Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why Were You Searching?

Christmas Day has come and gone again.  Lots of activity, lots of stress, good and bad.  Lots of preparation and planning.  Lots of schedules and events.  It was good.  Grand and glorious.  The most wonderful time of year, according to some.  Difficult for others who deal with loss and change in a season of tradition.  A season of excess, which can be good or bad, as you well know.  But now it is gone, the calendar page pulled off, to reveal ... another day.  And another.  They march on.

We’re in the assessment phase now.  “Did you have a good Christmas?”  I know for the most part that is just polite conversation, intended to get on to the next item on the discourse list.  But I tend to over-analyze things.  Just ask anyone.  So, I sometimes pause before answering.  Did I have a good Christmas?  Hmm, let me think.  In what terms?  Presents given and received? Check.  Food desired and prepared and eaten?  Check.  The right combination of sleeplessness and naps?  Check and check.  I guess I did have a good Christmas.  

And a good Advent season too.  The preparation for the Coming, and the Eve celebrations as well.  They were good.  Busy, exhausting, creative, challenging and good.  I had a good one.  All around, it was ... good.  So, why the hesitation?  Why do I pause when asked the question?  Why do I have to consider before responding?  

Well, like I said, I over-analyze.  I think too much, sometimes.  And I think about what it was all about.  The call of Advent to watch and wait, to long for a savior, to long for completion, the glory of Christmas Eve in all of its declaratory joy, and the quiet acceptance of Christmas Day where we bask in the glow of the One Who Comes, when we remember God with us.  All of that, and more.  And while I had a good Christmas, it isn’t over yet.  We aren’t through with it.  The waiting and the longing but also the proclaiming and the glorifying.  We’re still in the midst, we’re still on the way, we’re still far from where Christmas calls us to be.  Or to quote U2, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

Luke 2:41-3:1 NRS Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." 49 He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

This is the only childhood story we have in the four Gospels.  Some thirty years of life is reduced to a couple of baby stories that are just different enough to drive us crazy, and one story of an incident when he was twelve.  That’s it.  That’s the whole life story of Jesus growing up.  Not terribly satisfying.  We want to know more.  What kind of kid was he?  How did he wield such amazing power when he was barely able to reason?  Or did he have such powers?

Some scholars have argued over the years that the purpose of this story is to combat the adoptionist theories of Christology.  Some began to suggestion that maybe Jesus was just an ordinary person until he was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  All those stories of the dove descending, the Spirit resting, it is argued, is when God “adopted” Jesus and then he became the Son of God.  Until that moment, he was just like you and me.  Not so fast, says Luke.  And then he tells this story to show that he was always the Son of God, by birth, and more than that, he knew it. 

Jesus’ family made the trip to Jerusalem for Passover every year.  A sign of the truly devout.  It was a part of the law that all Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem would come back during Passover.  That’s why it was so crowded in the Passion story at the other end of the gospel writings.  But not every Jew did.  But almost everyone tried to do it once in their lives.  But Luke says, Mary and Joseph did it every year.  Pretty amazing really.  But in one sense it means that this trip was not that special, it was something that happened annually.  Special, of course it was special, like Christmas Eve worship is special.  Special but it happens every year.  Special, but not unusual.

They’d made the trip many times.  Which explains the somewhat lax security protocols.  They traveled in a group, for safety and for fellowship and for shared responsibilities.  And usually in large public groups like this the family grouping was secondary to the community of faith.  The men usually led the way, some distance in front of the women and children lagging behind.  So, on this trip Jesus was twelve, Luke tells us, not quite an adult, but not feeling like a child.  Maybe on the way to Jerusalem he rotated who he traveled with, so that on the way home from Jerusalem, Joseph in the front assumed he was with Mary, who was traveling at the back of the group and assuming Jesus was up front with Joseph.  It wasn’t until the stopped after the first day’s traveling and found each other and counted heads that they discovered they were both wrong.  Jesus was no where to be found.

