December 18, 2016
“Actions Speak Louder than Beliefs”
There is an old story about a boy whose dad asked what he learned in Sunday School. 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 Pharaoh’s soldiers.” His dad asked, “Is that the way it really happened?” The boy replied, “Dad, if I told it the way she did, you would never believe it.”
Today we overhear the impossible news that Joseph received, “your fiancé is pregnant. The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Just pretend this is normal. Go ahead and marry her.” The church has a bias toward Mary. On the fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear from Mary two out of three years. When Joseph shows up, we hardly know what to do with him. Laron Hall says that, “Luke is an opera where everyone has a song. Joseph doesn’t even get to speak. Even the shepherds have a bigger part than Joseph.” (No Darkness At All, pp. 26)
Many revere Mary. Joseph is more of an afterthought. But let’s be clear – Jesus’ birth doesn’t happen without Joseph. His birth is scandalous and Joseph is willing to put himself on the line for something that happened without his consent. He does not have a bit part despite the fact that we have portrayed him this way for generations. Everything hinges on him in this text today. We don’t know what Joseph thought. We only know what he did.
Perhaps that is what Joseph teaches us: it is not our beliefs or even our words that matter as much as our actions. In the end, we are often remembered by our actions rather than our words. Mary isn’t the only one who made a brave choice in this story. Joseph chooses to believe the impossible and then acts on it.
There is a scene in Through the Looking Glass that makes me think of what might have happened in Joseph’s head when he encountered the angel in his dream. The Queen says,
"I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
(From Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Chapter 5)
We don’t hear the questions Joseph must have been asking, but we witness him taking a huge mess that he didn’t make and choosing to act as if God had something to do with it. Joseph received news of a situation that he did not create, but will have a huge impact on his life. How often are we given news that we would not choose and must decide how to respond? Somehow he was able to take the angel’s word that this big mess was actually God. I must admit that I don’t tend to look at the big messes in the world and call them God.
The angel tells Joseph not to be afraid. Those are usually the first words spoken when an angel shows up in a story. I always assumed that was because it must be scary to have an angel show up unexpectedly. Katie Hines-Shah suggested that, “it seems just as likely that angels encounter people in situations where they are already afraid. Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel and Mary in Luke’s are no exception. On the cusp of marriage, they find themselves with a pregnancy they didn’t seek or expect. The very existence of this child may well threaten their place in the community, their synagogue, and their families. Their own relationship may be broken before it has even begun.” (Christian Century, November 23, 2016, p. 23)
I honestly can’t fathom the terror they must have felt and the courage it took them to trust in this promise that this nightmare was actually a gift from God. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that the angel whispers to us “Do not fear. God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God may be born here too, if you will permit it.” (Gospel Medicine, p. 157)
That is good news for us as well. We may not be living the life we planned, but God can be born among us today. We can burst into a powerful song of God’s justice like Mary did or we may choose quiet action like Joseph. We may not quickly post something on Facebook or get a personalized license plate or put a sign in our yard. We may simply turn our face toward the one who does impossible things and take the next step.
Did you notice that the angel did not give Joseph a manual on how to be the father of God? All he is given is the next step “take Mary as your wife.” What about after that? And after that? And after that? What if it doesn’t go well? What if they are threatened? You have to stay tuned in the coming weeks for that part. Joseph may have still doubted, but he acted in faith. Hmmm…not a bad lesson for us either.
Several years ago, I read Nancy Mairs’ memoir Ordinary Time. In it, she talks about going back to church after a long absence. She said that one might go to church, not because one believed in God, but precisely because one didn’t. In going through the motions, a person might be preparing a space for belief to flood.” I have always loved that idea. We can act even when there are gaps in our beliefs. It may be that our actions fill those gaps or create the bridge to the God for whom we long.
The more I witness Joseph’s actions, the more I admire him. Rather than waiting for the whole action plan or for the full explanation, he steps out with the little bit of information he has (given by an angel in a dream, no less) and his bold actions pave the way for Jesus to be born.
When I go on retreats, I hope for a powerful encounter with God and instead, I find my body desperate for sleep. I complained to a spiritual director about this pattern many years ago, and she asked me if I believed that God couldn’t come to me in dreams. I think of that when I hear this story. God showed up in a dream and the world changed. God shows up in the midst of our ordinary lives and offers some impossible visions. We don’t have to understand to follow this God. It is really amazing at what God can do with some pretty ordinary people. When you look through the Bible at the ones God chose, they were not the superheroes. There was a man who murdered named Moses, a small boy named David, a young girl named Esther…these were people chosen to do profound things. Joseph was simply preparing for a wedding when he learned that this was going to take another direction. That is how God works. We are living our lives when we find a turn that we didn’t choose. The choice we are given is how we will respond.
So if you are here this morning, and you don’t feel ready to sing a powerful song of God’s justice, you might look to Joseph as your guide. Maybe you can quietly take the next step. You may find that in taking that step, Jesus will enter the world in a new way and bring us face to face with the goodness of God.