What Dreams May Come
At a recent Advent Retreat, participants were asked to pick a figure out of the Nativity scene they most identified with. I invite you to think about this also. Who in the Nativity story do you most relate to?
Is it the shepherds, tending to the very ordinary, somewhat dirty details of everyday life, called in the midst of all that to recognize God with them? Or maybe it's the Wise Men, moved to bring extraordinary gifts to an improbable king. Or how about Mary, invited to give birth to the holiness. Where does your life intersect with the Nativity story this season?
Did any of you think about Joseph? Nobody on the retreat did. Mary got grabbed up right away by at least two people. The Wise Men had their turn. One participant chose the baby Jesus. Even the donkey got picked, because someone in the group was feeling especially burdened. Everyone in the Nativity story got a little attention, except for Joseph. Always standing off to the side, silent and tired. He is the supporting actor in someone's story.
I know of a little girl who always got to play the Virgin Mary in the church Christmas pageant, because she had blonde hair and looked precious in a blue robe. One year, the little boy playing Joseph, picked up the Jesus baby doll from the manager. That little girl grabbed the doll away from him and hissed very loudly,"That's not your baby!"
Biologically speaking, she was right of course, and that's the problem for poor old Joseph and his part of the story. It is not, technically, his child. He's not the biological father. It seems like you could lift him right out of the story, and the story would still go on.
Almost. The truth is a whole lot did depend on him. He was a good man caught in a terrible scandal not remotely of his own making. We tend not to think of this as a scandal, but it actually was.
He was betrothed to Mary. Betrothal was equivalent to marriage, a marriage which became complete once the groom took the bride to his own home and they consummated the marriage. But in the meantime, they were already considered husband and wife. That Mary had turned up pregnant during this time could only mean one thing to him - she had been unfaithful. Joseph knew the child was not his.
If you've ever found yourself on the receiving end of bad news resulting from someone else's poor choices, then you can imagine how Joseph felt. Betrayed? Certainly. Disappointed? Naturally. Humiliated? Most likely. Angry? Probably.
Everything he thought he knew about his beloved and been upended. the future he had imagined with her was not to be. His own standing in the community would be harmed by something not of his own doing. His life has been altered by someone else's actions. He did not make this mess, but he will have to deal with it.
And so he has a choice. Joseph and Mary lived in a world where right and wrong were black and white, and consequences were clearly defined. These are the choices Joseph can make in response to Mary's unfortunate pregnancy. He can divorce her, or he can bring charges of adultery against her, which means having her stoned. That's what is came down to for a woman in Mary's situation. Divorce or death.
Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, and it seems a kind one too. Because he chooses not to publically shame Mary. He will not put her on trial or let her transgressions be know to all. He will divorce her, but he will do it quietly. And for a young woman in Mary's circumstances, that is just about the best she could have hoped for.
But then an angel shows up. As far as angels go, the one we seem to like the best is the one where the glorious Gabriel comes to sweet Mary and tells her she's going to have a baby. Artists love this story, and it has been painted and sculpted and put in glass thousands of times throughout the centuries The story of a young and innocent girl saying yes to God's wild plan - it is beautiful.
But the way Matthew tells it, the whole plan hinged on Joseph as much as it did on Mary. Joseph had resolved to put her away quietly, but the dreams of an angel who says, "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."
If Joseph can believe such a dream as this, then the story will move forward. the boy will be born legitimately. He will be given a name. Mary and the baby will have a home and a family. God's outrageous plan to be born into our world will be protected and nurtured.
Or, Joseph can wake from the dream, shake it off, and go on and file the divorce papers. Mary will be nothing more than any other poor, unwed teenage mother, and Jesus will be an illegitimate child.
Joseph has every reason in the world to do just that, to dismiss Mary, to disavow the situation, to get back to the quiet, conventional life he had planned. But he does not do that. He gets up from his bed,and adopts God's plan. He owns the mess he didn't make, and that mess becomes the place where God is born.
This is the choice we have too. When our plans get interrupted, and our lives get disrupted, we can say, "No, I did not plan this. I cannot believe this is happening, and I will not accept it."
Or, we can say, "Yes, I will accept what life is offering me. I will consent to plans I didn't make for myself. And I will believe the impossible good news that somehow God will be born in this."
