This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.”
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if Adam had never sinned? In his science fiction fantasy Perelandra, C. S. Lewis envisions a planet where the fall never took place. On Perelandra, paradise is unspoiled, and its inhabitants exist in that pristine state God intended from the very beginning. To me, the most interesting feature of Lewis’s imagined world is Perelandrian thunder. In our world, thunder is frightening: it sounds like anger in the heavens. On Perelandra, thunder is the sound of God laughing: you see lightning and hear a huge roaring guffaw from the skies.
Does God have a sense of humor? Today, I would like to answer that question with a straight face: yes. God has a sense of humor. I’ve heard a number of sermons on the topic of humor, and unfortunately they all had one thing in common: they were boring and unfunny. So I urge you to laugh every once in a while during this sermon. Remember what Jack Benny used to warn: every time you suppress a laugh, it goes back down into your body and spreads your hips.
Throughout the ages, philosophers have debated over what is it that tickles our funny bone and causes that joyous explosion of air out of our lungs and across our vocal chords, which we call laughter.
Aristotle was not big on laughter. According to his aesthetic theory, that which was laughable was considered to be a sub-category of the ugly. Christian thinkers, on the other hand, have tended to revere laughter as a gift of God. Most notably we think of Dante, who called his literary classic The Divine Comedy. Among the great thinkers of the world, about the only agreement we can find is that humor is defined by two elements: incongruity and surprise.
G. K. Chesterton defined humor as the “sudden perception of incongruity.” When two things we usually keep in separate compartments of our brains suddenly cross paths inside our head, the result is humor. For example, let me share a story my friend Don Harp, pastor of Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, told me about a bait shop along a highway up in the north Georgia mountains. One day a member of Generation X pulled up to that bait shop on his motorcycle. This young guy had tattoos, pierced ears, a pierced nose, pierced eyebrows, and a pierced tongue. The old bait shop proprietor had been sitting up in the mountains smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes for the last fifty years, so this example of today’s youth subculture was completely outside of his experience. So the young guy walked in and asked, “Got any boiled peanuts?” The bait shop owner stared at the young man’s face as he stubbed out his cigarette, then he came out from behind the counter to examine him more closely. Finally, still staring at the young man’s face, he asked, “Now son, tell me . . . exactly where were you standing when that tackle box exploded?” Tattoos and body piercing, two of the hippest trends in today’s culture, were interpreted by this man as the aftermath of a terrible accident. Incongruity, and the surprise that comes when you perceive an incongruity, lead to humor.
Surprise is a crucial element of humor. Henny Youngman’s old gag, “Now, you take my wife . . . please!” isn’t funny anymore, because we have heard it a million times. Humor must surprise us, causing us to consider things in a different light.
Does God have a sense of humor? Well, have you read the Christmas story? What sounded like a terrible accident turned out to be the greatest story ever told. Judging by this story, I believe God has the greatest sense of humor in the entire universe.
God played his biggest joke on a young man named Joseph, and at least at first, Joseph didn’t think it was one bit funny.
Joseph was a carpenter. I envision him as a punch the time clock sort of guy, who would come home at night and pet the dog and read the paper, retire early to bed, and then rise at daybreak to get out to the job site. We know Joseph didn’t talk much. In fact, even though fifteen cities in the United States are named after Joseph, there is no record of a single word from his mouth in all the gospels. Some of you women may know what it’s like to be married to a man like that, the proverbial “strong, silent type.”
Joseph was quiet and practical. He liked working with wood, a material you can measure and cut and work with your hands – honest, simple wood. He may have loved Mary for the same qualities: she was an honest, simple down-home girl, the kind you settle down with and raise a family. And Mary and Joseph had it all. They had love, and trust, and dreams. The date was set, the china was registered, the invitations had been mailed.
Then one day Mary said, “Joseph, I need to tell you, I’m going to have a baby.” Suddenly, Joseph’s simple, perfect life dissolved into a world of pain. Mary continued, “Oh Joseph, there’s nothing to worry about. You see, there was this angel.” You can imagine Joseph’s response, “Yeah, sure, an angel . . . “
In his poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, poet W.H. Auden pictures Joseph sitting alone in the dark, listening to the dripping of the faucet, as a voice says,
Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely? No.. . .
