December 18, 2016

Advent 4 Year A

We have come to the darkest time of the year. The velvet black curtain of night falls in the late afternoon, and remains in all its deep jet beauty until after we arise the next day. Daytime appears as a short interlude between one majestic night and the next. The deep winter night feels spacious, at times almost overwhelming, an uneasy place, yet one we inhabit as a refuge.

We have come as well to a dark time for that young man Joseph. He does everything he needs to do in preparation for his wedding. Then what he never imagined would happen. His fiancée is pregnant. 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, 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 takes to his bed. 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. It is not some small dream, the result of a bit of undigested food or a daylight triviality demanding his attention. What comes to Joseph is a BIG DREAM. As spacious as the deep winter night, and far more overwhelming. This dream is an uneasy place for him to be, for yet again he feels out of control as never before.

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 young guy trying to get started in life, who earns his keep one day at a time. His family tree includes King David, and others of Israel’s best and brightest. Though Joseph now feels like a pauper, underneath the dream declares him a prince.

In the dream he finds out strange things about this unborn child, whose face or name or sex he had not begun to imagine. 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’ sidekick 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 their sins.

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 fiancée, 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 will. Finally he comes to see that this big dream, still echoing in his head, is nothing less than God’s message to him, an angel speaking a word even more startling than the news that Mary’s pregnant.

Much to his surprise, he recognizes the dream as the revelation of a larger purpose than his own comfort or discomfort. The problem is still there, but now Joseph recognizes that there is a promise in that problem. What looks for all the world like a burden is there to offer all the world a blessing.

Joseph remains perplexed, but he no longer feels afraid. He will follow through on his intention to wed Mary and the child in Mary’s womb he will raise as his own, and God will be the one to put together the pieces and 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 do as God has promised in the dream. And that will be enough.

This dark time of year is an opportunity for each of us to listen to God’s big dream and heed the call not to be afraid. In our struggles, there is a larger purpose that waits to be revealed. Whether or not any particular problem is what we deserve, there is a promise in our problem. There in that moment when, like young Joseph, we seem to lie dead to all hope, the burden waits to reveal the blessing.

That purpose and that blessing exist beyond our control. Our choice is whether we will harken to the dream, obey the angel, be attentive and take action. Will we send the mother away as someone impure, dismiss the angel of the dream as a fantasy, or will we hearken, though God speaks in strange ways? As always, the choice is ours.

So there is new life beyond each darkness. In the problem there shines the promise. 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.

Your dark time or mine can be the road to a larger purpose. What poor 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 so that we may share with him in the promise.