?”

I’m pondering: “White lights, or colored lights?” “Along the roof line? Around the windows? Both?” “What about the shrubs? And the trees? How high can I go? How tall is my ladder?”   I sketched out my plan, right here in my head, and took off for Fleet Farm, where on Tuesday night I purchased 415 linear feet of beautiful, white, twinkling Christmas joy. <grunt>

You see, I have this expectation, a vision really, of festive, twinkling, classy lights. Sort of a Norman Rockwell, postcard sort of a look.

My wife, Lori? She has slightly less confidence in my plan. She is concerned that our home is going to be less Norman Rockwell and more Clark Griswald from “Christmas Vacation.” We’ll see…drive by next week and judge for yourself.

The reality is, we all enter into the holidays with expectations. And sometimes these expectations morph into something else: often disappointment.

Sometimes we expect wonderful family reunions, moments from a Hallmark commercial, as people gather to rekindle loving relationships. But often when we do get together we’re reminded that there might be good reasons why we all live in different cities.

Or perhaps we expect quiet family time, by a fireplace…but then the reality of video games and smart phones draw us all into our own little worlds.

Or perhaps something happened this past year…the loss of a loved one…the loss of a job…or some other problem or tragedy that might change the feeling of warmth and love that you hope for and expect, into reminders of loss and emptiness.

I don’t know what your specific expectations this year might be. I just know that at Christmas time, our expectations can sometimes take a beat-down from reality.

This is not by the way, a new problem. The disciples and the rest of the Jewish people had high expectations of the Messiah. They had been awaiting him for a long, long time…and they expected that when he came, he would be a leader, a politician and a warrior. He would kick out the Romans, he would re-establish the Jewish nation and he would smite all of their enemies. This is what they were waiting for. This is what they expected.

But Jesus rattled the “expectations” cage a bit. Jesus has just confirmed for his disciples that he is the “Son of God.” It’s the only time in Mark’s Gospel that he does so. And his disciples, obviously excited, want to know “ok, what’s next then? What’s the plan?” And he answers: “I don’t know. None of us do. None of us can predict. Only God, the Father knows.”

Wait, Jesus has just confirmed that he is indeed the Son of God, the savior, the Messiah, and his answer is “I have no clue?” What is that about? The disciples had to be confused, disappointed; their expectations crushed. Because if ever there was someone who had known the answers to all the hard questions, it was Jesus.

But Jesus was clearly attempting to shift the expectations of the disciples in our Gospel. None of us can begin to expect what it means for Jesus to enter into our lives. He is telling the disciples to let go of their expectations of a political, warrior messiah. It is not about restoring the nation of Israel. Rather, it is about restoring our hearts. The very fabric of the universe shifts when Jesus enters into our world…and our hearts cannot help but be changed.

And now, we enter Advent; a season of heightened watchfulness, of wide-eyed wonder at what God is doing in our lives, in our church, and in our world.

You see, Jesus has this habit of “showing up.” And it’s usually at times and in ways that we don’t expect and that we can’t anticipate. In my life and my ministry I have experienced the presence of God in countless ways that I never would have expected. In September of 2005, I led a Lutheran disaster relief team to Biloxi, Mississippi just 3 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. 30 of us drove down, expecting to work and to serve; and we did.

But Jesus showed up for us in ways we weren’t expecting. Jesus was in the face of the people at the local stores, who worked to figure out ways to help us purchase the most in basic living supplies to distribute with the donation money that was sent with us. Jesus was in the faces of the pastor and the members of Bethel Lutheran Church, where we were based, who welcomed and hosted us even though their own homes were in tatters.

Jesus was in the face of Eddie, a worker on an off-shore oil rig which was destroyed by Katrina. The storm left him homeless; his family scattered all over the southeast. He asked if he could just sleep in a tent outdoors that stored some of the donations and supplies. He stayed to serve at the distribution point. He took it as his personal mission to take care of the volunteer disaster relief teams. Every day, he cleaned the kitchen…the bathrooms…he took care of the groups.

Our team’s expectations were broken. We went to Biloxi with the intent to serve; and we were served. We intended to give hope; and we received faith. We intended to love, and we were loved. Jesus showed up in ways I never expected.

And Jesus can still continue to bewilder me. One of the things I’ve had to learn in my own faith life is to let go of my expectations. God doesn’t fit into my “box.”

  • I don’t always know when Jesus is going to show up.
  • I don’t always know where Jesus is going to show up.
  • I don’t always know how Jesus is going to show up.
  • But there is one thing that I do know: Jesus is going to show up.

He is going to come to me when I least expect it. He is going to love me when I least deserve it. And he’s going to do the same thing for you. He promises. We can’t expect to know what the future holds, but we do trust in who holds our future.

The Advent story is about Jesus Christ, being found in utterly surprising, unexpected circumstances.

Christ is born in the world. Christ is born in a nowhere town called Bethlehem.   Christ is born in a smelly, dirty, manger. Christ is born a tiny, helpless, poor, powerless baby.

This is the last place we would expect to find the Son of God being born. We’d never expect to find him in that stable, in the dark, in the manger. It was the shepherds and the wise men who just believed, who made their way to him. All who think they know where they will find the Christ-child will surely miss him. Christians are people not afraid to proclaim “I don’t know what to expect”

  • Where will I experience Christ this Christmas?  I don’t know.
  • Where will you experience Christ this Christmas?  You don’t know.

But we do know that Jesus comes for each of us. With the gift of grace, of love, of eternal life. It is for you. So keep your heart, your spirit and your mind ready. Watch. And shift your expectations; because Jesus Christ is going to “show up” for you, bearing the gift of love and grace.


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