Each Life Touches So Many Other Lives
Joseph tossed and turned. Mary was going to have a baby. They were betrothed. What would he do? As was customary, Mary was committed to Joseph through formal words of consent when she was 12 or 13. From them on, she was viewed as Joseph’s wife even though she still lived in her family home. Betrothal lasted about a year, and at the end of the year, Mary would move to live with Joseph as his wife.
But now, everything has changed. Mary is having a baby. Joseph is struggling with how to respond. He knows that it is not his baby. And here he is a righteous man – he keeps the commandments, he lives according to the Mosaic law, and he tries to live his life doing the will of God – tossing and turning through the night, struggling with what to do. He does not want to humiliate Mary. He will not make a formal accusation against her to her father and mother. If he does, according to Deuteronomy, they will be required to bring proof of her virginity to the town elders at the gate. If they can’t produce proof, she will be “brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death.” Instead, Joseph decides he will find a way to quietly dismiss her.
While he sleeps, an angel appears in a dream and makes things even more complicated. The angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Go ahead and go against religious and social rules. Don’t be afraid to go against the instructions in Scripture. Don’t be afraid of the ridicule of the community. Take Mary as your wife because the child she will have is from the Holy Spirit and through him God is doing a new thing.
I just imagine that Joseph and George Bailey experienced some of the same emotions. In the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey, with his whole life ahead of him, meets responsibility after responsibility that reshape his whole life.
Writer and editor Wendell Jamieson wrote about the first time he saw the movie. He was in high school and one of his teachers had a tradition of having his class come after school to watch the 16-millimeter projector’s images flash on the screen as they ate buttered popcorn from their rearranged desks.
It was anything but a cozy, fun afternoon to Wendell, though. “Was this what adulthood promised?” He shares his synopsis of the movie, ‘“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.’
George and Joseph are so much alike. They have done nothing wrong. Their adult lives are just ahead of them, filled with potential, and then completely not of their own making, life brings change that hems them in, forces them to choose – what is right; what is righteous?
As his dreams fall apart, Clarence, a fictional angel, is sent to convince George Bailey that his life is worth living. He takes George on a trip to an alternative present, the world if George Bailey had never been born. On the trip, we see that without George, his younger brother would have drowned while sledding as a child; Mr. Gower, the pharmacist George works for part-time, would have accidentally fatally poisoned someone; the Building and Loan would have closed, Bedford Falls was renamed Pottersville because George wasn’t there to challenge Mr. Potter, and instead of the nice subdivision of Bailey Park there is a cemetery, where George learns that because his brother drowned as a child, he doesn’t fly a fighter plane for the Nave, doesn’t shoot down 15 enemy planes, and doesn’t stop two enemy planes from crashing into a transport boat full of soldiers. Because there was no Harry, all the men aboard the transport died.
The angel of the Lord who comes to Joseph in his dreams as he tosses and turns through the night also shares how important Joseph’s life is. Joseph is a direct descendent of King David, and by accepting this child Mary will have as his own, this baby will be a son of David. And Joseph is told not to be afraid – not to be afraid of how his life is unfolding, not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and the baby as his son, not to be afraid of this new thing that God is doing.
Most of us are not going to be visited by an angel, but all of us will have times that our lives seem to be falling apart. All of us have times that we struggle with how our lives are unfolding. To the rest of the world, George Bailey and Joseph had it all! George had a business and a beautiful, loving wife and four kids, they lived in the old mansion they were fixing up and Joseph was just engaged to Mary, a carpenter with a steady income, a man of faith and principle. Maybe the rest of the world thinks you have it all together, but you know you don’t.
None of us has it all together. At Christmas we wrap the presents and choose the bows to match, but we don’t have it all together. We don’t know how our lives will unfold. We don’t understand the reasons or ways that God will use what happens in our lives to transform us and the world around us.
Clarence, second class angel, reminds us, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Yes, because God has a purpose for every life. Joseph said yes, and our lives have been made possible – true life, not just breathing and going through the daily motions, but abundant life as God’s own children. George said yes to life, and all those whom he had served selflessly gave of themselves for him; they loved one another as Christ loved. So as you toss and turn and wrestle and worry, listen. It is those things that cause you to toss and turn, those problems in the world that are bigger than you are, those dreams in your soul that won’t let go, THOSE are God’s purpose for you. Those are the ways that God is using you to bring Emmanuel, God with us, into our world today through your hands, your actions, your life. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life” by Wendell Jamieson, Dec. 18, 2008 https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/19/movies/19wond.html