Mary may be pure,
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance . . . Well . . .
Maybe, maybe not.
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.
Joseph looks up to God and pleads,
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still.
Forgetting nothing, believing all
Then Gabriel lays out God’s requirement of Joseph: “You must behave as if this were not strange at all . . . To do what’s difficult all one’s days, That is faith. / Joseph, praise!”
But that proved too much to ask of this young man. According to Old Testament Scriptures, when Mary started to show, he had no choice but to “put her away” – to distance himself from her as a righteous man.
But one night before he did so, an angel appeared to Joseph and said, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child within her is from God. This is Immanuel, the long-awaited fulfillment of prophecy, God with us.”
Although the text doesn’t say so, I believe Joseph’s first reaction to this announcement was, “Wait a minute! I didn’t sign up for this. All I want is to be a carpenter, to have a wife and a house and a yard and a family.” As he is thinking these things you can imagine a great chuckle in the heavens, Perelandrian thunder. Friends, God has a way of coming into our lives like a merry prankster.
Have you ever been the victim of one of God’s surprises? Even today, God’s surprises often come in the form of an unexpected baby. If you ask some couples in our church about their children, they might respond, “Well, we’ve got one attending Georgia Tech, another at Emory, and another at law school at UGA. And oh yes, this is ten-year-old Melvin, our little surprise – the caboose at the end of the family.”
That was the kind of surprise God had in store for a white-haired lady named Sarah. She had to squint to focus on the baby in her arms, who wasn’t her grandson, but the son born to her in her twilight years. Her husband, Abraham, was one hundred years old – the same age as Senator Strom Thurmond. Genesis tells us that when Abraham heard he was going to be a father at his advanced age, he fell on the ground laughing. Someone has suggested that he was laughing just to keep from crying. At another point in the story of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah was eavesdropping from behind the flap of the tent. When she heard God’s news that she would bear a son, she giggled until tears streamed down her cheeks. But God got the last laugh. He told Abraham and Sarah their child would be a boy and he would be named Isaac – in Hebrew yitzak – which means laughter.
Friends, in case you haven’t noticed, God takes great delight in derailing our best-laid plans, and in giving us the last thing we ever expected. Do you hear a chuckle from heaven this morning?
In my experience, engaged people are the most invested in their plans, unwilling to allow any detail to fall out of their control. You ought to see the brides-to-be parade into my office with their lists and notebooks and diagrams. One young lady came in the other day to show me the software program she had bought for planning her wedding.
Can’t you hear God laughing? Sure, go ahead and plan your wedding to the nth detail, but just try to plan your marriage that way. We humans try so hard to create tidy little worlds where we’re in complete control. And just when we think we’ve managed to do so, that chuckle from heaven sounds again.
A few years back, a wonderful movie was released that most people never saw. The film was Remains of the Day, and it starred Anthony Hopkins. In the film Hopkins portrays Stevens, the head butler of palatial Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, England. As a servant, Mr. Stevens is compulsive and meticulous, a stickler for details; before dinner, he takes a ruler and goes down the table, measuring the distance between the edge of the table and the water glass at each place setting. He says things like, “Forgive me for being personal, but may I wish you a pleasant holiday.” His whole life is defined by being a butler, even to the point that one night when a dinner party is being held at the estate, he is told by a maid that his father, who had been ill, has just died upstairs, and Stevens replies, “I am indeed sorry, but matters of the utmost importance are happening under this roof tonight.” Instead of attending his father on his deathbed, he continues serving.
