Rev. Louis Timberlake
December 6, 2015
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
I talked briefly last week about my love of reading. How, as a kid, I was obsessive about reading, to the point where I lost sleep, wasted time, and didn’t finish schoolwork. So, you would think that summer reading wouldn’t have been a problem for me. I mean, I was always reading something, why would summer reading books be any different? That wasn’t really the case. I found summer reading books to be hit or miss. I remember when I read The Giver for summer reading. It was great; I loved it. But, I also remember the summer that I was supposed to read Pride and Prejudice. Now, I know it’s praised as a classic and I’m sure many of you love it. I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t make it through.
That was a summer I was grateful for Sparknotes. Some of you know all about Sparknotes. For the uninitiated, the Sparknotes version of a book gives you chapter summaries, key themes, characters, etc.—all in an easy-to-read format. So, when you know you have a quiz coming up on your summer reading and you didn’t manage to finish the book--you can read the Sparknotes to get the key information. Of course, there were always those tricky English teachers that would pull out obscure parts of the book for the quiz, the kind of stuff that wasn’t in the Sparknotes. That was always a little frustrating. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to read, I just didn’t want to read Pride and Prejudice.
Sometimes, the stories of scripture feel like the Sparknote versions of the real stories. Think about it. The life of Jesus, who lived into his thirties, is compressed into 28 short chapters in Matthew, 24 in Luke, 21 in John, and 16 in Mark—and Mark accomplished that by ignoring basically the first thirty years of Jesus’ life. If you look at Matthew’s nativity story, the majority of it is covered in the eight verses we read today:
- Mary is pregnant.
- Joseph figures this out and decides to end the relationship quietly.
- Angel appears to Joseph and tells him that God is involved and that Joseph should stay with Mary.
- Joseph agrees.
- They get married.
- Baby is born.
That’s the story in Matthew. No manger, no animals, no innkeeper, no shepherds—that’s all in Luke. The next thing we get is what we read last week about the wise men showing up after his birth and they simply visit Mary and Joseph’s house. It is the Sparknotes version of the story. It hits the highlights, but it lacks depth. I suppose that’s why our English teachers didn’t want us to use Sparknotes. You pass the quiz, but you don’t get into the depth of the story. And it is in that depth that you are changed by the story.
Joseph is like many of us. He is an average guy, with an average job. It’s not glamorous, but it’s rewarding. He has a reputation for being an honorable, decent person. He’s engaged to a good girl. It is a good life. But, then things take a turn. His fiancée becomes pregnant. Most people would be excited. But there are two reasons Joseph is not. First, they’re not married yet and he’s the kind of guy who thinks that marriage should come before children. Second, but related to the first, he is one hundred percent sure that he’s not the father.
All of a sudden, his good, simple life has become mighty messy. He’s angry and hurt, but he’s a resilient person and is determined to move on. Obviously, he can’t be with Mary anymore, but at least this all came to light before the wedding. He feels wronged, but he’s still a good man and just wants it to be over. So, he decides to end the engagement with as little noise as possible.
But, then the situation gets more complicated. He has this strange dream. It was more reality than dream. An angel, a messenger of God, comes to him and encourages him to stay with Mary. The angel says that Mary has been faithful to Joseph. That she has been chosen by God to bear a child that will deliver the people from sin and captivity. This child will be called Emmanuel, “God with Us.”
Joseph awoke with a decision. We forget that sometimes, that Mary and Joseph had decisions. Just as we have the ability to follow God or resist God, so did Mary and Joseph. We are not puppets and neither were they. So, Joseph had a decision: End the engagement and try to reclaim as much of his good, simple life as possible? Or continue down this messy, complicated road with Mary, the baby, and God?
Do you remember the movie The Truman Show? Jim Carrey plays the main character, Truman Burbank, the star of a television show about his life. But, he’s completely unaware of the whole thing. From birth, he has lived in a constructed reality. He grows up on a massive TV set, surrounded by actors. But, to him, it is all real. Until, as an adult, he begins noticing strange things and asking questions. Ultimately, he discovers the truth and tries to escape. There’s this powerful scene at the end of the movie. He is standing at the exit to the set about to leave, when the creator of the show, Christof (played by Ed Harris) speaks to him via microphone for the first time. Christof tries to convince Truman to stay, to live out his life on the set. He says, “There is no more truth out there than there is in the world I created—but, in my world, you have nothing to fear.”
We crave safety; we crave order. But life is not always safe. There is an inherent risk in the well-lived life. Life is overwhelmingly complex at times. It resists our attempts at order and definition. There is a mystery to it and a beauty in that mystery. We fool ourselves when we set safety and order as the primary values in our life. That is a constructed reality.
Joseph wanted a good, simple life. He didn’t ask to be thrust into all of this. Mary didn’t either. And yet, God invited him into a life that would be overwhelmingly messy, but significant. The call of God upon our lives does not bring order; it brings disorder. God doesn’t invite us into lives that will be comfortable and predictable, God invites us into lives that will stretch us, that will transform both our hearts and the world around us. Because, ultimately, God’s hope for us and for all of creation is restoration.
We talked about this in one of our young adult small groups this past Wednesday. God is not retributive; God is restorative. Sometimes people have the mistaken notion that God is out to get them, that God is simply out to punish wrong, that God is the great corrections officer in the sky. But God is not about retribution; God is about restoration. God wants the wrong to be made right. God seeks to restore us and all of creation to what we were intended to be. God seeks for us to become such that selfless love is the foundational motivation for everything that we do. God seeks for the world to become a place of peace, not violence. God seeks for those with to be generous towards those without and for those without to rise above the harsh cycles of poverty. God seeks for humans to act as humble stewards of the natural world, cherishing and using its resources wisely and without greed.
The problem is we cannot be a part of the transformation of the world if safety and order in our personal lives is primary. Transformation is inherently messy. It requires engaging with the disorder and difficulties of our world. To change things, we have to get our hands dirty. And, that is the God we follow. A God with dirty hands. A God who seeks to restore by entering into the messiness of our world. Emmanuel. God with us.
We have a Sparknotes version of Joseph’s life. We know that there’s more to his story than is recorded in scripture, but this is what we have. Yet, even the Sparknotes version tells us something. It tells us of a man who initially just wanted to live a quiet, normal life. But, when God called him into a life that would be messy and difficult, he said yes. He said yes because he followed a God he knew seeks to bring restoration to our lives and to our world. And he wanted to be a part of that.
What would the Sparknotes of our lives look like? If someone were to summarize our lives, what would be emphasized? What are the main points? Would they say, “He lived a pretty good life, generally stayed out of trouble?” Or, would they say, “She embraced God’s call to do something messy, to do something risky, to step out in faith and man, it was something. The world is better for her having been a part of it?”
- To what degree are safety and order priorities in your life? Is it possible to over-prioritize these things?
- Where has God called you in the past to engage with a messy situation, in order to bring about something good? What was that experience like?
- Is it necessary to get your hands dirty in order to bring about transformation?
- In what way does God model for us what it looks like to get your hands dirty? Are there any other characters in scripture that model this?
- What do you hope the Sparknotes of your life would say?