“Waiting with Joseph”
December 6, 2020
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together,
she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph,
being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
‘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.’
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him;
he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;
and he named him Jesus.
Reactive people respond to life passively — they believe that life is happening to them.
They say things like: “There’s nothing I can do.” “That’s just the way it is.”
Reactive people tend to feel victimized and not in control of their lives.
Proactive people, however, recognize they have “response-ability.”
They know that they have the ability to choose how they will respond to a given stimulus or situation.
One of the first points of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
is that there is always a gap between stimulus and response.
There is space between whatever news or stimulus comes your way,
and how you choose to respond to that news or stimulus.
Now, sometimes you might duck automatically when something comes flying at your head,
or you may slam on the brakes when a deer appears on the highway right in front of you,
like what happened to us in the car last week….whew!
But, most of the time, when something that happens to us or we receive some unexpected news,
we have the ability to pause, to wait, and to choose – proactively – how we will respond.
We don’t know very much about Joseph, the husband of Mary,
the man who became a father for Jesus of Nazareth.
We are told that Joseph was a carpenter, probably best translated as “construction worker”.
We are told that Joseph was a descendent of David and was betrothed to Mary, a legally binding contract.
This betrothal would have been publicly announced to the whole village.
Though not yet married, Mary and Joseph were bound together.
Tradition has held that Joseph was much older than Mary.
Mary might have been 15 or 16; Joseph could have been in his late twenties or early thirties.
To Mary, he probably seemed ancient.
For those of us who play soccer with men over 40, a 35 year old is really young…and really fast.
Matthew reports that when Joseph received the unexpected news that Mary was pregnant,
he wanted to do what was “right” according the law,
but the law of Moses could be very unforgiving towards a young woman found pregnant before marriage.
According to the Law, in response to the unexpected news
that had turned Joseph’s whole life upside down, Joseph had two options.
He could react and humiliate Mary with a public divorce,
an option that would maintain his honor and standing in the village,
or, Joseph could respond by dismissing Mary quietly,
letting her fend for herself in an unforgiving society.
The public divorce would degrade Mary’s existence and even put her life at risk with a public trial.
Dismissing Mary quietly would probably cause her to struggle as a young woman alone with child,
but would allow Joseph to carry on with his righteous, if not lonely, life.
Joseph, being a righteous man, and a merciful man,
did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, so he decided to “dismiss her quietly”.
This was a proper choice, a choice which would uphold his reputation and maintain his honor.
However, that wasn’t the end of Joseph’s story. Joseph waited.
Before making what would be the biggest decision of his life, Joseph slept on it.
We don’t know if Joseph was listening for direction, praying desperately for a word from the Lord,
or whether he just went to sleep that night like he always did.
Whatever the case, that night Joseph had a dream.
God often speaks to us in dreams.
Joseph tossed and turned, trying to get some sleep, and somewhere between dream and reality,
Joseph heard a familiar voice or had a gut feeling.
“Joseph, marry the girl. This isn’t what you expected; this isn’t what you planned.
Your life suddenly looks very different than it did twenty four hours ago.
Yes, you are confused. Yes, you are angry. Yes, you are frustrated and in turmoil.
But listen to me, Joseph. Do not be afraid. Marry the girl.”
As the angels in the scriptures so often say, do not be afraid.
In that gap between stimulus and response, do not make decisions based on fear.
Do not respond to others or to challenging situations or unexpected news out of fear.
Instead, wait. Wait on the Lord. Listen for the Lord’s guidance.
Choose and act based on your principles, as Steven Covey would say.
Choose and act based on your best impulses.
Begin with the end goal in mind.
Seek what provides a “win-win” solution to all parties concerned, if at all possible.
Seek a third way, beyond the immediate either/or answer.
Lately, several of my immediate family members have been facing major life decisions.
All four of our sons are in their twenties, and when you are in your twenties,
you make huge decisions which will affect your life for decades.
