The last Sunday before Christmas, the fourth Sunday of Advent, we can almost taste Christmas, it’s so close, yet we continue to wait, to look for the promised one in the midst of the darkness. Our Gospel reading today is the other annunciation story, not by Gabriel to Mary, but to Joseph in a dream in the midst of the darkness. And this dream brings Joseph into the darkest place of his life.
He does everything he needs to do in preparation for his wedding. Then what he never imagined would happen, happens. His fiancé is pregnant. He knows he is not the father. Suddenly his world shatters.
This is the deep winter night of Joseph's life. He has never encountered something that has left him so out of control. A decent man with an open, gentle face, he grasps for the least destructive solution that his world allows. The engagement, broken beyond repair by this infidelity, will be declared dead. The girl will be sent back home in quiet shame, where she and her child will live out their days beyond the circle of respectability.
It's not a solution that leaves Joseph satisfied; it does little to dissolve his anger, shame, and hurt. In this deep winter night of Joseph's life, he goes to sleep to escape the reality. In this season of sorrow and shattered dreams, he hibernates. He sleeps the sleep of the exhausted, the vanquished, and it is a fitful sleep.
To Joseph in that slumber there comes a dream, a dream that changes everything. The dream speaks with the voice of command. He's told to take Mary, pregnant Mary, as his wife. He's told not to be afraid. He's reminded that he's more than just a man trying to get started in life. His family tree includes King David, and others of Israel's best and brightest. Though Joseph feels like a pauper, underneath he knows he's a prince.
The dream does more than just make him feel better about himself. He finds out strange things about this unborn child, whose face or name or sex he had not begun to imagine. This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
The dream gives this baby, yet to be born, both a name and a mission. He's to be named Jesus, a name that means savior, healer, the one who rescues. He'll have the same name as Moses' protégé’ Joshua, who brought Israel into the promised land. He'll have a similar mission to perform. Not to deliver God's people from slavery in Egypt, but out of slavery to sin.
A line from an old prophecy of Isaiah rolls around inside this vast, majestic dream. Something about a virgin who has a baby, a baby named Emmanuel, "God with us."
When Joseph awakens from the dream, and lies in his bed in a cold sweat, and wonders if he's losing his mind, one thing's for certain: his troubles are not yet over. He's still got a pregnant fiancé, his relationship with her about to collapse. It's still a darker night than he has ever known before in his young life. But there's a difference now: a torch is blazing against this winter blackness.
It takes a while for the dream to settle into Joseph's heart and mind.
Much to his surprise, contrary to his better judgment, he recognizes the dream as the revelation of a larger purpose than his own comfort. The problem is still in place, but now Joseph recognizes that there is a deeper purpose in that problem. What looks for all the world like a burden is there to offer all the world a blessing.
Joseph is still perplexed, but he no longer feels afraid. He will follow through on his intention to marry, the child in Mary's womb he will raise as his own, and God will be the one to put together the pieces, to make sense of this puzzle.
Joseph's task is to be Joseph. Nothing more, nothing less. God's task, on the other hand, is to make this child Emmanuel – God with us, as he promised in the dream. And that will be enough to do. Joseph recognizes this larger purpose that waits to be revealed in God’s good time.
The same is true when the unexpected comes into our lives, there is purpose in our problem. There in that moment when, like Joseph, we seem to lie dead to all hope, there is purpose and meaning in the situation that has surprised us. The burden waits to reveal the blessing.
That purpose and that power and that blessing exist beyond our control. Our choice is whether we will pay attention to the dream, obey the angel, and take action. Will we send the mother away as someone impure, dismiss the angel of the dream as a fantasy, or will we listen, though God speaks in strange ways: through the woman's womb and the angel's words?
There is new life beyond each subsequent darkness. In the problem there shines the power. What hangs as the heavy burden has hidden within it the blessing.
However life is for us, the odds are we are not yet through with dark winter nights. We cannot wish away these experiences any more than we can skip the solstice.
But what you and I can do when caught deep down in some dark winter night, what you and I can do is dare to listen to the dream, to heed the good angel sent to us. This is what it means to have faith: we cannot dismiss what is fearful, but we can choose not to be afraid, to trust God in the darkness.
The dark night can become for us a new beginning. We can find that Jesus is not absent. He is already there, down in those black depths. He wants us to experience our dilemma as an occasion when God’s purpose will be revealed. He knows our burden can be a blessing.
Your dark time or mine can be the road to a larger purpose. What Joseph first sees as a disaster, and the ruin of all his hopes, turns out to be Emmanuel, God with us, the one who calls to us during winter nights that we may share with him in birth to new life, Emmanuel, God with us.