The drama of this story occurs when a wonderful woman on his staff, the head housekeeper, falls in love with him. Stevens is terrified, because love would complicate his tidy world. And so, cowering behind the armor of his dignity, he tells her of his deep respect for her professionalism, and says nothing of any personal feelings he has for her as a woman. Finally, late in life, Stevens has one last chance to go to her. I won’t ruin the film for you by telling you what happened. But there is a particularly symbolic scene that I will describe. Somehow a white pigeon gets into one of the sitting rooms of Darlington, and Stevens is beside himself. He runs around chasing the pesky intruder, and finally he opens a window and throws out the dove. At that point, in a brilliant piece of cinematography, the camera angle shifts, and we’re now seeing from the perspective of the dove, who flies up and up, and soon we realize that this is not the bird’s-eye view: we are seeing through the eye of God. We look down and see Stephens, and it seems as if we see him behind bars that obscure him from our view and trap him like an inmate in his castle. Friends, the love of God in Christ invades our tidy worlds like a wild bird flying into our picture-perfect sitting room. God does not come to us as a decorative figurine we can place on the mantle. He comes into our lives as the Great Interrupter, the great Disruptor of our best-laid plans.
Here in Atlanta we are basking in a great glow of honor this week after our own Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Do you know how the Nobel Peace Prize came to be? It was established because of a huge, unexpected surprise in the life of Alfred Nobel. Nobel had been a phenomenally successful businessman; his business was the manufacture and sale of weapons. He had spent a lifetime amassing a fortune as the inventor of dynamite. Then one morning Alfred Nobel got up, opened the morning newspaper, and read his own obituary on the front page. It was a simple journalistic error – his brother had died and the newspaper printed the wrong biographical information. The headline read “Dynamite King Dead.” In that moment, Alfred Nobel saw how the world would remember him when he was gone, and he didn’t like it one bit. So he went to work changing his legacy, and in his will Alfred Nobel established the most prestigious prize on earth, awarded annually to the person who does the most to promote world peace: the Nobel Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel’s wake-up call was one of God’s surprises. And when he heard that wake-up call, Alfred Nobel obeyed.
How about you? Has your life slipped on the divine banana peel lately? Could that unwelcome surprise have been God’s wake-up call to you? Consider this; by obeying God’s voice like Alfred Nobel did, perhaps you could bring more peace and less dynamite here on earth, more good will and blessing and hope among all people. Would that outcome be worth having a little joke played on you?
The motto for the soft drink Sprite is “Obey your thirst.” Our motto as Christians is: “Obey God’s surprises.”
In Matthew 1:24, we read something key about Joseph, the key to his life in fact: “Joseph did what the angel of the Lord had commanded . . . “
Joseph took that pregnant young woman as his bride, and Scripture tells us he “had no union with her” until after the baby was born, so that the prophecy would be fulfilled. Soon thereafter he was forced to flee for his life to a foreign country, where he spent two years trying to learn Egyptian. We don’t know if he ever got the house of his dreams with the white picket fence and the nice yard.
So was letting himself be surprised by God and obeying God’s voice worth it? Oh my goodness, think of the joy in Joseph’s life. He got to watch the Christ child take his first baby steps. He got to watch that heavenly toddler grow up. He taught the boy his love of simple honest wood, so that to the folks in the village, Jesus grew up to be known as “the carpenter.” But nothing could be a clearer expression of the special bond Joseph and Jesus shared than the fact that the boy became a preacher, who went out and taught the entire world to call God the very word he himself had called Joseph: the Hebrew word abba, which means “Daddy” . . . “Father.” Oh yes, I think Joseph would have done it all again in a heartbeat.
The next time a monkey wrench drops out of heaven into your well-oiled machinery, don’t curse God. Look up and say thank you. Take a moment to see that unwelcome surprise as an opportunity to trust, a gift to receive, a command to obey. Because in the end, life gives us nothing we ever expected, but God will give us everything we’ve ever dreamed of. Just ask Joseph.
Lord, we work so hard to engineer surprises out of our schedules, to make our lives run like clockwork, and then we hear your chuckle from heaven. Help us to receive your surprises – pleasant and unpleasant – as gifts from you, and to obey your call to act, even when it goes against our plans. Lord, break into our tidy little worlds and send your dove, that we might know your love, even as you sent Jesus into the life of Joseph. Amen.
Victor D. Pentz is Senior Minister of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA.