We are given many special characters in scripture. Men and women who were called to be saints and who lived their lives according to the spirit of righteousness. They refused the evil and chose the good, as Isaiah says in chapter 7. They modeled for us how to grapple with a challenging and sometimes disastrous world; how to look for the light of God’s countenance and how to listen for signs, some as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. I’m not sure why Isaiah writes that we should listen for God in such a dark and lifeless place as Sheol, as it is defined as a kind of underworld. Perhaps he is suggesting that we can hear the voice of God, even in our most desperate times and places.
Last week Molly reminded us that Advent acknowledges our broken places and reassures us that God is with us, that love exists and that the light will come. Jesus sent word to John in prison that the blind and lame had been healed and that the poor had received good news. Miracles and spectacular signs!
In the Hebrew scriptures God told Moses to throw down his shepherd’s staff and it became a serpent; “don’t be afraid”, God said “grab it by the tail.” Moses grabbed it and it became a staff again. God’s omnipotence was dramatically demonstrated. The burning bush was on fire, but it was not consumed by the flames, God was present there. Last week the choir sang a beautiful setting of Mary’s Magnificat; her response to the angel Gabriel who appears to Mary in awesome glory and explains the unexplainable to her and gives her an invitation. And she says yes!
Signs of God’s presence do show up in extraordinary and ordinary places.
I like the idea that signs in modern times are less like these miraculous and spectacular wonders, and more like evidence of what God wants us to do with our lives. God breaks through into our lives too. God’s signs show up in ordinary places, less likely to be flames and visions; more likely to be a gentle reminder, a nudging, a feeling.
I am especially drawn to this passage from Mathew’s gospel about Joseph of Nazareth. These days I take great delight in watching my three adult sons become wonderful fathers. It is one of my greatest joys. I see them struggle with all the challenges and confusions of modern family life. I see that they often don’t have time to stop, look and listen, when faced with difficulty; their lives are full and it takes time and practice to slow down, to take a few deep breaths and circle back to what they know really matters. Paul reminds us in the first letter to the Romans, that we are called first and foremost to belong to Jesus Christ, to live into the grace and apostleship we have been given, however that manifests itself in our lives.
Joseph was a 1st century Jewish carpenter, who according to tradition was engaged to Mary, a young virgin. Mary appears in many gospel stories. The angel Gabriel appears to her to announce that she will bear the Christ child; she visits with her relative Elizabeth who (miraculously) will be the Mother of John the Baptist. Mary is with Jesus when the Magi come bearing gifts and she carries him through the desert on the flight to Egypt. We do not get a thorough portrait of Marys’ life, but we feel we know her intimately thru the Annunciation, the Christmas story and the Passion of Christ. Joseph is mentioned fewer times, very briefly and only in relationship to others in the gospel stories of John and Luke. The writer of Matthew’s gospel seems to feel that Joseph’s position as earthly father to Jesus is more important to explore than the other writers did. I agree with Matthew that Joseph’s story is an important one. Jesus surely needed an earthly father, God and human that he was. Jesus, like Joseph, and like all of us, would be faced with the full spectrum of human life…profound joy and unbearable agony.
Matthew’s gospel begins with a long genealogy which traces Jesus’ lineage from Abraham through David for fourteen generations, ending with ‘Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born”. Joseph has royal lineage. Then follows the passage we hear today.
Joseph is engaged to the young girl Mary. I read that the Jewish custom at that time was that marriage was a two-step process, the first being a legal contract followed later by the bride joining her husband in his home. After the marriage contract is signed, Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant. Imagine what an overwhelming situation this must have been for Mary and Joseph. In 1st century Nazareth the stigma associated with unmarried pregnancy or adultery could lead to much disaster, everything from social disgrace to death by stoning. Joseph’s initial impulse was to break the marriage contract. I like to think that before he did anything, he did what I usually try to do when faced with trouble… he took a nap. During that nap, an angel came and told Joseph not to be afraid, that Mary’s child came from God and that the child would save us all. Joseph was a righteous man and a devout Jew, and in spite of the somewhat terrifying dream message, Joseph heard the angel and he decided to accept God’s invitation and take on the challenge of partnering with Mary and raising and protecting this mysterious infant.
Joseph the good father was there in the stable, and on the dangerous flight to Egypt. He was there in the temple, and he rejoiced with Mary at the words of Simeon and Anna. Perhaps above all, Joseph knew that he, in the end, could not protect this child. He knew, as we know, that life would sometimes be full of profound joy and sometimes life would be full of the bread of tears. Still, he listened to God-within and accepted the call to belong to Jesus Christ as we must also listen and accept.
Are we, like Joseph, listening for evidence of what God wants us to do in our lives? In this busy and (for many) challenging Christmas season, will we, like Joseph say yes to God’s invitation? Let us walk these next few steps with Joseph and Mary to the stable, listening, looking and ready to say yes.
