Speak to our hearts and strengthen our wills, O God, that we may serve you today and always. Amen
So this begins the 4th week in Advent. This is the Sunday we begin to hear the story that is very familiar to most of us — it heralds that the birth of our savior is near. For many of us we started hearing it when we are little-bitty kids. Our church schools tell it, we sing about it in our hymns, Christmas pageants portray it, even Linus from the Charlie Brown comic series recites it on the TV special. It is very familiar to us.
But, since we really only hear it proclaimed once a year, sometimes we don’t stop and realize that we are hearing slightly different versions of the story depending on which year’s Gospel is being proclaimed. And, when we do realize that there is more than one version of the story, we may get a bit confused. In Luke’s telling of the story, we primarily hear about Mary and that seems to be the Gospel story people are most familiar with – the one that comes to mind most frequently and the fastest. In Matthew, the Gospel in which this this year’s reading is found, it is Joseph we primarily hear about. But as many folks do, we can gloss over that it is Joseph and not Mary we hear about and not recognize that they are slightly different stories, or many of us combine them in our minds making it one story.
Even though we heard in the Gospel that I just proclaimed, that Joseph was a righteous man, he seems to many to be a bit passive, almost weak. And certainly a bit superfluous…..but, it is necessary to establish the important link of his genealogical tie to King David, in order for the prophesies from the Hebrew scripture to ring true about Jesus as Messiah, important for the people of the time when this Gospel is written. And, it also provides the important legal lineage for Jesus. But all in all, we can easily pay little attention to Joseph’s role in this, the nativity story.
That is until we take a closer look at it. Because on closer look, Joseph’s place in all of this can teach us some pretty great lessons. If we put ourselves in his place in this Gospel, if we really try to imagine what he must have been going through, I think we get a very different picture of Joseph from the superfluous man he might seem to some at times. Let’s look at a couple of points.
Cast your mind back for a moment to Martha’s sermon of a few weeks ago on Advent 1. She reminded us then that one of the themes in Advent is the experience of being disoriented …. and then reoriented by the mystical and unexpected movements of God. Now in this Gospel, we are told that the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife — pretty disorienting. And when he wakes up he does as the angel in his dream tells him. ….. Now I don’t know about you, but I have had some pretty vivid and realistic dreams in my day — and even when I can make them make sense to me in some interruptive way, even then, I’d say Joseph’s acceptance of, and reaction to his dream is remarkable. I think it would take the mystical and reorienting movement of God for the dream’s message to be accepted. Otherwise just think how easy it would have been for him to dismiss it as — just a dream about something that was on his mind when he fell asleep – as certainly Mary’s pregnancy would have been.
But, he didn’t just dismiss it as just a dream. He had faith in the message delivered by the angel, showing us a very real example of acceptance of the difficult and unexpected call from God. And we shouldn’t forget just how bad the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy was in Joseph’s day – so bad that the violation of the social and cultural mores of their society could have resulted in Joseph divorcing Mary or even having had her stoned to death. Despite the shame that comes along with Mary’s pregnancy he does none of that. He willingly risks that the rest of his life could be that of an outcast because his wife had been pregnant, when they married. His acceptance of God’s call, heard in a dream, could presumably open him and his family to many, many hardships. But Joseph does what some refer to as “stepping out in faith”. And Joseph does this even while knowing that the consequences of that trust might make life hard, that the outcome may not be what Joseph wanted it to be, that trusting in the angle’s message might even be dangerous.
Think of the trust it took for Joseph to act on what God told him through the angel. As Philip Brooks — the man whose large imposing statue stands outside of Trinity Church in Copley Square, prayed, — “God who loved us first, grant us the strength, the wisdom and the courage to seek always and everywhere after truth, come when it may, and cost what it will.” Joseph gives us an awesome example of that, of trusting in God.