I’ve lost a kid in a big store a couple of times, once in the neighborhood, sometimes these days even in the house. (I‘ve been known to ask my wife “didn’t we used to have kids?” when they hadn’t been seen for a while.)  So, while I can’t imagine the kicked in the stomach feeling they got when they joined up that night, I have a vague sense of the panic about to set in.  Luke says they went to search.  But did they go immediately, traveling through the night, or the next morning.  And he says they searched for three days.  Was that three days from when they left Jerusalem including the day they left and weren’t really searching because they didn’t know he was missing?  Or was it three days after that?  Three days after they got back to Jerusalem?  A day out and a day back and then three more?  Was he gone five days?  No wonder Mary was a bit miffed when they finally stumbled on him in the temple.  

You caught that.  “Look at what you’ve done!”  Why did you treat us like this?  It’s like he was doing this just to spite them, just to wound them.  Why have you treated us like this?  

Jesus’ response is amazing.  And layered, I think.  At least I think Luke thought it was.  “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?”  It’s the second question that has caused the most conversation in biblical scholarship circles.  Partly because it doesn’t really say “in my Father’s house.”  Some translations have “about my Father’s business.”  The Greek is a little vague.  Neither house or business is in there.  It could literally be translated as “I must be in the of my Father.”  The?  Well, tois in Greek means the, but it could, with no direct object, be things.  The things.  I must be about my Father’s things.  Kind of like we use the word stuff.  I must be about the stuff of my Father.  A little confusing, admittedly.  No wonder all the effort is on that sentence.  Actually, I think any of them work.  In my Father’s house in the sense of where God abides - which was more than temple.  About my Father’s business might not mean he’s already begun his ministry at twelve and not thirty like the other Gospels claim.  But instead it might mean that Jesus was always focused on God’s will above everything else.  Either way, the boy Jesus makes a claim for being centered on God.

But for me, it is the first sentence that is the important one.  “Why are you searching for me?”  It’s our question, not just Mary’s.  Why are we searching?  What do we want from him?  Do we want him to come and be where we are?  Do we want him to come and do what we need done?  Do we want him to not give us reason to be anxious?  Or do we search for him so that we can be where he is?  So that we can join him in his Father’s house?  So that we can be about his Father’s business?  Do we search for him so that we can be in the Father’s things?  Who’s things are we most concerned about this Christmastide?  The many things around us and of us?  Or God’s things?

Why are you searching?  And how will you know when you find it?


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Make Room

I am so excited!  I am just back from a rehearsal with Aldersgate’s amazing music department for the Christmas Eve musical that we are presenting as part of our offerings for that Holy Night.  I’m excited about all of them, really.  We have a 6pm service focused on children and the story of Christmas through the song “Do You Hear What I Hear” (It’s our theme song for Christmas Eve.) Including ending with communion served by the children and then instead of candles, we’ll sing and hold up glowing stars, to help the world find their way to Jesus.  How cool is that?

Then at 11pm we have our traditional Christmas Eve Watchnight service, carols and communion and choirs and candles and Silent Night.  And if it all works right, we end at the breaking in of Christmas Day at midnight.  It know it is late, but on Christmas Eve aren’t we all up late anyway?  Why not greet the day with praise and worship and letting our light shine?  Then you can go home and sleep in.  Right?

But in between, at 8pm, we have a worship experience with a Christmas Musical as the proclamation. An original musical.  Part cantata, part musical drama, part act of worship, it will be a wonderful experience for all who come.  I’m certain of this.  There is enough tradition to feel like you’ve been to Christmas Eve worship (don’t worry, you’ll get your candles!), but there is a retelling of the story in a more contemporary mood than we might have been used to before.  But our choir is amazing! They are putting their hearts and souls into this.  Chuck and Mike and Phyllis are shepherding the whole process.  It is stretching them and all of us, to be sure.  This isn’t easy stuff.  But they are working with it.  

