23 December 2007

longest night

Matthew 1:18-25, "Her husband Joseph . . . planned to dimiss her quietly."
Isaiah 7:10-16, "The Lord will give you a sign . . . Immanuel."

I’m not sure what I would have done if I were Joseph.

I mean Joseph was a good man, a “righteous man” as our translation reads. But now his fiancĂ©, Mary, is pregnant. And Joseph is not the father. So Joseph thought that the best thing to do would be to handle the situation quickly and quietly. This would keep Mary from public shame . . . and also from the very real possibility of being stoned to death.

Joseph must have still cared for her, despite what would have been a betrayal, or what would have seemed like a betrayal to anyone that looked at the situation. We worry about what other people will think about our decisions, about our lives. Joseph had to have worried about and feared what people might think . . . but he also worried about and feared what would happen to Mary, the woman he was set to marry.

So instead of taking the chance that she might’ve been stoned for having sex outside the bounds of marriage, Joseph decided to divorce her, thereby saving some of his pride and saving the life of this woman that he had loved . . . but now might have had his doubts about. I can’t imagine what I would have done.

But then Joseph had a dream.

And this of course is not the first Joseph to have a dream. You may remember Joseph from the book of Genesis, the youngest son of Jacob, this one who had the dream that he would rule over his brothers. His brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt for that dream. Then to cover what they had done told his father that Joseph had died, that he had been killed by a wild animal and to prove it they brought back Joseph’s coat, a coat of many colors although this time the coat had a lot of red blood on it, proof that Joseph had been killed.

All that for having a dream, for having this vision of how his brothers would eventually bow to him.

Sometimes our dreams get us into trouble it seems. Sometimes choosing to follow those dreams is not easy.

And when this Joseph that we read of today has this dream, when the angel of the Lord comes to him, the angel tells him, “Don’t be afraid.” Because this Joseph knows that sometimes dreams can get you into trouble, most of the time doing the right thing is not easy . . . there will be things to fear along the way. Joseph knows that you may not be loved or even liked, that such is the path that God calls us to follow.

It does strike me that as we enter this holiday season, this time when all of us are supposed to be merry and bright, it strikes me that for some of us that is not easy to do. Sometimes we believe that God calls us to be cheerful and happy . . . and then we read scripture.

We read this story of a man, this Joseph, who received some not-so-good news. We read about how choosing to follow God meant doing what was difficult, not what everyone else would have done. Sometimes the good news is mixed up with our own worries and sorrows. And sometimes as we reach this last Sunday of Advent, when Christmas is less than a week away now, the parties feel hollow, we miss loved ones that are gone, we realize how we have lost touch with friends that we have spent Christmas with in the past, sometimes it is truly a blue Christmas.

There is a service that is done in some churches called “the Longest Night” or a “Blue Christmas” service. And although it is not about the Elvis song Blue Christmas, it does have to do with the way that we encounter such mixed emotions and feelings at this time of year.

The service would be held on the winter solstice, that day right around December 21st that is the shortest day of the year. That day when the hours that the sun shines are the shortest that they can be; that day when the night is the longest that it will be all year. You hear it again and again that suicides increase at this time of year, a time when everyone tells us we are supposed to be merry and bright, but if there is uncertainty in your life, if there has been some brokenness this past year or something difficult that happened to you, when you approach this season, you feel that hurt and that uncertainty all the more.

Sometimes our gatherings with friends and family carry the weight of those difficult situations, difficult feelings because of so-and-so’s divorce, and what this one said to that one, and how we are glad that Grandma isn’t alive to see this . . .. I can only imagine that for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries, this is not an easy holiday to be away from family and friends; for those that are back from the war, it can be tough to sing a song of peace and goodwill when you remember your buddy that was killed. But this is the tough world in which we live.

This is what we know in our hearts but are sometimes afraid to say with our lips: that when we look at our lives, when we look at our world, it is hard to have hope; it is hard to believe; it is hard to do what we know to be right, to have hope, to believe that God is still redeeming this world.

And you see for Joseph, a man who has just found out that his betrothed, this woman he is to marry is pregnant, the best thing he could think to do was to divorce her quietly. This is what he thought redemption would mean in this situation. It was better to do what is expedient.

But this passage tells us that the angel of the Lord came to him in a dream, saying, “Don’t be afraid.” “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child she carries is from God. She is going to bear a son, and you are to call him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” It was as if God was saying to him, . . . and to you, “Despite what you fear, despite where you are hurt, lonely, and feel betrayed, despite all the pain in this world, don’t be afraid. Hope will be born. Salvation is coming. Sometimes that means embracing what is difficult in our lives; sometimes that means not doing what is easiest, but knowing that God is with you through it all. This child will be called Immanuel, a name meaning God with us. Don’t be afraid of the hurt, don’t be afraid of sorrow, don’t be afraid of the uncertainly. But know that God is coming, God is with you already . . . Joseph.”

And God is with you too.

Because for any of us that have lost loved ones, the nights this time of year can be awful long. I know that for me, with my father’s illness, I know that this Christmas will be different than those that are coming. I know that before my wife and I had children, when we hoped and wished for a child, this holiday could be hard . . . when so much is geared towards the children that you don’t have. I know that many of you have your own struggles too. We all do.

But now we read of this Immanuel, this Jesus is being born. And as we are reminded of this, we face this longest night unafraid, with sorrow in our hearts but faith that Immanuel, “God with us” is truly with us.

That just as God was with Mary, a pregnant teenager, and with Joseph, a man who would make the decision to parent a child that was not his, just as God was with them as Jesus was born in that little town of Bethlehem in a dirty barn where the animals were kept, God is with us. God is redeeming our sorrows, healing our hurts, asking us to not be afraid.

You see Joseph awoke from his sleep, from the dream that God gave him. Our scripture tells us that he did as the angel had told him to do and took Mary as his wife. And she gave birth to a son. And Joseph named him Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins.

This is our hope.

This is our salvation.

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