We see, through Joseph, that this act of courage, believing in the truth of the angel’s message from God, can result in amazing happenings, often unexpected and often not seen until much later in the future. Joseph’s life and it’s impact on Jesus (and all of us) shows us that having faith and trusting in God can have far, far reaching consequences.
And he does all of this quietly, as far as we know. We hear no stories of Joseph running around expecting praise for his part in the birth of our Lord. We don’t hear in later Gospels that he demands recognition. I understand that our choir this week said that we hear very little about Joseph and his life and of the undoubted impact his life has on a young Jesus. In fact, he seems to stay on the sidelines, the rest of his life’s story largely untold. He gives us a wonderful example of humbleness.
Yes, this is the last Sunday before Christmas. By now we are told that we should be almost ready, for this holiday, right? Our shopping finished, gifts wrapped, food bought and cards sent. Time is getting short, it is running out! In fact, last week as I was walking down an isle at the CVS, a stuffed animal’s motion actifated voice asked me, “have you finished your shopping? Let me help you with it.”
But this is Advent 4 — and that means so much more than the fact that this is the last Sunday before Christmas and time is running out to have everything ready for that picture perfect celebration….. We have spent the better part of these 4 weeks in Advent together in preparation for, and with anticipation of, the birth of our redeemer and savior and today we lite all four candles as we prepare to welcome the Light of the World. In the light of these four candles, I hope we can all take time this week to consider how God is calling us to bear witness to the light? Let us stop and be aware of the witness Joseph is to all us of the accepting God’s call — no matter how unrealistic that call may seem. During this last week of preparation for the birth of Christ our Lord, let us be aware of the witness Joseph is to us of the faith and trust we can have in God’s presence and love. And let us not forget how Joseph shows us how to walk humbly with our Lord.
I think we need to stop and intentionally consider these things because, I believe, that the Holy Spirit sometimes seeps into our souls quietly without fanfare, delivering messages to us that we only become aware of through the sighting of shimmering glimmers of joy and through the whispers of love. So whether the message of joy and love in this season, that I believe Joseph found, gently seeps into our souls gradually or whether it appears to us all of a moment in a dream — let us have hearts and minds open to hear it, to recognize and know it, and to have the will to act on it.
And time never runs out for that!
Happy and joyous Advent!
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repent is one of those words that might have an antiquated feel to it because it is not used very much in our common parlance. We are more apt to talk in terms of asking forgiveness, or being accountable. The English word repent and repentance as we find them in the New Testament are translations of the Greek word metanoia which is defined as “change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion.” So we can see repentance or metanoia does not have to be about wallowing in guilt, though guilt may need to be acknowledged and responsibility accepted. In the sense that John preaches it repentance is about being willing to let God turn us from one way we have been traveling, and lead us in a new way or on a new path – a way or path that leads to the wholeness of God’s realm of light.
Isaiah tells us that we will recognize the realm of God when we encounter it, because it will be a place where rifts, divides, wounds will be sutured, closed and healed. The question is, does the realm of God bring into being the healing Isaiah envisions, or does the experience of metanoia and the healing that comes with it make us aware that we have brushed up against the realm of God? My answer that question is yes- both are true at the same time!
If John’s call to the turn- around of metanoia can bring us up short for a moment and allow us space to stand back from our lives and see where we are off course and out of whack, then we can again decide to turn ourselves over to God who longs to lead us by another way. And my experience has been that when I do that, healing takes place. So the realm of God brushes up against me, and I don’t turn away, but seek God’s power in navigating, and healing begins. And as that healing takes root, I begin to recognize the harmony and wholeness of God’s realm popping up all around me. I wonder if it’s a case of more bubbling up of the realm of God, or a case of restored vision to recognize it. Again the answer is probably yes – both of the above intertwined and woven together!