Because I asked.  Actually, I don’t know if they know I asked.  Maybe I shouldn’t have told them. Chuck asked.  Their church asked.  They were asked to take this step, to make this journey, to leap this ... leap.  And it’s going to be great.  I just know it.  I promise not to mess up my part.  And you who come, who are able to come (I know this is teasing some of the readers of this study - sorry.  Not sorry, I don’t mind you feeling like you are missing something, because you are) will find yourselves warmed and moved and transformed this Christmas Eve.  You think you’ve heard it all?  Heard the story so many times it can’t be new any more?  Give us a try.  Eight pm, Thursday, December 24th.   Be there.

Or be somewhere.  I know not everyone can make it.  I met a couple from our church who heard me talk about all of this before, and they said “We’ll be with family.  And we’ll miss it!”  And they seemed genuinely sad about it.  I know in the past, and in other communities, this would have been done earlier, to make sure more could come.  And maybe that would have been a good thing.  Yet, the community gathering together on that night, to worship, to give thanks, to be the body we are called to be, to set aside the things we disagree on, the things that divide us, set it all aside for one night while we gaze in wonder at the amazing thing that God has done, well, that’s worth something. Worth making an effort.  Worth taking a risk.  Worth recognizing that some will miss it.  Some will be elsewhere, some will be distracted, too busy, following traditions of their own.  And that’s ok. That’s the way it is, the way of this world.  Don’t feel bad if you miss this special Christmas Eve celebration.  Sad, a little bit sad, that’s ok!  

But God had trouble getting people’s attention from the beginning.  God didn’t send a delegation to ask everyone to check their calendars and save the date.  Oh there were announcements, but they were all easily missable.  Those announcements were more like the song “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story.  Remember that?  “Could it be? / Yes, it could / something’s coming / something good / if I can wait. / Something’s coming/ I don’t know what it is / but it is / gonna be great.”  

How do you follow that kind of announcement?  The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light.  We have?  Where?  On them has the light shined.  Really?  It has?  For unto them a son is given.  A what?  Unto them a child is born.  A child?  Wait, I don’t know about this.  And the government shall be upon his shoulders.  Ah, this is a government plan.  Count me out!  And they missed it.  Announcements came and went, proclaimers proclaimed, heralds heralded.  And they missed it.  It was too long coming.  It was too obscure.  Not enough press, not enough bright lights. Sure there was the star thing, but there are stars all the time.  Angels?  Well, everybody and Charlie has angels.  No big deal.  Foreigners showing up?  Keep them out, too risky.  They missed it.

We miss it.  Sometimes we miss it because it is old news.  God with us?  Yeah, I got a bumper sticker.  I’m good.  It’s old news.  We forget to be amazed.  We forget to be humbled.  We forget to be grateful.  What have you done for us lately?  A baby over two thousand years ago?  OK, got it, thanks.  Next?

Except that baby grew up to say “I will be with you always.  Even to the end of the age.”  Always. All ways.  Today.  Yesterday.  Tomorrow.  Your best days, he’s there celebrating with you, being proud of you, clapping you on the shoulder, giving high fives and atta boys, atta girls.  Your worst days when even your mother is disappointed in you, when even you are disappointed in you, and you want to dig a hole and crawl in, pulling it over you.  The days of emptiness and brokenness, the days of fullness and of joy.  They days of love overflowing and the days of loneliness that suck at your soul.  I am with you always.  This baby, didn’t stay a baby.  But he stayed.  Stayed God with you. God with me.  God with us.  

But we’ve got to make room.  In our busy lives, we’ve got to make room.  Because this baby, this savior is polite, has the manners his mom taught him.  He’ll wait.  He won’t force himself on you, won’t horn his way into your busyness and demand attention.  He’ll wait.  Until you turn.  Until you stop running.  And turn, and give a hint.  That’s all, just a hint.  Just an opening.  Just a tear shed or a smile offered.  Just a hand held out hoping, wishing, wanting someone to take it and hold on for dear life.  And then he’ll come.  He’ll fill you.  He’ll want you.  He’ll remind you that you are one of the special ones, one of the chosen ones.  He’ll lift you up until you think you can fly.  He’ll bandage your wounds until you forget that you even had them, even the scars will be forgotten.  He’ll turn you around, until your head is spinning and you find your feet on the path you wanted all along, even if you didn’t know it.  

