Year A, Advent 4
December 21, 2013: Matthew 1:18-24
January 13, 2014
I have always wished that God could be a little clearer in his will for us. It would be nice if there were more effective ways to discern the will of God. In the Bible, there are all kinds of wonderful stories about angels appearing to people, God speaking in a loud booming voice from heaven, prophets coming and speaking on behalf of God. It seems as though God does not communicate like that anymore. I am not looking for the heavens to open, but it would be nice if I could get some clarity from God everyone once in a while. I would settle for a short text. But so far, no texts from God, not even a tweet.
There have been many moments in my life when I have struggled with a decision, a path to take, and I appealed to God for intervention. There is one decision that I remember very clearly. It was right after college and I was doing an internship in a small church in an even smaller town. It was a dark summer for me and that was partially due to a rather horrible breakup. When I was in the midst of that break up, I found myself sitting in a church late at night. I had turned a couple of lights on, but it was still fairly dim. There was a light rain outside and I could almost feel God’s presence with me. I knelt at the communion rail and I asked God for a sign. Was this the person I was supposed to be with? Should I fight for this relationship or just let it go? All of a sudden there was a huge clap of thunder. Hmm I thought, well that could really go either way. It’s still not clear whether God thinks this relationship should end. I said, “Please God, show me the way.” There was another clap of thunder, then lightening. Suddenly all the lights in the sanctuary went out and I was left in darkness.
Whenever a movie depicts the event described in the Gospel reading for today, it is always some variation of a person (who may or may not have wings) standing over Joseph and telling him exactly what is happening and what he needs to do. One of my favorite depictions of this scene came from a pageant I saw where the angel was a teenager who had aspirations for the military. He stood over Joseph and said in a voice that sounded a bit like a drill sergeant, “Joseph…wake up!” I do not remember the rest because I was trying very hard not to giggle. However, I am fairly certain that Joseph got the message loud and clear. I doubt this is how it really happened. If an angel appeared while Joseph was actually sleeping, my guess is that the message was a little murkier than it is usually depicted. I can see Joseph waking up, shaking the cobwebs from his head, thinking, “Did that just really happen?”
The Gospel describes Joseph as a righteous man, which is why he was divorcing Mary privately. This probably does not sound very righteous to most of us, but there were Biblical laws that mandated a woman who committed adultery should be put to death. So it is not just that Joseph had compassion, he was also willing to look past the letter of the law. He was willing to put mercy above justice. When the Bible uses the word righteous, it means someone who not only followed the laws of the Torah (the first five books of our Bible) but also tried to seek the will of God and follow that will. That is no small task. In some ways, Joseph was prepared for this dream because he was already faithful and trying his best to follow the will of God. Yet to me, it is still astounding that he was able to hear the angel so clearly. The text said that he was already resolved to dismiss her quietly. That means he had already prayed about it and studied the relevant scripture. It’s hard to change your mind when you are resolved about something.
After the lights went out in the sanctuary where I was praying, I sat there for a couple more minutes. In that moment, it was clear to me what God was saying. This person was not the right person for me. I needed to get out of that relationship and never look back. Yet that moment was just that, a moment. A moment later, my resolve kicked in. I thought, “Didn’t Jesus say that we are not supposed to ask for signs? Obviously I need to ignore these signs because they were not really signs at all. If anything, God was telling me to stop asking for signs.” It is amazing how easy it is to take what should be a clear message from God and misinterpret it.
I suspect that most of us have complained at one time or another that it is hard to discern/know God’s will for us. But I wonder how often we actually work at being open to God’s will. It is so much easier to talk over God than it is to listen to God. I am always amazed at people who can meditate. I assume that they must just be that kind of person who is calm and quiet. Yet almost every time I ask someone who has that skill how they came to it, they tell me that it is really hard work. That is true for listening to God as well. Listening to God, praying, is hard work. It is rewarding, but it does not come without sacrifice. Sometimes that sacrifice is very small, but sometimes, it is not.
When Joseph chose to listen to the angel and accepted those words into his heart his life got a whole lot more difficult. People knew that Mary was pregnant and they probably believed that either she was carrying his child before they were married or another man’s. Either way, it would appear they disobeyed God. Considering what we already know about Joseph, that he had consistently followed the laws of God, it must have been hard to have other people think that he hadn’t been faithful to God. They were mostly likely ostracized by their community and possibly even the temple where they worshipped. He was able to make this sacrifice because he had heard and accepted the will of God. That sacrifice led to more difficult sacrifices as their journey continued, but it also enabled Jesus’s message of hope to spread throughout the world. In retrospect, it probably seemed like a small sacrifice considering it led to the salvation of humanity.
In Jewish thought, the Holy Spirit brought truth to people and enabled them to accept that truth. When the angel told Joseph that Mary was pregnant as a result of the Holy Spirit, the angel was showing Joseph that this was truth. But it was not just that the angel was delivering a message that was the truth, he was saying that the child Mary was carrying in her womb would be the truth. Jesus would later tell people, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
We all have access to that truth now, but like Joseph, we have to make space in our minds and our hearts for that truth. We must invite that truth into our lives, which often means letting go of our resolve. I assume that most of us have spent a lot of time preparing for the holiday by shopping, sending Christmas cards, decorating the house, baking cookies, attending parties, hosting parties, etc. As we prepare for the coming of the Christ child, let us take time (even if it is only 10 minutes) to really prepare our hearts and our minds for the truth that is Jesus Christ. It might not result in homemade biscotti, but it will provide a much greater result. If you prepare your heart for God’s call to you, you too will hear it clearly and have the strength to follow it.