Today’s Lesson tells us of the visit of the angel to Joseph and his admonition to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt for their own safety and his later appearance to Joseph suggesting a safe return, following the death of Herod. These scriptures are those with which we are well familiar and part of our yearly celebration of the many miracles that surround the birth of the Savior and our more modern-day Christmas observances.
This year I was struck by things I hadn’t considered before – maybe we see scripture in accordance with our own personal situation or the events of the world around us, and maybe that is exactly the point of the timeless nature of scriptures and their applicability in modern times. As such, I considered the role of Joseph in Jesus’ life and my own reflections on the important role of a stepparent. Those whose duty or pleasure it is to love and support children who are theirs by affiliations of the heart – not biology. While there is not a great deal written about the early life of Jesus, one can only imagine the feelings Joseph might have had regarding his own role in the childhood of the Savior.
In Matthew, we learn that Joseph was the vehicle for the all-important information that the family should flee for a time in order to protect Jesus’ life. I could probably preach for some time on the loving role and importance of step-parenting – and the Lord’s revelation to Joseph the he should take Mary and Jesus into Egypt is a loving example of parental stewardship and personal revelation.
This led to other thoughts about role of personal revelation and inspiration and the myriad ways God communicates with us. How does personal revelation happen? What should we do to prepare ourselves for the blessings of revelation and for whom do we receive revelation?
It is staggering to think about how many messages compete for our attention each day? Text messages are only the beginning. Add up every billboard, poster, TV commercial, online ad, etc., and soon we are swimming in an ocean of competing voices. With all those messages swirling around, it can be easy to miss the “still small voice” spoken of in Kings. (1 Kings 19:12).
We don’t know if Joseph actively sought guidance from the Lord, but it is easy to imagine that he did. The responsibilities of protecting a family under marginal circumstances in an unsafe environment may have led him to seek guidance as to how to proceed. Whether he sought that guidance or not, we know that when the angel visited him he chose to comply thereby preserving the lives of Jesus and Mary.
Why does the Lord ask us to pray to ask for guidance? Because that is often how revelation and inspiration are received. The Holy Spirit communicates important information that we need to guide us in our mortal journey. When it is crisp and clear and essential, it warrants the title of revelation. When it is a series of promptings we have to guide us step by step to a worthy objective, it is inspiration. When it is for the Lord’s purposes, anything can come to our remembrance.
The scriptures give eloquent confirmation of how truth, consistently lived, opens the door to inspiration to know what to do and, where needed, to have personal capacities enhanced by divine power. The scriptures depict how an individual’s capacity to conquer difficulty, doubt, and seemingly insurmountable challenges is strengthened by the Lord in time of need.
This help is available to each of us, but that does not mean we know how to use all the gifts we’ve been given. For as Jesus said in John 14:26-27, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Notice here that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just give us all the answers, rather, there is a teaching process led by the Holy Spirit.
We may find that the tests and trials in life have a way of maturing us and increase our abilities to recognize promptings from God. When we are confused about the circumstances of our lives, this confusion should cause us to press into God even more than we might in the past.
While it is clear that God desires to teach us and reveal important information to us, it is also clear that God has never promised to tell us everything we want to know when we want to know it. This perceived “delay” may feel difficult as we await answers and understanding and anticipating delay is an exercise in patience that may take years of practice.
The scriptures remind us that divine guidance is often given to us by God. Inspiration often comes by the Spirit in a variety of ways to the mind or heart of a person.
I have seen individuals – and have been an individual—who has encountered challenges, and ultimately knew what to do when it was beyond my own experience, by trusting in the Lord knowing that I would be guided to solutions. As I have gotten older, I have had the blessing of receiving personal revelation and inspiration in my life. Candidly, sometimes the answers were a surprise and unexpected. Many years ago, I found myself suddenly single with two very young children to raise, a part-time job, and no education. I didn’t know what to do and knew I could not manage the situation on my own.
I concluded that if ever there a time to implement the practices around seeking personal revelation, it was certainly then. I sought guidance in the scriptures, I fasted and prayed, and watched for signs as to what the Lord intended for me. And it became clear to me, both in my heart and in my head what the Lord intended. But I wasn’t at all happy with the answer. It was the last possible thing I wanted to do and I concluded that I had misunderstood the will of the Lord and decided to go back to the drawing board. I continued to pray, and wait, and listen and each time the answer came back the same – the thing I absolutely didn’t want to do. Ultimately, I decided to follow the prompting of the spirit and do the thing that seemed so counterintuitive to me. How grateful I am today that, at least for that one time, I listened. My life was exponentially blessed for that one decision.
