Two weeks ago when our bishop was here at St. Stephen’s leading us in a quiet day he capped one of his meditations with this observation: “We already know how the story will end.”
St. Paul, in the opening words of his letter to the Christian community in Rome, also knew how the story would end. As we heard in today’s first reading: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead…” Paul was writing to a community which was just beginning to feel the impact of the earliest persecutions by Roman authorities. And so in the opening words of his letter to them he comforts them with sustaining words about how the story will end. “Resurrection from the dead.” That is how the story will end. Despite the realities of this present world, our citizenship ultimately rests in God’s realm, and our story ends with resurrection.
But today we go back to the beginning of the story. Or one of the beginnings, any way. This time it is the story of Joseph, the husband of Mary. This Joseph, the carpenter from Galilee, had one thing in common with his namesake in the Old Testament — the one with the coat of many colors.
What our two Josephs, the one from the Old Testament and the one from the New, had in common was that they were both dreamers. Not the head-in-the-clouds “follow your dreams” sort of dreamers, but actual, literal dreamers. Messages came to them as they slept, as they dreamt. Ann Rose, who last week and today has led us through a wonderful Sunday morning series on art in Advent, pointed out that in almost every depiction of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth Joseph is asleep. Not because he is fatigued or out of it, but rather because he is dreaming. And in his dreams he receives messages.
Early in St. Matthew’s Gospel we hear about two of these messages, starting with today’s: “Joseph,” says the angel, and I paraphrase: “Mary is pregnant with a child from God. You are a good man, you weren’t going to publicly shame her for how you think she got pregnant. Now I’m asking you, God is asking you, to take a big step out in faith. Take Mary as your wife and when the baby is born, be his earthly father and be a model for him of how a good man lives. Of course you have the choice to say no. God never forces forces people to do anything. You have a choice.” And, as we know, Joseph said yes and did become that earthly father to Jesus.
The second dream we hear about is another encounter with an angel. This time it’s a warning: “Joseph, the baby is in great danger. King Herod wants to kill him. Take him and his mother and flee to Egypt until I tell you it’s safe to return.” Joseph heeds this warning and escapes with Mary and Jesus, becoming the first refugees in the New Testament.
Of course we are all familiar with these stories — we hear them over and over again in some form each Christmas. But what strikes me particularly this Advent is a question. And my question is: how did Joseph know that this messenger was from God? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some pretty wild dreams over the years but I wouldn’t say any of them were direct and clear messages from God. So how did Joseph know?
As with so much else in the Bible, we are not given the answer — which sets us free to imagine. Imagining what’s not written, what’s between the lines in Scripture is actually a bona fide practice with years of rabbinical and Talmudic precedent. Jewish interpreters of the Scriptures over the years have incorporated something called “midrash” into the way they read the holy texts. Midrash literally means reading between the lines, reading between the spaces of each letter of the text. Using one’s imagination to fill in the unanswered “why’s.”
And the midrash that unfolded for me as I yet again contemplated this story of Joseph was this: In order for Joseph to have recognized the strange messenger in his dreams he must have worked, over the years, on training himself to seek God constantly and in all things — much as an athlete trains over and over and over again to be ready for the big meet. Joseph must have practiced knowing the presence of God the way an actor rehearses her lines over and over and over again until they become a part of her. And so when the angel appeared, Joseph was ready; he knew who it was, from whom it had come, and that the message the angel was imparting was an important one.
Practicing the presence of God. Here’s a further thought I had: isn’t practicing the presence of God what we do here every Sunday? We hear, and speak, and sing words that are perhaps not the norm in the rest of our lives. But we hear them and speak them and sing them over and over and over again so that they become part of the rest of our lives — informing who we are, reminding us whose we are, and preparing us to deal with this earthly existence in a way that is in alignment with who we are and whose we are.
We practice the presence of the extraordinary within the ordinary week in, week out as we gather here as well. We take simple bread and simple wine and train ourselves over and over and over again to encounter the holy within them. Train ourselves to encounter Christ within that simple piece of bread and that simple sip of wine. We do so in order that we may see Christ in every one and every thing we encounter in all the other parts of our lives
We practice living in God’s time as we live into the rhythm of the seasons of church year, reminding ourselves that we are set in time and yet grounded in timelessness.
And we practice, week in and week out, knowing that the Holy Spirit has called us together to be the Body of Christ. This diverse and quirky group of individuals that we are — we come together and we are the Body of Christ so that we may seek and serve the Christ in all persons we encounter in every facet of our lives.
I used to tell my actors “you have to learn your lines so well that they become an organic part of you. Only after you stop thinking “what is my next line? What is my next line???” will you be able fully to inhabit the world of the character you are portraying. Otherwise you’re just making it up as you go along.”
And so it is with church. We come here to train ourselves. We come here to practice. We come here to rehearse. And we do so in order to shine the truth of the realm of God to the rest of our lives. In order to be ready, like Joseph, to act when we are called to take a step out in faith, act when we are confronted with danger, or pain, or sorrow, or loss — or great joy too for that matter. Our holy “lines” have become so organic to us that we know who we are, whose we are, and why we are. We come here to rehearse how to be in this world while at the same time being ambassadors of a far greater realm.
And through it all, as every week we rehearse the great story of God’s self-giving love for humanity and God’s ultimate plan for salvation, we remind ourselves, week in and week out, that we truly already do know how the story will end. AMEN.