In your twenties, you settle on a course of study.
In your twenties, you decide where to apply for new opportunities, and you accept or decline job offers.
In your twenties, you often meet someone special and then make life-altering decisions
as you navigate that relationship, sometimes resulting in a break up, sometimes in marriage.
There is always a gap between stimulus and response.
And, in that space, we have time to wait, and listen for a word from the Lord, and choose.
We are given the freedom to choose proactively which direction we will take.
We are given the freedom to choose based upon our principles,
We are given the freedom to begin with the end in mind, seeking “win-win” for all.
And we are given the freedom, the opportunity!, to listen, to listen for divine guidance.
Many of you are aware that preachers work on sermons,
then they allow time during the week for their sermons to work on them.
We seek to allow some space, a period of time, between doing our background work on the text,
and later, writing the sermon.
In that space, we may go about our other responsibilities.
We may visit someone or attend a meeting or cut the grass,
but in that space, we are listening. We are waiting. We are seeking to receive.
Given room, given time, in our hearts and our heads, God will often initiate.
God will often speak, though not always entirely clearly,
though what is received could always be interpreted differently.
To Joseph’s credit, he waited. He slept on it. He paid attention to a dream.
How many of us have dismissed a potential word from God in the night?
How many have shrugged off a strange dream as just that – strange?
But Joseph paid attention.
He remembered his dream; he was aware of its implications.
He interpreted his dream as a word from God and then took a major life risk, based on a dream.
Perhaps Joseph was looking for a sign, some strong reason to do what he really wanted to do anyways,
to go against tradition, to go against expectations, to allow himself shame and embarrassment,
and to marry the young girl to whom he was betrothed.
The dream, the word from the Lord, pushed Joseph beyond what was “right” or what was required.
The divine guidance led him to the more loving option, an option that would leave Mary in better stead,
and would offer the child a good and loving father.
Joseph heeded a still, small voice in the night,
and discovered in the end a great blessing and deep joy from his unexpected news.
Your stimulus might be some wonderful opportunity – a dream job, an acceptance to a coveted school,
or perhaps someone invites you to a special date or event.
Or your stimulus might not be such wonderful news – your job is being outsourced,
or you did not make the cut on the team, or the doctor has some bad news to share.
Your stimulus might be hard to bear – like a friend or loved one accusing you,
or your business facing additional months of quarantine.
Or, your stimulus might be wonderful to receive – like an unexpected complement or a thoughtful gift.
In the gap between stimulus and response, we have the human freedom
to wait on the Lord and then to choose.
We can choose how we respond…to the angry neighbor or the kind grocery bagger.
We can choose how we respond…to the overly full calendar or the unscheduled afternoon.
We can choose how we respond…to the exciting new opportunity or to the unexpected pregnancy.
I discovered a quote, years ago, when I was on the corporate ladder,
working for a Big 8 accounting firm. I had been married only about seven months,
and I was contemplating leaving the business world and going back to school – to seminary.
This quote was in the magazine Guideposts in February of 1990:
“Sometimes the wise, sensible, practical solution is not the best because it leaves out love.
Sometimes the illogical, difficult, expensive, messy solution is the path that must be taken
because it is the only way love can be satisfied.”
With God’s divine initiation in the night,
Joseph chose the path of love, a potentially difficult, messy, expensive path,
a path that went beyond reason, beyond righteousness, beyond the law.
Joseph’s story reminds us of the scripture from Romans 8,
“In all things God works for good for those who love God,
for those who are called according to God’s purposes.”
In all things, God works for good.
As Emily read earlier from Psalm 62:
For God alone my soul waits in silence… God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress…
Trust in the Lord at all times, O people; pour out your heart before the Lord;
God is a refuge for us.
Whatever positive or negative stimulus may come your way,
whatever unexpected news may fall in your lap, wait for the Lord, trust in the Lord,
for God is a refuge for us, a very present help in trouble. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church