There are times in life, (we might even say most of life is this way), when things do not go like we’ve planned them to go. When we find ourselves in utterly new territory, somewhere unimagined, un-planned for, even undesired.
There are times in life when life directs us more than we direct our lives, and factors outside of ourselves make the decisions for us about where we are going to go, or what we are going to do, and even, who we are going to be.
This is certainly the case for Joseph. Joseph is not the lead character in this story, so he doesn’t get a lot of press, but even so, he is essential. The family line of David comes through him, not through Mary – so the prophecies aren’t fulfilled without him. He is to be the father of this child, the human parent adopting God as God has adopted all of us. That’s a little mind-boggling. And yet, Mary at least is given the news awake and in person when an angel stands before her – she at least has the illusion of control and agrees to participate in this scheme. She is able to ask questions and get clarification about God’s plans and how they might affect her.
But Joseph’s first inkling that his well-laid plans are meaningless occurs when he finds out Mary is knocked up.
The Christmas story – the story of God-with-us - begins with scandal and infidelity (or the strong appearance of infidelity) to this marriage, which was yet to be made complete. For some reason, when God comes, God comes not only in impossibility– bringing to mind the creation of the universe from nothing, and life and promise from all the barren wombs of old - by taking up residence inside a virgin - but God also doesn’t seem to mind much what people think about it. Controversy and the appearance of guilt, the suggestion of wrong-doing cling all over this couple, and would have over just her if Joseph hadn’t decided to go through with the marriage anyway.
We’ve got the Christmas story all soft-lens sentimentalized and “holy”, but these are real people with real relationships and expectations and emotions and secrets, and it couldn’t have felt saintly and nostalgic to Joseph. It must have been a cold shock, betrayal, horror, anger, deep hurt.
And Joseph doesn’t even get the first-person conversation, the chance to decline before the wheels are set in motion; he finds out secondhand that this is his fate. Stone her, divorce her quietly, or go along with this whether you want to or not. Some hand dealt to him.
And then he has a dream, which puts things in a much different light. And when he awakes he makes his choice. He says yes to the path he is already on anyway, and agrees to jump in - with all the implications thereof: the guilt it paints him with, the change of his own plans and life direction. In this unexpected, unwanted life interruption, Joseph finds his new calling.
Would he have said yes to this role if he were asked ahead of time? If he knew what was coming and had a real choice? The fleeing to Egypt to protect his small family from Herod, the returning to Nazareth years later to start all over again, the worry and stress and burden of shepherding this miracle through childhood and adolescence - the enigma of raising God, disciplining God, parenting God, what must that do to you? Would he have said yes to all of it? Would we?
When you look back at your life, knowing now how painful or challenging some of the things you’ve walked through have been, would you have said yes to them before they came?
Lucky for us, we don’t have the choice, most of the time, to say yes to all of it, but we usually do have the choice to say yes to one little step in front of us. The one little thing within the bigger picture – for Joseph it was, don’t be afraid to take her as your wife. That’s it. Stick with your plans. Marry her anyway.
And he does. And his life goes in a massively different direction than he ever could have imagined- than anyone could.
How do we participate with God in life? Where do we see God? Really, concretely, can you see God in life? Where? How? I think perhaps, like Joseph, sometimes we see God when we choose to be where we already are. When we decide to open our eyes and our hearts to the possibility that even though we never would have chosen this, we’ll live here anyway. We’ll invest ourselves in this new thing that is our life at the moment.
I’ve shared with you about my sister and her husband and their 8 year old son’s surprising foray into foster care. They went through the process of entering the system with the dream of one day adopting, and they have found themselves instead with a household full of children that can’t belong to them – a baby and her 2 and 4 year old siblings, and another 2 year old, all with various needs and sufferings. Abuse, neglect, night terrors and developmental delays - my sister’s days are filled with all manner of surprising and unexpected turns. Court visits, home visits, supervised parental visits, doctor visits, and babies visiting college finals.
My sister is exhausted, juggling the child who can’t sleep in the same room as another with the one who can’t sleep alone, the one who cries at night and the one who screams at night and the one who wakes up at 5 am to go and shake the rest of the household awake and bellow at the dogs. This isn’t remotely what they imagined.
But she finds herself in the night, when everyone else is asleep, rocking this sweet baby, with her deep mahogany skin and soft dark curls, resting peacefully in my sister’s arms, she finds herself suddenly wondering how she got to be so lucky. What had she done to deserve this moment? Holding this little beating heart in a warm bundle in her arms while the moon looks on? She catches herself, between the fatigue and the chaos, suddenly hearing or seeing one of these little ones in their joy, or in their fear, a moment of washing a foamy head or buckling a small lap into a carseat, and she realizes that she is alive, connected, even, for the moment, contented.
And I see her, in a situation I could never imagine being in, and one she could never have thought she could handle, and she is somehow thriving, her little family is in this together, making space in their home and hearts for these tiny lives passing through. Being this haven for them.
And, like Joseph, (and most of us if we’re really living in love), she takes on guilt too. She is part of a system that is broken, failing them almost as much as it rescues them - she sees how complicated all of it is and that she will eventually give them up too, eventually let them down, and no matter how hard she tries, she can’t save them. Was it enough? Of course not. But it’s something. And while she can’t tell you with any certainty what will happen tomorrow – how many her household will hold a week from now or six months from now – she has said yes to where she is, and God has met her within it.
This is God-with-us, God who comes in. And God doesn’t always, or usually, give advance warning or veto power. God will do what God will do.
But also, there are no circumstances, no situations, no lives that are outside of God’s incarnation – no places or people with whom God is not already involved, already there, alongside.
