St. Michael and All Angels
December 19, 2010
There is an old story about a boy who comes home from Sunday School. His Dad asked what he learned that day. He said, “The teacher told us about Israel escaping from Egypt and when they came to the Red Sea they pumped up their inflatable boats so they could get away from Pharoah’s soldiers.” His Dad asks, “Is that the way it really happened?” The boy replies, “Dad, if I told it the way she did, you would never believe it.”
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass the White Queen advises Alice to practice believing 6 impossible things before breakfast each day.
That’s not a bad spiritual practice…particularly this time of year when we are asked to believe the impossible…God coming as a baby to save the world? The truth is we try believing from a distance, in a break from our parties and decorating and baking and shopping. Somewhere in there we nod in the direction of the pending birth. Our attempts to find ourselves in this story are very different than Mary and Joseph who were told that they would be parents of God incarnate. We are more like observers…careful not to get drawn into this mess, but standing off to the side holding our songbooks and secretly peering over to see what might happen when God is born among us. No matter where we stand in this story, it is one that doesn’t go down easily.
Today we turn our attention to Joseph. He is often dismissed as if he matters little in the drama…just a bit part. But that is simply not true. In this moment in Matthew, the whole story hinges on Joseph and his willingness to become part of an ugly, dangerous mess. He may not understand the full implications yet, but he knows that when the world finds out about Mary, they will be prepared to stone her. He can walk away from it all or somehow say yes to a God who asks him to take his place beside her and see what happens.
Like many remarkable God sightings, this one includes the expected angel and the words, “do not be afraid”. The angel always says that. But we know better. This is a time to be very, very afraid. I’ve always wondered why those are the first words every time an angel makes an appearance. Of course, there is the strangeness of a visitation from God…not an everyday thing. But I also know that just telling someone not to be afraid doesn’t remove the fear. I have always been afraid of snakes. When I was little, I knew that snakes were in my bed. I couldn’t put my feet under the covers because the snakes were there. My mother explained that they weren’t, but I knew better. I am 45. I am still scared of snakes. I don’t want to go in the snake room at the zoo. I know the snakes are behind glass. I know they can’t get me, but I am still scared of snakes. You can explain it all to me, but I am afraid of snakes. Period.
But I know something else about fear. In this case, I am afraid that I cannot protect myself from a snake. Our fear is often about who we are and our awareness of our own limitations. When the angels tell people “do not be afraid”, they are not saying “rely on yourself, really, you can master this situation.” In every case, they are saying, “do not be afraid. God is with you. It is not all up to you. God is asking you to participate, but you don’t have to make it all happen.”
In other words, when the angel steps into the scene, they are asking us to reorient a bit. This is about God, not about us. We are invited in, but we are not being asked to take over at this point. Neither is Joseph. But we are being asked to trust God by leaning all the way in rather than just dipping our toe into the water. That is terrifying! I don’t think the angel really means that we shouldn’t fear, but is telling us that we can trust God.
I know that we want to believe that and we even think we trust God, but we are so used to trusting ourselves. My good friend Scott had viral meningitis this fall. It was horrible and completely knocked him off his feet for a few months. Scott is young and athletic. He is in great shape! Scott is a minister. In his first sermon after two months of this debilitating illness, he preached about what he learned in the darkness. He realized that he talked about trusting God all the time, but what he really trusted in was Scott. He had never come face to face with this until he discovered that he couldn’t save himself. Now he is learning to trust in God every day.
One of my favorite paraphrases of the incarnation is from Eugene Peterson’s The Message …“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood”. (John 1:14) The impossible and scary thing we are asked to believe in this season is that God comes among us – right where we are – not light years away, but here, now, and invites us in to the story. It is still being written and we are part of it. The Bible is not a closed book about something that happened long ago. It is a living, breathing narrative and it is calling us to participate in the ongoing story of God’s presence in our neighborhood today.
Joseph can teach us a lot about being a courageous part of God’s story today. Laron Hall once described Luke’s birth narrative as an opera where it seems everyone is singing. But Joseph doesn’t have a lovely solo. In fact, in this birth narrative, Joseph doesn’t say a word. We don’t get a long theological treatise about what he believes, but we learn a lot about what he believes by his actions. Oh yes, we know that actions speak louder than words, but we sure spend a lot of energy focusing on words. If we want to know someone, we should listen less to what they say and watch more what they do. Joseph’s actions are profound. He is a man of deep faith…deep enough to allow his understanding of God to change in difficult circumstances. He knew that God wanted him to be righteous and he understood that to mean quietly dismissing Mary, but his faith was big enough to hear a completely different message about God and act on it. He stepped into the great unknown because an angel told him to “take Mary as his wife and name the baby Jesus”. He gave this baby his name. What a courageous act.
From Joseph we receive a different message about the meaning of Christmas. Christmas isn’t about what we believe; it certainly isn’t about what we say. It’s about what we do.
I’ve been talking a lot with twelve year old Max about God. Max is a thinker. He listens and wrestles with things and I’m learning a lot from him. I asked him what he thought about Christmas. He said he isn’t convinced about the baby in the manger and the star overhead. Then he said, “It just doesn’t make sense. If that story is true why do we give each other presents? If it were true, we would all be out saving the babies who are born in warehouses from dying. Their mothers don’t have enough milk to feed them. If we believed this story, we would be saving all the babies in the world.”
Ouch. He’s right. We can talk all day about what we think about God, but the expansiveness of our faith is found in our actions. God comes alive when we act – when our lives reflect the God who has “moved into the neighborhood” – our neighborhood.
Joseph is pretty amazing. He’s not some quiet wallflower who is insignificant in the incarnation. Joseph is the one around whom the whole story pivots. Somehow he stands in the midst of a mess he had nothing to do with and is willing to take some preposterous actions that will result in the salvation of the world. In this season as we prepare for the miraculous birth in our midst, what are we being called to do? What does God moving into the neighborhood mean for us in 2010?
Joseph had a clear plan of action when his world was suddenly turned upside down with the news that Mary was pregnant. So he came up with a new plan of action and then he was able to let that plan go when an angel gave him a crazy new plan. Many of us make plans only to discover that they have been turned upside down too. In the confusion and chaos of our lives, Joseph steps in and teaches us to pay attention to our dreams, to listen to the wisdom of our hearts and minds. Our plans may make sense, but there are times that God calls us beyond our best-laid plans. Morton Kelsey said, “Sometimes our religious experience needs to displace our conventional human wisdom. Saints are those who follow their deepest inner promptings, even when they make no worldly sense.”
Joseph didn’t find God in his own brilliant plan. He discovered God over and over as he stepped out into the great unknown with only the promise of an angel “Do not be afraid. God is with you.” Over and over in the bible and for us today as well, the message is this: “Do not be afraid. Do the impossible. God is with you.” And it is enough.