When I was a child I was told by my teacher, that when I was colouring in, to always try to keep the colour inside the lines. I found this incrediblely hard to do. Regularly, the colour would streak out across the thick black line like a solar flare, a lasting reminder that I had failed. I would feel frustrated and ashamed that I couldn’t do it when others could. Why could I not control my hand?
Over time my accuracy increased, my hand/eye coordination improved. Less and less often did I feel ashamed that my pictures were not good enough. As I grew, I realised that life was about colouring inside the lines whether in mathematics or British Bulldog or with whom I should be friends. Even now as adults, we are still expected to colour in the lines that society draws.
Joseph was not a rule breaker or a dreamer. He coloured inside the lines from an early age. He not only knew how to colour but he knew why. He was a righteous man. He was committed to following the Torah and it’s laws. Where those laws were explicit, following them would have not have been a duty to man like Joseph. It would be a second nature non-negotiable.
Joseph is engaged to Mary. Well it’s more that that. According to the social and religious laws they were as good as married, but had not consummated the marriage. Therefore for your espoused to be pregnant at this stage asked questions of her fidelity. Those colouring within the lines would almost certainly have publicly divorced the unfaithful spouse bringing shame on her and her family. Joseph was someone who coloured within the lines but something was drawing his hand and his attention elsewhere, even before his angelic visitor arrived.
He resolved to divorce Mary privately, allowing her and her family to maintain some sort of honour. He doesn’t do what was expected by others or by the Law. In being righteous and yet, even so, unwilling to put Mary to shame, Joseph hears the call of something deeply counter-cultural for a man like him. And what is so remarkable about him is that he has the wisdom and the courage to follow that call.
Is it any accident that God chose dreams to speak to Joseph? It kinda goes with the name doesn’t it. But if you are good at colouring within the lines of life, perhaps the only way that God can speak to someone like that - to challenge you, to allow your crayon to slip, is in that place where you have no control, where you cannot colour within the lines, where you can obey no rules or laws?
God speaking in dreams has a great and nobel scriptural tradition. Yet we all too often dismiss our dreams as some of the quite frankly bizarre stuff that happens as a consequence of sleep. Dreams are an essential part of keeping our brains healthy, yet because anything can happen in a dream anywhere to anyone; because they sit in the hinterland between the real and the imaginary; because they are just not verifiable by our scientific age - they become a fleeting topic of conversation and then are gone.
Our dreams are formed in the deepest and most intimate parts of our lives. They are the arena in which our hopes and longings are tried and tested; where our values are forged and where different histories are played out. Where it is not only ok, but we are positively encouraged to allow our crayon to slip of the lines of life.
God’s dream is a picture covered in crayon marks in the wrong places - streaks of red passion, shafts of blue peace all across every line and all surrounded by the yellows and golds of God’s glory.
As we stand with Joseph at the outer edge of Advent, what dreams do you dream and all too easily dismiss? What hopes do you quash because they seem all too unlikely? Which people do you exclude or ignore because they don’t fit into the picture that you colouring - because they consistently tell a different truth to yours, because tick a different box at the ballot, because they are gay or straight or black or a woman? Are they as unlikely as a man who coloured in the lines, a righteous man, still taking this pregnant girl as his wife, are they as unreasonable as as that socially unacceptable child being God with us?
Joseph awoke from sleep and allowed these divine dreams to become a shocking and risky reality - but in so doing - God is with us. Joseph stood up and was counted by those who coloured in the lines with him - but in so doing - God is with us. Joseph allowed a tender and growing love for his wife to expand and to embrace a child that was not his own as his son - but in so doing - God is with us.
Most of is spend our lives trying to colour in the lines. If we make a mistake and cross a line we bear the shame of personal or social failure. Or to put it another way, we can be lulled into a dream of life that must be a marriage, a job, a mortgage, a car, a certain number of children.
Today, God’s encounter with Joseph reminds us that sometimes we will colour outside the lines, and that despite what others may tell us, we have not failed, we are not unacceptable or to be avoided but we are loved and accepted by Him. If our inmost longings seem unlikely or our hopes unrealisable, His dreams for us, even in our failures or shame, are far bigger that we thought possible. For in all things we are surrounded by the yellows and golds of His glory.
Today, even in the midst of all of that we so often are and always long to be, are willing to allow a different dream, the love God has for us always, to become a reality in our lives - for in so doing God is with us.