Dr. Chris White Dec 1st, 2013
Sixty years after babies in Tokyo, Japan were sent home with the wrong parents, the story is public. The details are important. The families were different in that one was wealthy and one was very poor. So the child of wealthy parents grew up poor while the child of poverty grew up wealthy. The son in the poor family barely made his way above their struggles, finally landing a job driving a truck after putting himself through technical school. The other boy rose to be head of an insurance company. The country has been intrigued by the story lines. But the heart of the story is a 60 year-old man who speaks of his sadness in never having had the opportunities that might have been his. It is a sad story because it is a story without a redemptive theme. We can go one step farther. When you remove the redemptive impulse of God from a story, you reduce every life to names, events, pressures and quiet endings. Without God, every story ends with some mark of sadness.
On the other hand, when God is within a story we find that the names, the events, the pressures, and even the quiet endings, cannot drain the story of God’s purpose. When God is in a story, in fact, the pressures only serve to heighten the presence of God. And no story reveals God’s work in and through pressures like the story of Jesus’ birth.
Read with me if you would from Matthew 1:18-25: Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord has spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
If we could, I would like to focus on one obvious, but troubling, piece of this story as God’s story. God’s story of redemption through Jesus brought real and full change on those participating in it. As I like to say, God is always interrupting our self-interested sensibilities with an invitation to serve Him and one another. But this story goes beyond selfishness. His story interrupted their religious sensibilities, cultural norms, and family expectations. In the birth of Jesus God left no space to hide.
Let’s look at the details. A birth is always a great story, as it brings a new layer of family into a marriage and the extended families. This is story enough. But in the ancient world there were pressures on a woman like Mary. Childbirth was fraught with risk to the mother, who was often very young. As if that was not pressure enough, childbirth was expected to occur under certain social and religious conditions. An entire community was in on the details of a family story like this one. So imagine the pressure when the story unfolds like it does. To be found with child like Mary was in the ancient world, in a small town, is a catastrophe socially, religiously, and within the small house of your parents. The pressure on Mary, and then Joseph, is hard to appreciate today.
As we see in Luke’s gospel, Mary has an angelic visit to steady the rudder. Joseph seems to require as much. An angel visits him with the stark news of God being a part of this story; in fact, the Messiah will come from the pregnancy. To remain with Mary is a no-brainer from our vantage point, but for Joseph there is no precedent. We can easily imagine the points of pressure that await him near and far. The child is changing his life, but God is far more the story here than a baby. God is replacing their common story with an uncommon story, a world-serving story. The story changes from a couple looking forward to their season of happiness in a short lifetime to a couple invited into God’s eternal plan for a Messiah to bring forgiveness for the sins of the world. But the details are so, so difficult.
Because of this story we should not speak lightly of wanting God’s will. God’s story of redemption through Jesus is intended to bring real and full change in this world, but God’s story of redemption also brings real change on those participating.*We might think about God in our lives like the choices at an automated car wash. Each option has a level of attention to your car and a corresponding price. How clean do you want it? You get to choose and you get to pay. We like the idea of controlling how intrusive and time-consuming is the cleaning. But this analogy breaks down with God. His story of redemption is not easily controlled.
We don’t get to stay in the car where it is dry. In fact, like Joseph and Mary, we find God interrupting our sensibilities about things like staying dry and watching the water from inside the car. We don’t drive thru life with Christ. The last thing we should ever do is get out of a car in a carwash, but in a sense that is the command. The chaos and risk of a carwash is akin to the commands of Jesus that complicate our lives: leaving familiar tables and following him, taking up crosses, forgiving enemies, praying for persecutors, the narrow gate, and making room for people. This is why we should never lighten demands of the gospel when we explain the gospel, lest someone coming to Christ look up in total dismay when something difficult is required. And we should be hesitant to ask so little of one another when God is asking for something great and true from us. All of this is to say that God’s will in your story is going to prove complicating. It is going to bring the confusion of Mary and Joseph and require the resolve of Mary and Joseph.
But don’t confuse any of this as a bad news. When God enters your story, He is bringing you into His story. God does ask much from us. There is a price to the story of Joseph and Mary, for they had to leave behind smaller stories. But they left with much more than they gave. On a practical level, there is no way to explain how we are here this morning except for the people who saw a greater story in God. Men and women the likes of Abraham, Moses, and Esther make the decisions they make not to be a big deal locally but to be part of God’s kingdom. And every Yes we give to God is a step further into the kingdom. He is always doing more through us and beyond us than we see or understand in the moment. Joseph son of Jacob is years away from understanding why he moves toward Egypt, but the day came when told his brothers, “God sent me before you to preserve a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:7) Peter is much grief away from understanding what God was doing in his friend, Jesus, but the day will come when he stands before Cornelius, a Gentile. To him he’ll say, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:24) God is bringing you into a much larger story when you come to Christ.
We are all carrying out a story. But God is asking us to join Him in a story.