As a community of faith, each Sunday we have made liturgical room for the experience of healing through the ministry of our healing team in the laying on of hands for healing which is offered in our side chapel each during the distribution of communion. It is a regular space and time we have set aside for anyone who wishes to pray with others for healing, for ourselves or others. This Advent, as we seek to heed John’s call to repentance, I want to propose that this space of the laying on of hands and prayers for healing can be a place of metanoia. Perhaps there is something on your heart that you feel called to repent of. Certainly the general confession during the service is a time to confess it in your heart and to receive the words of forgiveness in the absolutions that follows. And still further you could choose then to go for prayers of healing and wholeness with the member of the healing team after receiving communion. The power of asking another simply to pray with you as you prepare to amend your life should never be underestimated – if you try it, you will see what I mean.
Sometimes though the metanoia we need is not about a specific act we have committed what we need forgiveness for. It may be more subtle than that. It may be a way in which we are living our lives – our stance toward life. A very common stance many of us in this culture work from is the stance of rigid self- sufficiency. This manifests itself when we believe we can handle all of life’s stresses and demands ourselves. A major symptom of this stance is that we have trouble asking for help, even when we really need it, and when we do ask for help we feel anxious or guilty about it. If we recognize this or some other rigid way of being in the world that seems to bind us more than it lets us live joyfully, we could also be called to seek metanoia and reach out in trust of God’s ability to inspire, lead and even carry us each day. As I said before, it is amazing what grace God can work in our lives when we bring such repentance into prayer with another, asking God’s healing power to flow through our connection to one another.
So this Advent if you are in metanoia, asking God to lead you in a new way, to touch you with the power of that eternal realm of light, consider joining your prayers with those of one of the healing team members. And if you do not feel called to come forward for laying on of hands, you can still participate, by adding your silent prayers to those being raised by others who are in the side chapel. Metanoia is powerful in our individual lives and even tenfold when we join our prayers together in community. While it may feel a bit vulnerable or uncomfortable to pray for healing here, with someone else, in this public fashion, it allows us to tap into the power of being the body of Christ. We are more together than we are separately. There is a sacramental aspect to asking healing in Christ’s name, and so God works through our petitions for healing to encourage and strengthen each other’s trust in God.
How it works I do not know, but prayer changes things. In my experience, healing comes in many forms, and the grace that brings it into being works in ways I can not predict or imagine. But when it comes I recognize it. Prayer changes things. Prayers for metanoia and healing change things. They change the course of things; they amend us in our ways; they allow us to hear ourselves talk to God about the disease or brokenness we experience and the wholeness we envision – and hearing that changes things. Prayers for healing allow us to reframe, to be open to a different way of seeing the circumstances of life – sometimes it is our perspective that is healed. Prayers for metanoia and healing open us to God’s grace which is always there for us, no matter what.
In a lecture on healing that I once attended, Avery Brooke, an Episcopal lay woman who’s life work has been healing prayer, said “The person who lays hands on another for healing is like a fireman with a hose, but that person does not know which disease or brokenness God is aiming at. The person asking for prayer may present one thing for healing only to really need to be cured of another.”
May the fire-hose of grace douse us. May that grace lead us on a course that is turned more and more toward the wholeness of the realm of God. In the name of Christ. Amen+
The Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, St. Paul’s Church, Newburyport and the Lower Merrimack Valley Episcopal Ministry Collaborative Invite you to an Advent Quiet Day led by the Rev. Martha Hubbard Saturday, December 10, 2016 10:00 a.m – 2:00 p.m.
“Advent Terrain: Strangers in a Strange Land” Martha will lead us in reflections that invite us to consider how Advent can be a time of holy disorientation, which can open our hearts to the experience of the growing number of people in the world who find themselves living as refugees, far from home, in need of welcome and companionship.
Hosted by St. Paul’s Church 166 High Street Newburyport, Massachusetts (Street parking available) There is no charge for this program. Lunch will be provided. Please register by Wednesday, December 7, 2016. Cal the church: (978) 465 5351 or use the sign-up sheet in the church. For more information email Louise Valleau at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Clare Keller (978) 465 4483