We’ve got to make room.  For the story, for the song.  For the hope and the fulfillment.  For the here and the not yet.  For the dreams you still dream and longings of your heart, even as you claim contentment with what already is.  For the love you have and the love you need.  We’ve got to make room.  For a child, that’s all.  Just a tiny little baby.  Like all babies, this one seems so small, so helpless, so simple – feed me, clean me, love me – yet who takes up more room than you thought possible.

We had room, my wife and I, twenty some years ago, we had room, and we had no idea how much room he needed.  And a few years later, we still had room.  And once more were surprised at the room taken over.  More room than we thought we had, more room we didn’t know we had.  He comes to fill the emptiness that you don’t even know you have, because you’ve filled it with so much else.  But none of that really fills the emptiness like you thought it would.  Until Him.  Until God with us.  Until the Firstborn.  The Word made flesh.  

And Luke takes that flesh and turns it back into Word.  And we love the story he tells.  Love it enough to not worry about the detail, about the timing.  I mean Quirinius was not governor when Herod was on the throne, the dates don’t match up.  But who cares?  It’s the story that matters.  And Luke gets that right.  We’ve got to make room he says. 

Luke 2:1-7 NRS In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

We have to make room.  No, wait.  We get to make room.  So ... make room.  This blessed Christmas season, make room.  


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rejoicing Spirits

Gaudate Sunday.  Third Sunday in Advent.  Gaudate, it’s Latin.  Gotta use all those Latin classes for something.  I did a little research a few years ago.  Here’s what I wrote then.  “Pronounced “Gow-dah-tay.”  Gaudete.  It means “rejoice.”  It is an imperative.  “Rejoice!”  It comes from a 16th Century Christmas carol, published in a Finnish/Swedish collection of sacred songs in 1582.  “Gaudete, Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria virgine, Gaudete.”   (And, mind you, my spell check is throwing a wobbly right now) Which translates as “Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary - rejoice!”  There are verses, but my Latin typing skills are rusty, to say the least, so we’ll leave it at that.  Besides it is only in the chorus that the word “Gaudete” appears anyway.  The other fascinating thing about this old carol (and aren’t you just fascinated?  I know I am) is that this song was released in the 70's by the British folk group Steeleye Span (No, not Steely Dan, that’s someone else - Boomers!  Sheesh!)  And to this day it remains only one of three Latin songs that made the top ten on the British pop charts.  The other two being two versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu from his Requiem back in the late 80's.”

I love Wikipedia!  Well, this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday.  The Third Sunday of Advent is always set apart.  It is the one that has the pink or rose colored candle.  In some traditions, it is called Mary’s Sunday, and is filled with the story from Mary’s point of view, or is designed to help us honor and celebrate Mary.  But in others, it is simply Gaudete Sunday – a reminder, a call, a command to rejoice.

Yeah, it’s that imperative that gets me.  Maybe it should be gaudeo, the infinitive - to rejoice.  Maybe it should be presented as an invitation, rather than as a command.  Rejoicing isn’t really something one does on command. Besides we always get into trouble when we are perceived as telling other people how to feel.  Don’t we?  Well, you don’t like it when you’re having a bad day and someone comes up and says, “Smile!  It can’t be that bad.”  Never mind that it is that bad.  You want to poke those perpetually perky people in the snoot!  Keep your attitudes to yourself, right.  You want to have a good day?  Well, fine, go over there and have one.  Let me sulk over here, in my corner.  Bah, humbug.  

