December 12, 2010

Saying Yes to God with Joseph

Today’s the Third Sunday of Advent. It doesn’t seem possible that we are more than half way through Advent. On the Third Sunday many people light the pink candle in their Advent wreath in honor of Rose Sunday. It is also called Gaudete Sunday from the Latin word for Rejoice used at the beginning of the service.


The Third Sunday reminds us that we are moving closer to the joyful birth we are anticipating. It is a good day to look at a central, yet often forgotten figure in the Nativity story. Joseph of Nazareth is an important and integral part of the whole saga. Without his acceptance of God’s call, the story would have been very different.


His story is found in Matthew 1:18-25. Joseph and Mary are betrothed, which by Jewish law was the same as being married, except the couple did not live together. If either party died, the remaining partner would be considered a widow or widower with the rights of a surviving spouse. Likewise, if the man or woman was unfaithful, the punishment was the same as if they were living as man and wife. This could mean stoning for adultery.

Joseph is confronted with a choice when Mary tells him she is pregnant. “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly,” says  scripture. In my book Mary, My Love, Joseph struggles mightily with the decision* before being reassured by the “angel of the Lord [who] appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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.’”

Joseph wakes up and “he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Matthew says that the prophecy from Isaiah 7:13-14 was fulfilled: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’”

It took faith for Joseph to accept Mary’s announcement and take her as his wife. He would have to bear the snickers of the neighbors and the knowing glances from his friends. Even though he had the assurance of the angel and his love of Mary, he also learned to lean on God who promised (Hebrews 13:5):

Never will I leave you, That’s something I’ll never do
Forever remember that it’s true…
And when you fear, the scars and tears
Remember what I have sworn
I’ll be with you through the storm… (Michael Card, Never Will I Leave You)

Joseph’s life was turned upside down by Mary’s pregnancy. Everything he carefully planned as husband was changed when God called him to be father of Emmanuel. Zechariah had God carefully ‘boxed’ and found it initially impossible to believe God could act in his life. Mary believed that nothing was impossible with God. Joseph’s compassion and love won over his doubt and fear so that he could respond with faith and take Mary as his wife.

Michael Card has a Christmas song that explores Joseph’s thoughts after Jesus’ birth. Even holding the baby, he wonders "how could it be?"

Joseph's Song
How could it be this baby in my arms
Sleeping now, so peacefully
The Son of God, the angel said
How could it be...
Father show me where I fit into this plan of yours
How can a man be father to the Son of God...
How could it be

Joseph asks "How could it be?" When things don’t go as I plan, I tend to rant and rave. After a while I calm down and then I can see that there are opportunities in the new direction of my life. Usually, it is only in looking back that I recognize how much better God’s plan was than mine. Joseph, too sought to find "where I fit into this plan of yours, How can a man be father to the Son of God."

What sorts of scars and fears did you identify and put in your Advent box last week? Did you hear the voice of your inner 'censor'? A spiritual director once told me that the first step to healing is to identify and become aware of the scars.

This week, identify some of the plans or dreams that you had to let go of. Think how the end result was different than you thought it would be, and where God was in the process. Can you, with Michael Card, know that God’s word is true that says, “Never will I leave you…Forever remember that it’s true, never will I leave you”? Sometimes it takes the passing of time for me to see the good that came out of a vanished dream or plan.

Next week as we draw near to Bethlehem, we’ll look at how the Shepherds, the first visitors to the Newborn, responded to God’s call.

*Excerpt from Mary My Love by Cynthia Davis (see the Books tab above or my website for more info)

Blindly I headed for the hills beyond Nazareth. If anyone greeted me, I did not hear. Mary’s words repeated their terrible litany in my head.


“Bear a son…God chose...no man…I do not lie.”


Faster and faster I walked, until I was running up the mountainside. The same grove of trees that saw my decision to wed Mary received me. Like a mad man I smashed my hands against one trunk and then another until my rage was spent. In despair I fell to my knees.


“God, why do you mock me? I believed you gave me Mary’s love. Now she admits that she carries a child which is not mine!” Renewed anger set me to pacing. Suspicion fueled the fire. “Joachim was eager to accept my offer. Did he know that his daughter was no virgin, even then? Was I the dupe all along?”


I heard the animal growl that came from my throat. If the man had been near I would have choked an answer from him. My head began to pound from my emotions and unanswerable questions. Sinking down with my back against a tree, I buried my face in my hands.


“God, the girl blasphemed to cover her lie. How can you not strike her down?”


A memory of her radiant face gave me pause. The innocence and beauty of her announcement came back to me. I dared not believe it true.


“God, is Mary a victim of some hoax? God, did you steal my bride?”


Throughout the day I alternately paced and sat, prayed and cursed, raged and wept. The evening shadows started to darken the grove when a horrifying thought occurred to me. I crashed to my knees, gripping a sapling for support.


“I do not accept Mary and her child, she will be stoned!”


The pain that grabbed me by the heart radiated throughout my body until I could almost feel stones striking me. I slid to the ground in agony. My father’s recital of what happened to his mother flashed into my mind. Groaning, I covered my head. With my eyes closed I saw the rarely used pit outside of Nazareth. Only once had I seen anyone stoned there. A man convicted of blasphemy had been dragged to the place. Every man in town had taken turns throwing rocks until the body was an unrecognizable bloody pulp.


“No!”


I sprang up, eyes wide with the remembered horror. I could not condemn any woman to such a death. Sanity slipped me a lifeline.


“There is another option,” I whispered. “I can send her away until the child is born. No one need know.”


I tried to ignore the insistent voice that hissed ‘you would always remember’. The shadows grew as I resumed my pacing. My pride shied away from naming the child as mine. True, the gossip could be stared down. Many men sampled the marriage bed during the betrothal. No one would condemn me. I would be the only one to know the infant was not of my seed.


“God…”


Worn out from the day’s passion, I sank to my knees. The Name of the Most High was all I could say. Over and over I repeated the word…

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