Recently a friend told me the moving story of her husband’s death a few months ago following a short, uncomfortable illness. Just before he died he opened his eyes wide with an expression of joyful wonder and said: ‘What a lovely surprise!’ He was a Christian believer looking forward to heaven. It would seem that the Lord had come to him in his last moments on earth and surprised him with joy.
We all love pleasant surprises. Your Christmas present is just what you wanted; your holiday accommodation turns out to be first rate; your exam results are much better than expected; your football team gains promotion; gorgeous flowers are delivered to your front door. You exclaim: ‘What a lovely surprise!’
That is what the birth of Jesus Christ meant to those first-century people. From his mother Mary to rough-hewn shepherds, the reaction was the same – they could not contain themselves for joy.
Mary sang, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’, while the shepherds returned from the manger ‘glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen’. It’s not difficult to see why.
Some years ago, when fishing in a remote part of New Zealand’s South Island,
I fell into a quicksand. There was no one around so it was futile to call for help. Before long I was up to my thighs in sand, and sinking.
But it was springtime and the willow trees were bursting into life. I could just reach an overhanging branch, which I pulled down towards me until I had hold of a very stout bough. The strength and suppleness of the wood were my salvation.
I can still hear the delicious ‘plop’ with which my legs emerged from my waders. I was saved! Believe me, it was a lovely surprise.
Salvation is what made Mary and the shepherds sing for joy. Mary said, ‘My spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour’. The angelic messenger told the shepherds not to be afraid – because ‘to them was born that day … a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.
They knew they needed a Saviour – someone with the power to lift them from the quicksand of spiritual and moral helplessness and set their feet on a rock. Their Saviour had come. And it was a lovely surprise.
The reason why my friend’s husband could die with such assurance of heaven was because Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. He had trusted his life to the Son of God who alone has power to forgive sins and cancel death.
He believed that Christ had died for his sins and been raised from the dead to put him right with God. He had been surprised by joy then, when Christ came to him as the living Lord who rescued him from the horrible pit of sin. Now, in death, he had received an equally wonderful surprise – Christ came to him again to take him home.
You can know this joy too. There is nothing to compare with it. It is the joy of knowing that God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son – so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.
There is a choice involved. We have to respond to God’s love. We have to receive the gift. We have to lay hold on eternal life. But the choice is like falling in love – you cannot help it, you are overpowered by it, you are made utterly willing. And what a lovely surprise it is!
Joy to the world! the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.