We’re about feeling this week.  I cheated a little bit on the theme song.  “Do you hear what I hear” has a line about seeing and about hearing and about knowing (which is next week).  But it doesn’t really have a line about feeling.  So, I cheated a little bit.  This Gaudate Sunday were asking “Do you feel what I feel?”  

Luke 1:46-55 NRS And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Mary’s Sunday.  Gaudate, my soul rejoices, she says.  She isn’t telling you to rejoice, she is saying I’m rejoicing.  It’s not an imperative, it’s indicative.  A statement of fact.  You can imagine the tone of voice when she says it.  Luke says Mary got her news, via Angel Express, and then headed out to her cousin Elizabeth.  It doesn’t say exactly when she went.  This isn’t Mark with his penchant for “immediately!”  This is Luke, who loves stories, and children, and mothers and fathers.  He says, “in those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.”  OK, there’s haste.  Once her feet hit the road, she hurried.  She ran to Elizabeth’s house.  Because the angel molting in her living room told her that Elizabeth, the barren one, was going to have a baby too and God was involved.  So, each step got faster and faster as she realized that if anyone is going to understand what was going on in Mary’s life it was Elizabeth.  

In those days she set out.  The news had to sink in.  Her head had to stop spinning, her lungs had to exhale the angelic ozone that permeated her house.  Maybe she had to feel something.  Something quickening inside her.  That’s a great term for coming to life, don’t you think.  Quickening.  We don’t use it so much any more.  But they used to.  And what better way to describe this unique conception?  She had to feel a quickening inside of her before she could put her feet to the path and find her way to Elizabeth and her own already six month along quickening miracle.  

She had to feel something.  You don’t get news like this and keep it as an intellectual exercise.  Sure there is pondering to do.  Scenarios to run.  Responses to consider.  But part of the considering is how do we feel about all of this?  Maybe that’s what she went to Elizabeth to ask.  How am I supposed to feel?  You wouldn’t think that was a choice.  It is just an is.  I’m not in control of my feelings.  I just feel.  Things happen and I feel.  Good, bad, happy, sad, they just happen.  Right?  Of course right.  We get an email and our blood boils.  We receive a gift and tears come to our eyes.  It just happens.  We don’t decide ahead of time how we’re going to feel.

Or do we?  How did this song that Mary sang to Elizabeth and all of us really sound?  Did it come bubbling out of her, like a mountain stream rushing down from the heights?  Did it burst forth in a sudden explosion of passion and power and presence?  Maybe.  It sure could have.  It might have built with every quickening step from her house to Elizabeth’s.  And when Elizabeth greeted her, or rather when Elizabeth and her baby greeted Mary, because Luke says there was a leap, an internal leap when Mary said hello.  Elizabeth was staggered by the enthusiasm of the child quickening inside of her, and spoke to Mary with a breathless wonder and surprise.  Maybe that unleashed Mary’s own sense of amazement and excitement and her song rings from the rafters of the parsonage there in the hill country.  My soul magnifies the Lord!  It starts with the high notes.  It starts with the proclamation.  My spirit rejoices in God my savior.  Bam!

Somehow, though, it feels different to me.  It feels ... slower ... gentler ... more reflective.  Almost as if Mary is surprising herself with all that is coming to life within her.  The baby surely, but something else too.  Something that will stay within her even when the child emerges.  Something that will sustain her when that child grows and claims a ministry that takes him away from her.  Something that will define her even when this miracle, this quickening inside suffers and dies in a particularly horrible way.  And that something is hope.  

Hope.  Real hope.  Not the shallow and fleeting hope when espouse all to often: “I hope it doesn’t rain!”  “I hope they get here soon.”  “I hope I get my wish for Christmas.”  There are hopes and there is Hope.  These hopes aren’t bad, but they aren’t sustaining, they aren’t transforming.  Hope, on the other hand, makes us see differently, and hear differently.  Mary sings a song that is not real, but is True.  She is blessed to be a part, she says, of God’s turning the world right side up.  The grand reversal has already happened.  Look at the tenses - He has scattered the proud, He has brought down the powerful and He has lifted up the lowly.  Has He?  The powerful still seem enthroned.  The proud seem to be in the center still.  And the lowly?  Well, they’re scattered, pushed down, pushed out, refugees and the feared and hated.  The world still seems unfinished, still seems upside down.  