You may have a hard time as Joseph first did believing in a virgin birth, but the true mystery in all of this is that God not only decided to become one of us, but that the plan hinged on human partners. And God still wants us to to be born into the disorder of our lives. And still, God wants us to consent, asks our consent, to this radical birth.
What does this mean for us? For Joseph, it meant claiming God's child as his own, giving him a name, a home, a family. It meant bringing out into the light what he had thought to assign to the dark. It meant consenting to God's plan, responding in faith with no knowledge of where it would lead.
In order for all of this to happen, Joseph had to let go of a lot. He had a certain understanding of righteousness, one that meant putting Mary away quietly. He had to let hat go. He had a certain expectation of how his life would work out. He had a certain sense of order and control, and a quiet conventionality. He had to let all of that go. And in all that letting go he did, there was room enough in his life to take hold of something bigger, to say "yes" to the mystery that is God.
It was Mary who later would be called the "God bearer". But it was Joseph too who bore God's plans as his own.
And what about us? When you look back over this past year, I bet there's a whole lot that happened that you had not planned. Some things probably went horribly wrong. Others turned out more right than you could have ever imagined. How has God been with you in all of it? How is God, even now, laboring to be born anew in the specific circumstances of your life, the ones you chose and the ones you didn't? What do you need to let go in order for God to be born? What have you been trying to divorce yourself from that perhaps you need to embrace? What do you need to say "yes" to in order for God to be born again in your heart, in your life, in this church, in our world, because it's still what God seeks.
Every day we face circumstances beyond our control, messes we didn't make, and ones we did. Every day we deal with interruptions and disruptions to our plans. Our lives often look little like we had hoped, even at Christmas. Maybe especially at Christmas.
But can you hear the angel, even now? He is saying what he has always said: "Do not be afraid. God is here. God will be born even here, if you consent."
And this is our call, in these days of Advent. Open your arms. Open your heart. Open your life to the mystery that is Emmanuel, God with us. Amen
I read this and it so spoke to me, I pray it will help give you understanding in your life too. Looking back this has been a very hard year for me, ups and downs with family, mother work. I have been dealt a hand I did not want, but I have trusted God daily to give me the grace to make the right decisions, I will do all within my power to obey the Lord and trust Him daily for the hand I have been dealt, knowing He is in control of my life and has all my answers, I pray I can walk in love, love never fails. This year I have learned in doing the 12 step program that I am co-dependent and do what ever I can to be a peace maker and hold everything together, no matter what, keep peace, even at your expense, I have learned that is a result of my child hood abuse, that it is never ok to accept abuse, if its verbal, physical, mental, you can love, still stand up and say no, this is not right, just as Jesus did when He cleansed the temple, I have learned that just because others think something of me, does not mean I have too, that I have to take that to the Lord and believe what He says about me, I have learned I can not please everyone and do not have too. I have learned that my children can fight their own battles, I am to be and encourager not a fixer I have learned that I love me and how God made me, its ok to say no and not feel guilty, its ok to have a PJ day and not be sick, to be honest, but only speak with love and be a few words, not to gossip, you might get over it but the ones you told will hold a grudge which will cause pain. I have forgiven Steve for not measuring up to my expectations in some areas and let him be him, I have forgiven me for not measuring up to my own expectations. I guess I would feel more like Joseph, with Walt trusting me to care for mother and over the finances, which he did six months before he died, there are times I want to defend my self, but God makes me be quiet. I do not like being POA or having to do all mother’s affairs, taxes, social security, medical, etc. but that is what God has trusted me with, I take it seriously. Like I said this has been a difficult year and I am not sure it will be better, mother has Alzheimer's , I have learned not to look forward in how I will be able to do this but to look at today and know God gives fresh mercy and grace today, tomorrow will take care of itself……if I look at tomorrow, I do not know how I will be able to do it, it depresses me with Mother…….wonder if Joseph just tried to look at one day at a time….bet he did love to all reading this, I can honestly say I have no un forgiveness, grudges, at this time with anyone, I have learned to walk away before saying things I will be sorry for, to make amends quickly when I do open my mouth at the wrong time and to let my family/friends know I love them, for we never know what tomorrow holds…..love to each of you if your reading this……hugs