When we have something difficult to do

Josephs Dream, by Toros Roslin (a prominent Armenian manuscript illuminator), 1262ad

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

There once were two men, John and Hank. John was a team leader at Halliburton and over 14 years he watched Hank move up in the ranks. Hank was a great employee and has been John’s right-hand man for about 8 years. Hank wasn’t only dependable, but had a way with people to always get the best out of them. Over these years John and Hank became very close friend. Their families also became close; barbecuing on Memorial Day, watching football together, occasionally they even took joint family vacations. Then, not too long ago here in Houston, John got a call from his boss. “We are cutting your department. I have a spot for you but everyone else will have to go.” With the downturn in oil people were already on edge. They have seen cycles like this come and go. John had even had to let good employees go before, but never one as close as Hank. He thought it would be best to tell everyone on the same day so he made arrangements to meet with each of them individually after a team meeting which was already scheduled for the following day.

In the morning everyone knew something was wrong. John was pale and a bit haggard. He told them that he didn’t feel well. This wasn’t a lie, but truly the only ailment was a lack of sleep. He was up all night worrying about this layoff and how it was going to affect so many good people and especially his best friend. He prayed that he would find a way to tell people that would make it easier. In his tossing and turning his prayers were never answered. He knew the truth was all he could give them.

There are times in life when we have something difficult to do and we agonize over the problems we have. I can only imagine that Joseph felt a similar way as John did when Joseph found his bride to be pregnant. He knew what needed to be done. He wasn’t’ going to “out” Mary, causing public disgrace, which could lead to her death and he wasn’t going to get into an uproar. He was just going to quietly let her go. I’m sure Joseph knew that her life would probably be ruined anyway, so he didn’t need to add to the insult. There was no sugar coating this news, it was just the reality of the situation.

I wonder what was going on in Joseph’s head as he was falling asleep. Even if the basic decision was easy, “I can’t marry this defiled woman,” knowing the best way to do the dirty deed had to be difficult. It seems that after pondering this problem, the best decision was made and he resolved to let her go quietly. Then he fell asleep.

During the night Joseph has a vision of an angel, who tells him to do something different than he planned. What I find interesting is that when he wakes, he does what the angel told him to do. Staying with Mary was not the easier choice. To have an unmarried pregnant woman at your side would be cause for shock, scandal, and alarm for most of the people they would meet. It implies that they have done something immoral and outrageous. Her parents would probably have been upset with both of them; possibly even disowning them. Think if this was your young daughter. Even in our times, a baby out of wedlock isn’t exactly socially acceptable. And because he is staying with her Joseph is basically admitting guilt.

What Joseph is doing is the right thing, the righteous thing to do. He is not following the cultural norm. He isn’t following his first reaction or even what he believed maybe the right thing to do. He is going in another direction. Through a vision, he perceived an alternative way of handling this difficult situation. Joseph, following his faith in the Lord, found hope in doing something unusual. He found hope in the future by untraditional means.

John, from Halliburton, also found hope. The next day, waking from another terrible night’s sleep, he had an idea. He thought he could start a new company with Hank and possibly few of the others that were laid off. Much like Joseph, this wasn’t the easier road. He had a secure position in Halliburton. Starting a new company is always risky. But he decided to go forward with his plan anyway.

John didn’t attribute this idea to God or as the answer to his prayer. But I’m not sure it wasn’t. God sometimes comes to us unexpectedly or without invitation. Sometimes he comes to us not at the moment we ask but in the future.

As we read in another story, King Ahaz was approach by God without invitation. In the days of Ahaz, there were two Hebrew kingdoms; Israel in the north and Judah, ruled by King Ahaz, in the south. Our story picks up with the Northern kingdom about to attack Ahaz and Ahaz is afraid at the prospect of losing his kingdom. So God tells Isaiah to visit Ahaz. Isaiah arrived as an uninvited spokesman for God. He is trying to bolster Ahaz’s confidence. He is trying to give Ahaz hope by telling him that the Lord will do whatever it takes to keep your kingdom safe. Isaiah says you can ask for a sign, as big or as small as you like, and God will answer. But Ahaz pulls the piety card. “I can’t do that. Asking God for a sign is putting God to the test.” Isaiah, exasperated by the false piety, gives Ahaz a sign anyway. The bare bones version says that you will win the war and in about four years’ time and your land will be more prosperous than it is now.

By the way, Ahaz does not listen to Isaiah. He makes a deal for protection with the King of Assyria; a very strong neighboring kingdom. Eventually this alliance becomes the downfall, and Assyria swallows us the small Southern kingdom.

What we find is that the message given to King Ahaz is a message of great hope. Isaiah tells us of a baby named Immanuel; which translated means, God is with us. The baby itself is a sign of how God can mysteriously work through ordinary things in our lives. These things such as a baby, or even bread and wine, can be transformed into something new; something that brings us great hope for the future. They become signs of God’s promise to us.

The birth of a child, of any child, is a sign of hope. For a newborn is deeply vulnerable to the world around it. Anyone who has witnessed a birth or held a newborn knows the fragility of life. This sign of life wasn’t only a sign for King Ahaz, but that baby was a sign of hope for all the people. This is much like us right now. In Advent we are also expecting the birth of a child. In this case, the child is more than a sign of hope. The child itself will change our lives. He is our hope. Our hope that through all of our vulnerabilities in the world, we well be loved and survive as we cross from this world to the next. He is Immanuel, God with us. Whether we ask him for help or not, whether we see the blessings or good ideas, as coming from him or not, God is with us.

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