Yet. Mary chooses to rejoice.  Not as a Polly-anna, rose-colored glasses kind of approach, that ignores the harsh realities.  But chooses instead to believe that we don’t have to accept the upside down world as it is.  We don’t have to listen to the rich and powerful who tell us how to think, who to fear, who to exclude.  We don’t have to imagine a prideful world of celebrity and privilege.  Of entitlement, of rights that bring destruction to relationships and communities.  We can choose to see differently.  We can choose to lift up the lowly because they are being lifted up already.  The lowly love of neighbor and welcome of the stranger.  The lowly service to the outcast and the value of listening instead of making pronouncements.  We choose how we feel.  We can live in anger as our society seems determined to do.  Or we can rejoice in our spirits because we get to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, something healing, something loving, something that will last into eternity.  We can be a part of the quickening of the kingdom.

Maybe it doesn’t really work as an imperative.  Maybe we can get the world to sing with us, to rejoice with us in spirit and in truth, when we start with testimony.  My soul magnifies the Lord, My spirit rejoices with God My savior.  Tell how you feel, and others might come feel with you.  Of course, we’ve got to feel something first.  Gaudate.  Rejoice.  Let it come to life within you this Christmas season.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Found to Be With Child

First Sunday of December.  Second Sunday of Advent.  Moving right along.  Got your decorations up?  Got them out?  Remember where they are?  We’re sort of halfway there at our house.  Some things up, some things still in the basement.  We keep thinking we should get to that.  But then we ... don’t.  Something else comes up.  Some other crisis, some other need, some other responsibility, all important, or seemingly so.  

This week it was Nashville.  I was supposed to be gone most of the week, but then things happened up here that made it difficult for me to be gone.  I was going to visit the parents for a few days and then go to a meeting at the Board of Discipleship offices in Nashville.  But the timing of the funeral I had to do made it difficult to get down there in time.  So, I contacted the folks in Nashville and explained my dilemma.  They said let’s video conference you in!  So, Wednesday night and Thursday morning I was in Nashville and in my home office at the same time.  Technology!  What an amazing thing.  It wasn’t the same as being there, but it worked pretty well.

Except when first I logged in Wednesday night I could see them but I couldn’t hear anything.  They could hear me and see me, but nothing was coming through from their end.  They were sure it was my fault.  I knew it was theirs.  But we couldn’t figure it out.  I thought I was going have to spend the evening just watching and practicing my lip-reading.  Finally someone there thought of calling me and putting it on speaker phone.  So, I had my tablet for the video and my cellphone for the audio and we made it work.  The next morning they figured out the problem (it was them) and I didn’t have to do that two device thing.  

Hearing is important.  I couldn’t have participated, I wouldn’t have felt a part of the proceedings if I couldn’t hear.  Even though I could speak, I could make input to the meeting but I couldn’t be a part of the dialog, couldn’t have been in conversation, couldn’t have been a member of the community.  Relationships need hearing as well as speaking.

Just ask Joseph.  Until he heard, he wasn’t a part of the event.  Or until he heard the right Voice he wasn’t prepared to join in, to go with it.  Until he heard.

Matthew 1:18-25 NRS  18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord 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.  21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Matthew’s version of the story is different from Luke’s version.  Luke wants to tell Mary’s story, but Matthew is all about Joseph.  Mary is background information.  She was found to be with child.  Some hear a hint of scandal in this.  Did someone come and tell Joseph?  Is that why he is in the midst of the debate when the story begins?  She was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.  Really?  Who knew that?  Who said that?  Is that the village gossip that came to Joseph?  

