“Mary was surprised too,” the speaker said to a packed audience of students and families gathered for an evening Christmas carol service in Oxford’s historic Sheldonian Theatre. He was reflecting on Jesus’ birth story from Luke’s gospel, when the heavenly messenger Gabriel appeared to Mary. Upon hearing that she would soon be pregnant—with the Son of the Most High, whose kingdom will have no end—Mary asked, “How will this be … since I am a virgin?” (1:34).

At the conclusion of the Christmas service, our speaker encouraged those gathered not to dismiss this story simply because it seems unbelievable. Apparently, that’s what Mary thought too. Luke tells us that Mary’s being unexpectedly greeted by a heavenly messenger left her in awe, wondering what it all meant, even as she embraced this divine disruption. At the same time, Mary’s elder cousin, Elizabeth, was greeting her own surprise: the promise of a child, conceived amid abandoned hope for parenthood, “for no word from God will ever fail” (Luke 1:37).

The story of Jesus is bookended by surprise—from the narrative of his birth to the plot of his death, to the final scenes of his resurrection and ascension, when Jesus overcomes death in a way no one expected and his disciples are left perplexed, necks craning skyward at his sudden departure.

In fact, the whole of Scripture is riddled with surprise. The Old Testament prophets spoke and acted in ways that evoked awe. The “wrong” person always seems to be chosen by God. When there appears to be no way, God unexpectedly makes a way.

Likewise, the New Testament rarely fits readers’ expectations. Jesus’ responses befuddle religious leaders and crowds alike with topsy-turvy teachings and curveball parables that upset social norms. And the acts of his apostles continue to confuse and elicit strong reactions from everyone they meet—led, as they were, by the Holy Spirit, who intervenes and disrupts expectations.

Scripture is replete with surprises precisely because the subject of this diverse collection of narrative, historical, legal, poetic, and prophetic texts is a God who “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20).

“The way you can tell a true, living God from a dead, fake god,” professor Will Willimon preached at a recent Duke University chapel service, is that “a fake god will never, ever shock you, or say anything that makes you uncomfortable.” Unlike the counterfeit gods of our own making, the living God of Scripture rarely fits neatly within our expectations. Instead, he repeatedly inspires wonder and surprise.

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At the same time, the Bible is the world’s best-selling book, containing popularized narratives familiar to many readers. This presents a challenge for those seeking to be surprised by its stories. Becoming overly familiar with Scripture can, at times, make us unable to read and hear it rightly.

“Whenever we pick up the Bible, read it, put it down, and say, ‘That’s just what I thought,’ we are probably in trouble,” Old Testament scholar and author Ellen Davis writes in The Art of Reading Scripture. We must pay careful attention whenever we read this collection of holy texts—setting aside our preconceived notions or even what we recall from past readings. Like the infinitely complex individuals we interact with daily, the witness of Scripture should always be just beyond the grasp of our expectations, always ready to tell us something new about God, ourselves, and our neighbors.

At the end of a long day in late spring, I asked writer and director Dallas Jenkins about the role of surprise in his work on the television series The Chosen—specifically, how he honors the role of surprise inherent to the Gospels when telling their stories.

“That is one of the biggest tricks of the whole show,” Jenkins said. “How do we make this feel like you’re seeing it for the first time? Even in those moments when you know something’s coming, how can we get you lost in it—if not to be surprised by the story itself, to be surprised by maybe what you learned in it, or perhaps how you saw yourself in it? That’s what we’re trying to do.”

When we meet a character like Judas, Jenkins notes as an example, be it on screen or in Scripture, how do we avoid immediately anticipating what we know comes next: He’s going to betray Jesus!

“It’s about trying to find context that maybe hasn’t been explored before, because the story’s not going to change. It’s the stuff in between, it’s the context—that’s where we can surprise you. And sometimes it’s surprising to go, That’s not any different from what I read, but it feels different because I understand it better.

Sitting patiently with the stories of Scripture—which includes learning more about the context of its characters—is one way we can invite a deeper sense of wonder and surprise into our encounter with the God of the Bible. Another way is to cultivate our sense of awe itself.

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Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology and founding director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, began exploring the unique and manifold benefits of awe in the 1980s, when research on the topic was entirely untapped. Since that time, he and his colleagues have painstakingly inventoried the diverse sources of awe in human experience, what he describes as “the eight wonders of life.”

That feeling of “being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world” is how Keltner defines awe. We experience awe when we encounter something, or someone, that exceeds our expectations, and those experiences offer a rich variety of benefits. “Awe brings us joy, meaning, and community, along with healthier bodies and creative minds,” Keltner notes in Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. “Brief moments of awe are as good for your mind and body as anything you might do.”

We can invigorate and expand our capacity for awe through various activities, disciplines, and practices—including taking in art. Art can transform us by shifting our focus away from ourselves and toward new potentialities in collaboration with others. “Visual art can provoke us to reimagine reality,” Keltner writes. “It can open us up to new ideas about who we can be and what our collective lives might be … In good art, there are so many opportunities to reach the highest part of the soul.”

To encounter the God of surprise—and to love our neighbors as God calls us to—we must cultivate a fresh curiosity and a capacious imagination. Sadly, we live in an age where individual and social imaginations alike have become impoverished. In her latest book, Karen Swallow Prior refers to our present moment as a “failure of the evangelical imagination.” As she says in a recent interview, “It’s an identity crisis. It’s a political crisis. It’s a personal crisis. It’s a church crisis. But I think it’s a moment, it’s an opportunity, for us to … renew our imaginations.”

