Still Seeking . . . Love


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Life frequently takes turns we neither expect, nor want. How do we respond to adversity in a loving way? Through the biblical example of Joseph, earthly father of Jesus, Rev. John Weems explores what it means to seek love in less under less than ideal circumstances.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Matthew 1:18-25

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.

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I first heard the term while on a youth mission trip around six years ago.

It was voted word of the year in 2013, and is now in the Oxford Dictionary.

In 2015, more people died while pursuing one of these than in shark attacks.[1]

Though I am generally a gadget geek and realize this positions me as a cranky curmudgeon, the “selfie”—taking one’s own picture, typically with a mobile phone camera–is one of my pet peeves. I understand that sometimes taking a selfie is our best and only option to capture a special moment, so I certainly do not universally condemn them.

There is, however, a certain level of self-obsession that moves beyond annoying.

Researchers are continuing to study the link between selfies and narcissism or even psychopathology as more than 93 million selfies per day are posted on line.[2] While not all self-photographers are narcissists, there are indicators of self-importance and grandiosity such as spending extra time preparing or editing one’s photos extensively.

If our sense of self-worth tends to fluctuate significantly based upon how many people like our photos, we likely need to look away from the mirror and the camera for a while.

From selfies to the jobs we want to pursue and the things we want to buy, it can be easy to function as though we are the center of the universe.

If we are the primary object of our love, are we truly loving?

Sometimes we receive reminders that God has a much bigger picture.

In today’s Scripture lesson, Joseph has received a major reminder that he is not the center of the universe.

From what we know, Joseph was a good man engaged to Mary.

In spite of his goodness, Joseph has received news he really didn’t want. His fiancée, Mary, who we are told he has not “known” – which is the Bible’s way of saying “if you know what I mean”—is pregnant.

We can tend to romanticize the story of Joseph and Mary. We skip from the first news of the baby’s conception to the manger and the animals, and then to Easter lilies where Christ has risen. But to begin to understand the situation Joseph and Mary were really in, it can be helpful to set aside some of our romantic views of this cute little couple heading to Bethlehem.

Daniel Harrington, a New Testament Scholar from Boston College, explains that marriage in Joseph’s time was much more of a civil contract than a religious ritual or sacrament. Being betrothed or engaged had the same binding legal implications as being married. There are so many theories about the ages of Joseph and Mary that I won’t spend much time speculating, but let’s say Mary was in her early teens and Joseph was in his late teens or older. There probably weren’t any rose pedals leading to a big diamond ring in a champagne flute at a restaurant. Arrangements were made through elders of both families. A betrothal ceremony would have taken place at the home of Mary’s father. A bride price was set. A great deal was at stake, including the status and honor of both families and the passing of the family’s property for generations to come. The engagement of Mary to Joseph helped ensure each of their family’s futures.

This pregnancy was far from an ideal situation. Under Jewish law, Mary could have been stoned to death for disgrace brought on her father’s house.

Joseph had every reason to put himself and his honor first.

That is why Joseph’s reaction is so counter-cultural. The Greek makes it clear that Joseph wasn’t merely trying to be a nice guy. He is concerned with justice. His initial decision to “quietly dismiss” Mary is a demonstration that his love for God was greater than love for Mary – and as an extra just measure, he decides to do it without causing her additional embarrassment.

Just as he had resolved to do this, however, Joseph had a dream that changed everything. Instead of dismissing Mary, he is directly instructed by an angel of the Lord to proceed with the marriage. As if finding out that his fiancée is pregnant isn’t bad enough, now God is sending him more bad news . . . sorry buddy, you’re stuck. This was not what Joseph signed up for! But of course we know in hindsight that it all worked out. Joseph had freewill. And he chose to listen.

His listening sent him into a life as a sometimes refugee in exile, sometimes fugitive with the subject of a nationwide manhunt by King Herod.

Putting God’s will above his will made life very difficult. But it was his calling.