Communication with God is not a trivial matter. It is a sacred privilege available to each of us and is based upon eternal, unchanging principles. Personal revelation is the way we know for ourselves the most important truths of our existence: the living reality of God, and Jesus Christ; the truthfulness of the gospel; and God’s purpose and direction for us. Each of us has been sent to earth to better understand eternal life – and God is available to help us with that process.
Paul counseled the early Church to rely on the Spirit rather than the wisdom of the world. To obtain that Spirit, we begin with prayer. Prayer provides a firm foundation for personal revelation. But more is required and revelation comes on the Lord’s timetable, which often means we must move forward in faith, even though we haven’t received all the answers we desire. As faithful members of the body of Christ, we may receive personal revelation more frequently than we realize. The more we receive and acknowledge personal revelation, the more our ability to recognize that guidance grows.
For all of us, our personal revelations reflect the pattern of revelation received by prophets, as recounted in the scriptures. Adam and Eve called upon the name of the Lord and received personal revelation. Elijah’s personal revelation came through the still, small voice; Daniel’s came in a dream. Peter’s personal revelation gave him a testimony that Jesus is the Christ. Generally, those miracles will not be physical demonstrations of God’s power—parting of the Red Sea, raising of the dead, breaking down prison walls, or the appearance of heavenly messengers. By design, most are spiritual demonstrations of God’s power—tender mercies gently bestowed through impressions, ideas, feelings of assurance, solutions to problems, strength to meet challenges, and comfort to bear disappointments and sorrow.
Sometimes we endure what the scriptures call a “trial of [our] faith.” And sometimes that trial is the time it takes before an answer is received. Sincere prayer is answered ‘sometime, somewhere.’” The answer may also be “Not now—be patient and wait.”
Finally, sometimes those answers some in the form of other people. I have often prayed for guidance on ways to be more patient with others and more optimistic. The answer for me came in the form of those who model those behaviors. My husband, Bryant, model’s patience in many ways. My friend, Katherine, makes the case for unbridled optimism in the face of adversity. I frequently contemplate that they are both gifts from God sent to inspire me to do better and be better.
We recently spent some time with the family of my daughter in law as we celebrated the birth of our new grandson. During the visit I posed the question to them as to how they heard God’s voice. While it was clear that people hear God’s voice in many different ways, a common theme was remaining open to the Spirit as a predicate to receiving inspiration.
Reflecting back on the lesson today, Joseph serves as an example of someone who remained open to the will of the Lord to the eternal benefit of his family and the world. That each of us may receive that Spirit, obtain the blessings of personal revelation, and know for ourselves that these things are true is my heartfelt prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
By Elle Morgan
View the worship and sermon here.
In today’s lesson from Genesis we witness Joseph's call to reconcile with his family. Today, Heather & Molly have asked that I share my own story of being called. I’ve prayerfully considered this charge over the last weeks. While this is principally a story about forgiveness, I believe it is also a story about call… where you belong and how you can serve.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most well known in the Old Testament. While many can thank Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for that knowledge, it is a story that has struck the hearts of many in the Judeo-Christian tradition for centuries. It is the story of a complicated family – something we can all relate to and how God’s call for us that might be wildly different from our own imaginings.
It is easy to imagine Joseph as a young man. Confident in the knowledge of the love his parents and his ideas as to how other see him – the favored son of a favored wife. It is easy to imagine Joseph with his father planning for the future as to what that might look like for both of them. Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “People plan and God laughs”. Like many of us, that was the way for Joseph. A bright future working with his father, taking leadership over his elder brothers, might have seemed desirable for Joseph. But that was not the way it was to be. Joseph was needed elsewhere.
I think as children we imagine how our lives might unfold. We may have thoughts or dreams about our futures: our families, our ambitions, how we might lead or serve. I know I did. Growing up in Utah, it was easy to envision myself as a wife and a mother. Certainly my ecclesiastical leaders saw that future for me and encouraged me toward that destiny. I had loved and appreciated those treasured roles, but I always felt God’s call for me included more, although what that meant was not immediately evident.
Joseph’s father sent him on an errand to check on his brothers and the flock and report their conditions back to him. However, the errand happened to be God’s call to Joseph to undertake a special mission to Egypt: to prepare a sanctuary for the young nation of Israel to survive a severe famine, prosper, and multiply into a great nation. Neither Joseph nor his father recognized the call at the time. God delivered the message by prompting his father to send him on the fateful errand. Also, we learn that God may allow adversity as a channel for effecting a positive change for a person. The person will be in better position to realize the change by remaining steadfast in living in the image of God despite hurting from the adversity.
