By The Rev. Sherry Deets
4 Advent – December 22, 2013
We’ve come to the darkest part of the year. Yesterday was the shortest and therefore, darkest, day of the year. We have come as well to a dark time for that young man Joseph that I just read about. He does everything he needs to do in preparation for his wedding. Then what he never imagined would happen, happens. His fiancee is pregnant. He knows he is not the father. Suddenly his world shatters, as when a stone hurled by a child shatters ice on a pond.
This is the deep winter night of young Joseph’s life. In his twenty years, he has never encountered something that has left him so out of control. A decent man with an open, gentle face, he grasps for the least destructive solution that his world allows. The engagement, broken beyond repair by this infidelity, will be declared dead. The girl will be sent back home in quiet shame, where she and her child will live out their days beyond the circle of respectability.
It’s not a solution that leaves Joseph satisfied; it does little to dissolve his anger, shame, and hurt. However, just as once he could not imagine his engagement shattering in this way, so now he cannot picture any better resolution.
In this deep winter night of young Joseph’s life, he takes to his bed. In this season of sorrow and shattered dreams, he hibernates. He sleeps the sleep of the exhausted, the vanquished, and it is a fitful sleep.
To Joseph in that slumber there comes a dream. It is not some small dream. What comes to Joseph is a BIG DREAM. As spacious as the deep winter night, and far more overwhelming. This dream is an uneasy place for him to be, for yet again he feels out of control as never before.
The dream speaks with the voice of command. He’s told to take Mary, pregnant Mary, as his wife. He’s told not to be afraid. He’s reminded that he’s more than just a young guy trying to get started in life, who earns his keep one day at a time.
The dream does more than just pump him up, however. He finds out strange things about this unborn child, whose face or name or sex he had not begun to imagine. The father is not some lout from the village who would dare take advantage of Joseph’s fiancee. This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. God’s the father! Not Joseph, not any man in Nazareth.
The dream gives this baby, yet to be born, both a name and a mission. He’s to be named Jesus, a name that means savior, healer, the one who rescues. He’ll have the same name as Moses’ sidekick Joshua, who brought Israel into the promised land. He’ll have a similar mission to perform. Not to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt, but out of slavery to their sins.
A line from an old prophecy of Isaiah rolls around inside this vast, majestic dream. Something about a virgin who has a baby, a baby named Emmanuel, in other words, “God with us.” Joseph learned that verse in childhood. He had no idea then what it would come to mean to him.
Joseph’s life, Mary’s life and the lives of their families were in turmoil. God has caused a ‘holy disruption’.
We’re accustomed to thinking about the beauty and wonder of the birth of Jesus, and that’s appropriate. But let’s not forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced, or the fear and hurt that Mary would likely have also felt as they sorted out their divinely complex relationship.
Why might that be helpful? Because Mary and Joseph aren’t merely characters from a stained-glass window, but flesh and blood people. And the more we can imagine them as people like us — with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance — the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them — that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, and yet whom God uses nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.
Jesus came as one of us. Jesus was born like we are, lived as we live, loved and laughed and suffered as we do. And died as we will die. And on the third day, God raised him from the dead, that we might no longer live in fear of death.
Matthew paints a picture of the utter normalcy of the holy family. Which means, of course, he tells us about the complexity, the confusion, and the frailty that attended this family, just like every other family. Indeed, there is nothing exceptional about this couple or birth … except that God works through it to save us, to draw near to us in love, grace, and salvation.
God comes through ordinary, mixed-up people in order to save ordinary, mixed-up people, and God comes through a birth like all the millions of other births in the world to promise us freedom from sin, fear, and death and rebirth as the children of God.
The same one who came into the lives and home of Joseph of Nazareth and his betrothed, Mary, keeps on coming to us!
Yes, Jesus keeps coming! God keeps working! And, as a result, we, too, should not be surprised to experience holy disruptions!
William Willimon tells the story of a young woman whom he served as campus minister of Duke University:
“Her enthusiasm and excitement were self-evident. ‘I love, I really love, teaching those kids, and they love me,’ she bubbled.
“I had been in on long conversations with her about what God intended her to do with her life. She had decided to offer herself to Teach America, and that organization had placed her in a miserable little school out in an impoverished rural area of the South.
“She obviously loved it, and was surprised how much she loved it, and how much the children loved her. It was wonderful!
“’Wonderful,’ she agreed, ‘and also more than a little scary. What if God really is working through me? What if this is how God expects me to spend the rest of my life?”
Those were, more than likely, Joseph’s questions, when a holy disruption entered his life.
And they just may be our questions, too. If God were to come to us, if we were to experience a holy disruption, would we respond like Joseph? Would we embrace in faith and obedience the new course our life was taking, joyful in the call to follow and serve God?
I believe that’s one of the lessons of Christmas, isn’t it? This is one of the lessons of Christ’s coming: don’t be surprised if God enters our lives with a holy disruption, and calls us to live faithfully and obediently in a new reality.
Don’t be surprised at all. And why not? Ask Joseph and Mary. Ask the young woman who was considering a call to teach.
Why should we not be surprised if God should disrupt our lives and call us to holy living? Because that’s exactly what God has done, in Christ. God comes through ordinary, mixed up people, in order to save ordinary, mixed up people. God loves us with an extraordinary love. Amen.
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