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Prior is not alone in insisting that renewed imagination is essential for a hopeful future. Calvin University philosophy professor James K. A. Smith responded to the question “What will be our future?” by offering the following response in a lecture: “If the church is going to bear witness to a different future, we need a Christianity that undergoes the crucible of unknowing … welcoming the unsettling mystery of God, and the profound mystery of our fellow human beings. Only here can we experience grace.”

Sitting patiently with art, Smith insists, is one way that we can be open to such mystery.

When our imagination becomes thin, malnourished, or even diseased, creative works of art can offer a new way of seeing God and the world—a fresh vision of ourselves, our neighbors, and even our enemies. Art can also invite us to encounter the persistent and mysterious presence of God, often where we least expect. Artists strive to tell the truth—about ourselves, others, and God—but to upend our assumptions and “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson famously encourages. Art, in turn, can cultivate an openness to the living Lord who likewise exceeds our expectations.

Preachers and others tasked with sharing the stories of Scripture ought to be considered awe-workers—those who encourage and nourish their congregation’s imaginations to be receptive to the often-surprising God of Scripture. Former Princeton Theological Seminary president Craig Barnes suggests that part of the pastor’s role is to be a “minor poet,” weaving stories, language, and words in ways that cultivate a congregation’s sense of wonder. He’s certainly not alone.

Before writing his Bible translation, The Message, the late pastor, translator, and professor Eugene Peterson used to fill the narthex of his church with piles of books—including works by the novelist Wallace Stegner, Charles Dickens, and poet Denise Levertov—each one carefully chosen to provoke and inspire his congregants’ imaginations. Likewise, my church in Seattle offers a steady rotation of paintings by local artists, displayed in a room just outside of the sanctuary where congregants gather after service for coffee and conversation. It is a small, intentional gesture, but an important one.

What would it look like for Christ followers to cultivate the practice of paying patient attention to art? What if Christians set a discipline of regularly engaging with creative artwork that invites a second look at the world? Shaped by such creative practices, how might we be surprised anew by God’s work in our midst, in our neighbors, and in our own lives?

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The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our individual and collective ways of being. Doing my best to live with the overwhelming uncertainty left in its wake, I’ve been turning to poetry more than ever—from listening to podcasts such as The Slowdown Show, Poetry Unbound, and Poetry for All while sipping my morning coffee, to reading poetry collections from Mary Oliver, Christian Wiman, and W. S. Merwin on unhurried Saturday mornings.

Sitting with a poem requires slowing down, attending to a sequence of words and its cadence. When I do, I often experience my soul nourished in palpable ways—much like a good shower or a satisfying meal. In these intentionally quiet moments, when the “pandemonium of blab … ceases,” Christian Wiman writes, “[we] can hear—and what some of us hear in those instances is a still, small voice.”

Returning to Mary’s unexpected encounter with a divine messenger, artists have been portraying this scene in Luke’s gospel for centuries through various mediums—including Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), whose painting, The Annunciation, is on display today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Inspired on a trip to Israel, Tanner sought to capture Mary as authentically as possible. She’s shown alone in a dark, unadorned room, dressed in modest robes, and seated on a bed with crumpled linens. There are no halos, no winged angels, and no sacred identifiers adorning Mary’s body. Her hands are folded. Her gaze is one of curiosity and wonder as a vertical band of light fills the room with a soft glow. The scene holds a quiet mystery that can only be witnessed. As I patiently attend to Tanner’s work, I find myself open to surprise alongside Mary.

Moving my eyes along the lines and color left by Tanner’s paintbrush in The Annunciation shapes me in a similar way as reading Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, especially the poem “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen.” In her poetic reflections, we’re invited to listen for the unhurried arrival of heavenly messengers in the everyday setting of a contemporary home, among the sounds of a vacuum next door and an airplane overhead. Both Tanner and Szybist’s creative work invite me to attend anew an unexpected encounter with sheer mystery alongside a first-century mother-to-be.

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Ben McBride introduced me to the rabbinical tradition, suggesting a new perspective on Moses’ burning bush experience. “The bush was always burning,” McBride shared with our church group in Berkeley. “Moses just happened to stop and notice.” Moses allowed himself to be disrupted and offered his attention to the bush that burned without being consumed by flame, awash in God’s presence (Ex. 3). In the same way, I’ve found visual art and poetry can put me in a place where I’m more likely to notice the everyday burning bushes and abounding annunciations.

I’m no less inclined than the next person to prayerfully ask God for my preferred future for myself and for my family, for my community and for our nation—indeed, for the aching wider world. But Advent and Christmastide invite me into something grander and, ultimately, more remarkable.

These seasons invite us to cultivate a posture of expectant waiting. Yet our inherited history and tradition beckons a longing that is wholly receptive to the unexpected arrival of grace—where God’s presence is promised and declared precisely in places and voices we least expected.

Provoked by poetry and visual art alike, may our minds and hearts, our eyes and ears—and, indeed, our very lives—be stirred anew by our living God, who moves among us in these troubled days. And may we seek to embody together the in-breaking of God’s long-promised kingdom of peace.

Ryan J. Pemberton is the director of community cultivation at Image, which offers a quarterly journal and programming dedicated to art, faith, and mystery.