Joseph’s shock at his changed circumstances at the hands of his brothers must have felt profound. What a difference a day makes. Thrown in a pit, sold into slavery, jailed. His circumstances must have seemed surreal. But it is easy to imagine that in the confusion of those extreme circumstances, that Joseph must have known that God had a plan for him, yet unrevealed. Joseph’s faith in God allowed him to persevere under extraordinary circumstances.
I think many of us ask the question, “Where do I belong?” “Where and whom shall I serve?” I imagine that if you asked Joseph, his answer would not involve interpreting dreams in jail. Or being chased about by Potiphar’s wife. But how many of us find ourselves in similar circumstances. How did I get here? For much of my life, I felt the same. How did I get here? How did this happen? How did I actively attend the tradition of my foremothers which espouses, racism, homophobia, and misogyny. What does this signal to my children, my friends, those whom I respect? Like Joseph, I asked myself “how did I get here?” And more importantly, what is God’s plan for me. Joseph knew, probably more quickly than I did, to put his trust in the Lord. Faith, perseverance, and patience showed Joseph where he belonged and how he could serve. Joseph was led by the Lord to where he might be most useful to God’s people.
I think many of us have asked the same question, but perhaps without the same patience and faith. I believe that the Lord leads us into things as well as out of things. Like Joseph, he was led from his home and family in Canaan into where was most needed in Egypt. The Lord saw the bigger picture for Joseph just as he sees that same picture for us.
I was a slower study. I thought I could impact circumstances even change the hearts of others, but that was not to be. God knew better. In prayerfully turning to the Lord as to where I belong, God led me out of my previous tradition and into the Episcopal tradition. As a former children’s Sunday School teacher, I taught many young people to as the question, What Would Jesus Do? I believe that members of the Episcopal faith actively ask the questions, “What would Jesus Do? Where should I serve? And act upon those inspirations.
I sometimes reflect on that interim period with both sadness and curiosity. It was hard to be without a faith community and the likelihood that the situation might be permanent was high. Research shows that members of my former tradition don’t often find a new spiritual home for a number of reasons. I have to imagine that when Joseph was thrown into prison he felt the same way. Separated by those he loved due to circumstances, concerned about outcomes. In the play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph sings a song while in jail describing his bleak circumstances but remaining constant in his faith in the Lord. One stanza states “Children of Israel are never alone”. I will say that during this in-between period, I often felt spiritually lonely for community, but never alone. I think that period was one when I learned to rely ever more closely on the Lord. I am grateful that God called me to be a member of this parish and I believe God continues to call me to greater levels of participation.
In this past year, I have attended Loving the Questions and the Community of Discernment to try to determine where I might belong and to better hear God’s call. One of my favorite scriptures is Mary answering God’s call with the plaintive statement -- Behold thy handmaiden, Lord. I have tried to emulate Mary’s approach as I pursued answers with an open mind as to where God might want me With the tutelage of, and in consultation with, diocesan leaders, I have prayerfully sought answers to where I might belong and how I could serve. To my great surprise, I have felt a call to the priesthood, understanding that calls are a combined vision of the individual, the diocese, and the Lord, in concert with them I continue to ask where should I serve? And look to the Lord for answers.
Joseph understood that God’s call was what led him into Egypt. Not the perfidy of his brothers. Upon their reunion he explained to them that it was God, not them, that sent him to Egypt for a special mission “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come close to me.’ When they had done so, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.’”
Joseph’s willingness to patiently wait for God’s plan to unfold for him is inspirational. It couldn’t have been easy and, at times, probably very frightening. I think this is something to which we can all relate. How does our vision for our life match up to God’s? How do we reconcile the differences?
Maybe Joseph felt bitterness about his changed circumstances, but it isn’t evident from the scriptures Joseph – rather than being bitter found ways to serve irrespective of his circumstances. Finding a place to serve where God intends, rather than where we think that place might be, demonstrates humility that is not easy.
In Jeremiah 29:13 we learn: You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Today I suggest that we follow the inspirational example of Joseph and his patience through adversity as he waited to better understand his call. Discernment to call can be a life-long process. God’s call to us may be different at the various seasons of our life and they may become evident during times of adversity. In Hebrews we learn that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Waiting can be discouraging, it can test our patience and our faith. I know from personal experience this can be true. It is my prayer that we will be blessed as we answer God’s calls to us.
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