And so often God, life, other people’s choices- or a messy cocktail of all these factors and more - puts us in a place we never would have chosen for ourselves, opens a door and shoves us in a direction that frightens us, angers us, challenges or intrigues us, and then slams the door shut behind us and we’re stranded there - in this new and unrecognizable place, where everything about us looks different in the strange light, and the smell is unfamiliar, and we aren’t sure what to do.
And while we have no choice, we do have a choice. To say yes to where we are. Or not to. And I am not even suggesting that the only faithful response is to say yes, necessarily, to wherever this bend in the road takes you. It might be more faithful to kick and flail and resist with all your might, to die resisting.
But perhaps, in some of these moments, you are invited to plant your feet, fill your lungs with air and look the moment squarely in the face and introduce yourself. We’re going to get to know one another, you and I. We’re going to figure out how to live together, how to share the fridge and take down each other’s messages, because I’m apparently not going anywhere and nether are you, cancer, unemployment, new relationship, empty household.
And there is a freedom that comes from relenting. From choosing, from saying yes to where you already are – even if you didn’t plan ahead of time to be there. Because the truth is, God can only be found right where you are. God is not stuck in the past or dangling out the future, and God isn’t writing out some perfect plan you are expected to find and follow – God is right here, in the moment, in the situation, as confusing or unexpected as it may be. You can only really see and welcome God when you let yourself open your eyes and your heart and be where you are.
This looks different for everyone, but is an invitation for us all.
I have asked a couple of people what it was like for them to be somewhere they didn’t choose, face something they never wanted.
Diane shares her experience this way:
Last May I discovered a lump in my breast. I had a mammogram and a biopsy and was informed it was breast cancer. When I learned of the cancer it was a little hard to believe. I didn't feel sick or look different. Than I got caught up in the swirl of doctor appointments and tests and treatment discussions. I didn't feel overwhelmed or depressed, and I just wanted to get on with it.
I expected to not feel well part of the time and not be able to continue doing all the things I usually do. But I did expect to continue with most of my work and activities. I thought I would probably join a support group, but then found that there were so many people that I knew or knew of that had had breast cancer that I could just talk with them.
Having breast cancer has affected me a lot with time and scheduling. I have lots of doctor and treatment appointments and they take priority over other things. And I have a good excuse not to do things I don't feel like doing. My experience is tremendously affected by my body responding well to chemotherapy and the surgery going well. My progress has given me lots of hope that I will recover. Had I had setbacks or not responded well to the treatments, I would not feel as hopeful.
I am grateful that God is part of my life and is there for me. Also grateful that God has been somewhere in the medical advances that have helped me so much. God's presence created a sense of peace that no matter what happens God is there. I will probably feel the absence of God if I don't continue to recover, or if the cancer returns.
I feel like I will be a stronger person after this. There are issues with my business and my family that I will be making some changes in. Part of that is realizing that life is short and I can't be passive or tolerant about things I am uncomfortable or unhappy with. The future is right now. It is no longer way off in the distance.
I don't know how it has changed my relationship with God. This is yet to come and I will be thinking about my relationship with God, family and friends more than I have before.
This month, Barb watched her son, David head down to Florida to face a felony drunk driving charge. She shared about it this way:
The day of David's trial I prayed for a miracle. Jail time and no felony, time served and no jail, many different outcomes than the actual and deserved verdict. I wanted the phone to show a picture of David when it rang then I would know that he was at his Florida home and safe from all of the dangers he would face in prison. When the call did come and the number was friends of ours who had spent the day with David in court, my heart just stopped and so many thoughts and feelings rushed in that I thought my heart would burst. It was like a part of me died.
Before the trial I had spent a lot of time wondering if only I had been a better mom, if only his father hadn't died, all of the what ifs. Knowing that no matter how much I loved my son, this time I could not fix anything, I just had to stand by and let all of the pain unfold. My mind told me that what happened in court was for the best, but my heart cried for all of the what ifs.
I have encountered God with a ton of prayer. I rely on him to keep David safe. I do not feel an absence of God, I just know that he is always with me, even when I have pulled away from life God is with this sometimes crazy mixed up person. I may at times be absent, but God has a way of finding me and pulling me back to just where I belong. That may not be where I want to be but I can accept and live with that, given time to think things through.
I do not spend too much time thinking about my future because that who knows if the future is tonight or many years from now. It is very bad medicine for me to go any further than this moment. The future is now.
I have been through some pretty ugly stuff in my life and it was only by God’s grace that I was able to get through it. There have been so many times that I unknowingly put God on a shelf and then realized I had not prayed or thought of him in a very long time, it is usually when I realize that, that pain and sadness has been replaced with the gift of joy and a happy heart. Right now today it is difficult to stop the tears and pain but I do know that no matter who I shut out of my life God will remain steadfast because I am his creation and he loves me very much.
This is the week of Advent that we focus on joy. The week we talk about joy in the waiting. But as we look at the story of Joseph – at our own lives when we find ourselves in something we don’t choose to be in – as someone said to me earlier this week, joy would be a stretch.
But that’s just it, isn’t it?
Joy is a stretch.
It comes when we’re not expecting it, when we’re right in the middle of the sorrow or the fatigue, and suddenly the tiny head shifts on our arm, or the gratitude for family and friends, for the gift of living, floods in and takes us by surprise. And joy stretches us starting right where we are into a moment of eternity.
God is in the midst of it. Whatever it is. Always. That’s the promise we celebrate and anticipate in this season.
So let us join our voices with Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist and the Prophets and, not knowing how it might change our lives or what it might do to us, let’s say anyway,
Come, Lord Jesus.
A special thank you to Callie, Barb, and Diane, for honoring us with the sacredness of their stories.
A special thank you to Callie, Barb, and Diane, for honoring us with the sacredness of their stories.