You can almost see them, can’t you?  Running around whispering in the shadows with this latest bit of gossip.  “Hey Joseph, I heard, you’ll never believe it, but I heard ... well, we heard ... I heard from her who told him who mentioned it to them who texted it to us, that Mary is with child .. get this .. of the ‘Holy Spirit!’” You can see their fingers crooked in the air quotes gesture as they say this with a smirk on their faces.  Yeah, right.  Found to be with child of the “Holy Spirit.”  What in the world does that mean?  And how did they hear?  Did Mary tell them?  Were they listening in on the annunciation?  Did the house light up when Gabriel appeared in her living room?  And all the neighbors slunk out to listen in?  Or were these proclaimers of the gossip neighbors of Elizabeth, where Luke tells us Mary fled during her pregnancy?  

Some commentators say there is no scandal, no common knowledge.  This is a literary device Matthew employs to move the story along.  It is just a fact that we know, but Joseph doesn’t.  Or doesn’t know all of it.  Or doesn’t believe all of it.  Maybe it was a difficult conversation on the porch swing one night when Joseph came to call on Mary, on his fiancee.  Maybe she laid it all out and he didn’t hear it.  Or heard part of it.  The painful part, the offending part.  He wasn’t ready to hear it all.  Couldn’t hear it all.  Not from her lips.  

He staggered off the porch and ran all the way to his house as though he had been kicked in the gut.  As though his dreams had all come crashing down.  He flew into the house in a rage.  Or maybe out to the workshop where he took out his hurt on an innocent block of cedar he had saved for a special occasion. He cut and gouged and planed and drilled, until the hot angry tears splashed down, discoloring the grain under his hands.  

We would have understood, don’t you think?  Who could have heard a story like that?  Matthew introduces Joseph not by telling us of his broken heart, but of his righteousness.  But then Matthew introduces a different kind of dilemma.  Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a righteous man AND unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.  That’s a problem.  Up till now righteous mean obedient to the law.  And the law said she needs to be exposed, needs to be humiliated.  That was the law.  Actually the law said to kill her.  But historians tell us that by this time they weren’t actually executing women for such transgressions, but they were making examples of them.  Hauling them before a public court, exposing them.  Otherwise Joseph could have been accused of breaking the covenant.  He could have been seen as a deadbeat dad that impregnates his wife to be and then abandons her.  Legally he had to expose her, or the shame could fall on him.  

But he was unwilling to do so.  Matthew writes a love story.  Tragic love, certainly.  Broken vows and severed relationships, but a love story nonetheless.  Joseph redefined righteousness.  Now it is not faithfulness to a written law, but faithful to relationships, faithful to people.  Then Matthew says “just when he resolved to do this.”  Just when he decided to break the law he should have upheld, just when he determined to be faithful to the one who was seemingly unfaithful to him, that’s when he heard the whole story.

An angel in a dream.  Angel - aggelos in Greek - means messenger.  Or even message.  Maybe it wasn’t an angel.  Maybe it was God speaking into the hearing of Joseph.  Do you hear?  How did he hear?  A dream, yes, but an answer to prayer.  See, he was unwilling, remember?  He wanted the outlandish to be true.  He wanted the unbelievable to be believed.  He wanted the incredible to be the truth by which he was going to live his live from then on.  So, he was listening, he was hoping, he was wanting.  Wanting so hard for a reason to keep loving even in the face of an impossibility.  

We’ve got to be heard this Christmas season, and always.  The message of faithfulness and love needs to be heard.  Especially in an era of messages of fear and hate, of vengeance and prejudice.  We’ve got to listen harder and speak louder.  The One who was conceived by the Holy Spirit said shout it from the rooftops.  Proclaim it in the cities round about and around the world.  Go and make disciples, He said, make disciples of the truth, disciples of love, disciples of righteousness.  

Getting in the Spirit of the season takes the ability to hear, and then to be heard.  Light the lights, but sing the songs too.  Share the story.  Give a greeting, a welcome, a blessing wherever you can.  Then maybe you will be found to be with child too.