Somewhat regularly my 5-year-old grandson says, hey Gugga, “who is God anyway”? I usually start with saying that I don’t know, that I’m always learning about that; then I segue into something about I think God is your super powers of kindness and Love. Wes being Wes, is fine with this, I think he’s trusting.
On this Trinity Sunday, I’m wondering if the Holy Trinity can help us imagine who God is?
I found this online from: “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: (are you ready!) “While the Trinity doctrine purports to solve a range of theological puzzles it poses a number of intriguing logical difficulties akin to those suggested by the identity of spatio-temporal objects through time and across worlds…”
I found a much better resource, this great children’s book written by the late Rachel Held Evans and beautifully illustrated by Ying Hui Tan. (I’ll put it in the children’s corner so you can see it up close.)
What is God Like, by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Turner
Rachel begins by saying that this question of who God is, is a very big one, one that “people from places all around the world have wondered about since the beginning of time.” She says God is too big for anyone to fully see, but we can know what God is like. “God is like an eagle, sharp eyed and swift, with wings so wide you can play under their shadows. God is like a shepherd, brave and good, a protector who loves her sheep so much that she watches over all of them and knows each of their names by heart. God is like a fort, strong and secure with walls that are mighty and safe. Inside there are hidden places to hold you when you’re scared or need a quiet place to rest.” And here, where the kids are in the midst of a cooking project and there is food all over the kitchen: ” God is kind, God is forgiving, God is slow to get angry, God is quick to be glad, God is happy when you tell the truth and sad when things are unfair.” “Keep searching”, Rachel says, “keep wondering, keep learning about God.”
So how can we imagine what God is like? Imagination, that human ability to form ideas or concepts about something which is not obviously present. Imagination is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Imagination is what leads to creativity, and creativity to everything else. God must have had to use the ultimate power of imagination before becoming the Great Maker we believe God to be.
God has given us a fine gift, this gift of imagination. God knew that we, like the disciples, would have difficulty bearing things, that we would need guides along the way. God’s truth, as we know can be difficult stuff; things like love your enemies and do not worry about tomorrow for example. We may not have the answers, but we do all have imagination. Imagination, and all the tools God gives for understanding; some God given, like sight and touch, and some human made. Can our imaginations help us search for ideas about those big questions: who is God? where is God? what is God like, and, as Paul writes, how can God’s love be poured into our hearts, and the Spirit of Truth guide us into all truth.
How can we imagine God in our lives? God in three forms could be a helpful guide.
Have you ever needed a God who is all knowing, all loving, Strong, and sure, like a Mother hen gathering her chicks? This God’s truth is not always easy, but it is always right. This God is the parent who will love you, no matter what? God the Father, God the Mother.
Have you ever known a God who walks beside you, teaching, and encouraging, chastising, and cheering you on? God who endured human pain and suffering and showed us by the resurrection that we don’t need to be afraid of anything. God the sister, God the brother.
Have you ever felt your heart break open and your voice crack when you see the most beautiful sky, or read a poem that speaks to your life or hear music that lifts you up? A friend told me that last Sunday, during the chanting of the creed set to Quentin Faulkners’ beautiful organ music, the hairs stand up on the back of her neck! I’m sure there is a physiological explanation for this, but I believe it’s God the Holy Spirit calling out to us, telling us to pay attention, this is important. Last week in John’s gospel we were reminded that this Holy Spirit, which Jesus called the Advocate, will be sent by God in Jesus name, the Holy Spirit will teach us what we need to know about God’s truth.
Imagine God in a million ways and then, I imagine, we might be better able to understand God’s love and God’s truth and help to spread it in this world.
There are many tools for the imagination and if we look around us here and listen carefully, we will know some of them. We can imagine God’s love and truth in this community of faithful people. We can imagine God in beauty, the flowers and the candlelight, the iconic images, the table and the bread and wine we share, the vessels, and the flowing robes, all ingredients for the imagination. The words we read and the songs we sing. All lovingly human made and all fuel for our imaginations.
The beautiful poem in Proverbs 8 tells us that wisdom and understanding, which God made first, is out there, calling us, raising her voice, in the heights, in the depths of the sea, in front of the town, everywhere, if only we can imagine it.
Here’s a challenge for us this week; let’s try to imagine God every day in a different way. Imagine God and God’s love in glimpses of beauty, birdsong, the flowering tree, and garden, in relationships; the neighbor you don’t know, in the person you lose patience with, in the movement of your very own breath and heartbeat.
God has given us unlimited powers of imagination. We, like the disciples, will always have difficulty bearing and understanding the truth, but the Spirit of Truth will come, if only we can imagine it. Amen
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