May the words of my mouth and meditations of each heart be wholly acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
I have a confession to make, one that I hope doesn’t make you think less of me.
I have never seen an angel.
I have never had an angel appear to me, in a dream or otherwise. I’ve never had one knock at the door, that I’m aware of, never had one bring me tidings, of any kind.
And y’all, I’m am totally fine with that. That does not hurt my feelings. I do not feel left out.
I think the Good Lord knows that if an angel were to appear to me with a message from God, that whole event would scare me out of my wits and render me unfit for further duty.
And honestly, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable response.
I mean, we talk a lot about wanting to know God’s will for us, and we ask in our prayers for God to be with us, and we ask for God to use us in whatever way we can be most useful, and we talk about people being “called” to do things. We respect that language and those experiences.
Especially when they happen to other people. Sure! Yes, do what God asks of you. You should definitely do that.
But now, how many of us are really ready to have our lives and plans and decisions completely disrupted by God’s will?
How many of us would actually be jazzed when that dramatic Angel-in-a-Dream shows up?
Or be super-psyched to finally have to acknowledge that gentle but persistent still-small-voice that just won’t stop needling at us?
How many of us would really sign up for what’s described in Matthew?1
Joseph and Mary are betrothed, but they are not living together. And yet, Mary turns up pregnant. Now, the gospel tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man,” and because he was “unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace,” he “planned to dismiss her quietly.”
But let’s note here, folks: he was going to dismiss her. Yes, he was going to keep it on the down-low, but nonetheless, he was not going to marry a pregnant girl.
And it’s nice that he wasn’t going to go out of his way to expose her to public disgrace and the subsequent public punishment, but—plot spoiler—people would have eventually figured out that Mary was having a baby and that she was not married to Joseph. So while Joseph’s plan
was to dismiss her quietly—his plan also included leaving her to suffer the fate of a young, unmarried, pregnant girl in a ferociously patriarchal ancient culture, a culture with strict ideas about what happens to unwed mothers.
And everything in Joseph’s society and everyone in his world would have supported his decision.
If you’re not the father of that baby, then you, Joseph, are under no obligation to go through with this marriage.
The law and the culture would have been on his side.
You want to walk away from this one? Walk away, my man. You’re on solid ground—
his world would have said.
His God, however, had different ideas about the matter—and so God sends an Angel-in-a-Dream to Joseph. And the Angel says, and I’m reading from the gospel:
“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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1: 20-21)
At first glance, it may seem like the Angel-in-a-Dream is asking only one thing of Joseph: go through with the wedding. But if we look closely, the Angel—and God—are actually asking for a whole lot more.
Marry this young woman who is pregnant with a baby that is not your biological child. That right there is a huge ask. But there’s more.
Trust Mary when she tells you that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. And as such, trust that she and this child are very special indeed. As are you, Joseph—for you are chosen to be husband and earthly father. Trust that the family God is bringing together is precious and special, and that this family doesn’t work without you.
Raise this child, knowing from the very beginning that his destiny is powerful—that this as yet unborn child will be, as the Angel says, the one to “save his people from their sins.” And, sidebar, knowing what you know, Joseph, of those in your tradition who have tried to save God’s people, you gotta worry that this child’s life will be difficult. If history was any teacher for Joseph, he had to suspect that this boy’s path would not be an easy one, and thus, neither would Mary’s, nor his own.
You, Joseph, son of David—remember, the Angel makes a point of addressing him as “Joseph, son of David”—you will name this child—and not just “call his Jesus,” but name him in the temple, claiming him as your own, in the presence of your people and religious authorities, establishing him as part of the line of David—fruit of the Jesse tree, the line from which prophesy says the Messiah will come.
What’s being asked of Joseph here is a whole lot more than “have a wedding.” It’s not a one-time-ask for a one-time-event. What is being asked of Joseph will affect the rest of his natural life.
So how does Joseph feel about all this? This massive interruption of his plans? This series of increasingly difficult demands all neatly wrapped in the Angel’s charge?
Is he afraid?
We have no idea. While we would hardly blame him if he felt all that and more, the gospel doesn’t tell us how Joseph feels.
What the gospel does tell us clearly, however, is what Joseph does.
Joseph does what is asked of him, even though the requests are strange and difficult and disruptive, and not in line with his plans.
Yes, Joseph, you are the one called to do these things. Things that may not make sense to others in your world, things that may not make sense entirely to you. But your God asks this of you; your God tells you not to be afraid, but to trust, and to do these things that you are uniquely suited to do, that only you can do, in order to bring into this world safely a child who will change everything.
You are not called, Joseph, because you are conveniently placed; you are called because of who and what you are—what you alone are. Though you, Joseph, cannot see the whole from your very earthly, very human, very limited vantage point, once you do these things that are asked of you, nothing will ever be the same.
What will our reaction be when our God asks something of us?
Will we have the courage to stand and hear the call—heed the Angel-in-the-Dream—or listen to the still quiet voice that we know always tells us the truth? Will we be able to believe that maybe, just maybe, our gifts and talents and strengths make us not conveniently placed, but uniquely suited—maybe even essential—for this role we are called to?
Will we do what is asked of us, no matter how unexpected or challenging or contrary to social pressures the ask may be?
Will we have the humility to accept that what we don’t know about a situation is a whole lot more than what we do know, and that maybe, just maybe, we can’t see the whole picture from where we sit?
Will we believe that, as children of God, what each and every one of us, every single one, has to offer is good and worthy, no matter what our external and/or internal critics may tell us to the contrary?
Will we trust in ourselves to discern, to the best of our ability, in community, and with God’s help, how we are being called to serve the kingdom of God here, right now, in our own particular, uniquely suited ways? in our families, our workplaces, our houses of worship, our larger communities, this “fragile earth, our island home”?2
Will we accept the call to bring our uniquely suited abilities and passions and strengths and God-given gifts to serving God’s world and God’s purpose?
I think the answer to all of these questions—for me, for you, for all of us—is yes. Yes! In communion with the Holy Spirit and in joined hands with one another in loving, supportive community I believe that we can and we will answer and continue answering yes to God’s will for us and for this world.
1 Matthew 1:18-25.
2 Eucharistic Prayer C, BCP 370.