Where is God in these situations in which life deals us a hand we don’t want?

Why can’t God just let us deal with our own problems, instead of calling us to be involved in even more complicated ones?

Do we have to have our eyes opened to injustices and atrocities in the world, from Aleppo to the Congo to our own city?

Someone who has made a major impact on my life for nearly 15 years would respond to my question with more questions:

“What is the true purpose of life?” and “Who are we really serving here?”

I’ve been reading today’s Scripture about Joseph, while thinking a lot about my friend, Harold.

Within five minutes of meeting Harold as a first-year student at San Francisco Theological Seminary, I felt very small and uncertain by comparison. In casual conversation about what brought us to San Anselmo, Harold widened his stance and leaned in with the intensity of a champion football player and wrestler—which he had been with great success in high school—and said, “God is calling me to be the pastor of a 200 member church with an emphasis on mission.” I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be at seminary, much less claim to know what type of church God had in mind for me. I left that encounter thinking, “I could never be friends with that guy—he seems too intense and crazy.”

As it turned out, our wives became friends. Colleen and Megan helped start a group called S.O.S., “Students of Spouses.” Seminary students can be really annoying to the point that many marriages do not survive the experience, so the acronym is quite appropriate. The students—all with young children at this point—were responsible for taking care of the kids while our partners had some time to tend to their own faith apart from us. Through various life circumstances, the S.O.S. group members moved or transitioned out of school, until only Colleen and Megan remained and Harold and I bonded over everything from football to discussing the nuances of theology. Colleen and I had the blessing of spending many Valentine’s dinners together with Harold and Megan and getting our families together all around the country.

Through these times, Harold endured the death of his father during his first semester of seminary. Money was tight, so Harold worked during school as a youth director, camp director, and apartment complex maintenance manager. Megan worked full time in medical offices and shared her world-class teaching, singing and baking skills whenever she could.

During our final semester, Harold was the first person to get his materials together to seek a call as a pastor. Just as he predicted when we had met, Harold received a call to a church of approximately 200 members in Colorado, followed by subsequent calls in New Mexico and Pennsylvania, within driving distance of his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.

While he would not want to be positioned as a saint as he believed that Christ alone was perfect, Harold was a righteous and faithful man who persevered through numerous peaks and valleys in life.

Like Joseph, Harold did not turn away from God when life sent him bad news.

Less than eight months ago in April, Harold called with the results no one wants.

He had stage four bile-duct cancer. This rare and aggressive cancer has a very low survival rate. Harold lived through the pain that too many of you here today know firsthand, still mustering up the strength to attend graduations and ball games and performances of his three boys, 7, 15 and 18-years-old. His intense pain and nausea made every day a challenge, to which Megan stepped up to care for him while running an after school program and working at Starbucks to make ends meet.

Through it all, Harold stayed centered on Scripture and prayer, continuing to preach and baptize babies less than one month prior to his passing.

He refused to put himself first.

One week ago, we gathered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to celebrate Harold’s life.

Megan shared that Harold had been reflecting on the Gospel of John in his final days. This verse is about John the Baptist, a man who was very intense and put God first all the way to the end: He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Harold understood his purpose as testifying to the light of Christ.

That is what it means to seek love.

We understand that life is not a selfie.

We set aside the story in which we are the center, and instead connect to God’s Big Story in which the cries of the baby Jesus turn to a call to us to live into his story.

At Harold’s service, we sang, “Here I am, Lord,” a hymn which is sometimes written off as too individualistic. For Harold, it was not a time to say, look at me. It was a space in which his calling connects with God’s calling to humankind throughout history. Words that connected his suffering with Christ’s suffering that did not end in darkness, but in light.

“I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin,
My hand will save.
I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send?”

Amen.

[1] “More people have died by taking selfies this year than by shark attacks,” The Telegraph, 22 Sept. 2015.

[2] “Are Selfie-takers really narcissists?” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201608/are-selfie-takers-really-narcissists

 

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