Silent Joseph Speaks

Preached at St. John’s Cathedral in Saskatoon this morning on Mathew 1:18-25. Of all characters featured in the Advent Scriptures, we never hear Joseph speak his own words. So I decided to give him a voice:

Good morning everyone. I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar – my family line goes back to King David. So Matthew wrote about me in his Gospel – I guess you could call it my Annunciation (you know, Annunciation – to announce …) Some announcement it was all right! Embarrassing and shocking to say the least, to find the woman I was engaged to with child – and I knew it wasn’t my child! You know, in our days to be “betrothed,” engaged, carried more weight than it does in your day today. To be engaged meant that formal words of promise were exchanged. Mary and I had entered a sacred covenant with each other. In the Law of Moses, in the eyes of the people, Miriam – my dear Mary – was already my wife. But she would still live with her parents for another year or so, before I would come in procession to get her, to bring her into my home and into our bridal chamber.

So imagine my horror when I learnt Mary was pregnant! How could I ever go through with the marriage now??! The Law of Moses was crystal clear on what to do with an unfaithful wife – cast her aside, stone her! But I could never do this to my beloved Mary – I loved her way too much. But neither could I dismiss the Law of the Lord. O my God, what to do?? My heart was breaking and I was terrified. I had many sleepless nights with tears of agony …

Then when I finally slept for sheer exhaustion, that night I had a dream. In the dream a figure like an angel spoke to me: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Do not be afraid?! How could I not be?! And a child … from the Holy Spirit?! What if your daughter or wife comes home and tells you that? But the angel went on with words that rang a distant bell in my mind, a bell of insight in my fear-stricken mind and my breaking heart: “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Where had I heard these words before?

Now you need to know that I loved God. I loved Mary, of course, but I also loved God – fiercely. It was important for me to live according to God’s ways all my life. I wanted so much to be counted as righteous before the Almighty. So I made sure to ponder the Scriptures often, especially the prophets.

And now as I tried to make sense of the dream, my familiarity with the prophets paid off. I recognized the words of the angel –they echoed Isaiah’s words: “The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel…” Really? Hmm … Mary was a virgin all right, that I knew … or I thought I knew … but what if God … hmm …

Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t all honkie-dorie right away. I was still scared to death – literally. But now the situation with Mary began to look differently. And I wondered if I … was being called to something new … but to what though? Should I put my trust in the law of Moses or trust Isaiah’s words that God was indeed up to something brand new through my dearly beloved fiancée Mary? Should I quietly divorce Mary to minimize scandal, or risk taking her into my home, name the child Jesus, and be his father?

At first part of me said: “Come on, it’s just a dream!” I’m sure you’ve said that about your own dreams at times. But hold on a minute … Even your modern day psychology considers dreams as bringing messages from the unconscious, so don’t dismiss them too quickly. In my day there was no such psychology wisdom, but we had the Holy Book. And that Book did tell me too not to dismiss dreams, but to take them seriously. I remembered my ancestor Jacob – he had dreams. My namesake Joseph was betrayed and sold by his brothers, and grew up in Egypt – he was known as a dreamer. But that talent eventually helped him to save our people. There was King Nebuchadnezzar whose sleep was disturbed by unsettling dreams for many nights. Eventually he turned to Daniel to interpret them. And what do you think of the prophet Joel’s words:

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams (that’s me!), and your young men will see visions.”

So I slowly realized that my dream could have a message too, a divine message that helped me overcome my fear. I took a deep breath – don’t forget to breathe when you’re afraid – and took my dearly beloved pregnant Mary as my wife. And the rest is history as we say.

But, you might wonder what all this has to do with you here in Saskatoon in 2016? Well, let me tell you what I learnt through all this.

One, God continues to speak to us in all time and place. But … God’s speaking is not always black and white. To really hear and recognize God’s speaking we first need to orient our entire lives towards his plan for us, long before the cryptic messages arrive in our dream inbox. If our hearts and minds are steeped in our sacred tradition, grounded in the ways of God, this will both anchor us and give our lives purpose and meaning. The wisdom of our faith tradition will be a trustworthy guide. At the same time this wisdom tradition always needs to remain open to a new future – always. We can never regard it as exclusive and absolute, as our God is a God of new life and surprises at all times. Take it from me – I know from experience! Do both: listen to God’s wisdom in the tradition and wrestle with the complexity of life, while leaving room for the possibility that God might want to bring about something new in and through you.

Two, by risking to trust the new thing God was doing in and through Mary with her son Jesus, I made “my” son Jesus the most important reason for living and loving, and I’m so grateful now that I did.Now in your modern day and age, you are seduced to put your trust in many other things besides God and Jesus. In fact, it’s pretty ironic that this season of waiting for the birth of the Messiah has become the peak consumer season of the year. So many people put their trust in material things, thereby neglecting the things of heaven that will last. So many forget that we cannot take any of our possessions with us when we die. The only things that will cross over from this life into the next is love and mercy – love and mercy given and received. That is what Jesus came to teach us and to show us. So, will you make the Christ, Emmanuel, the centre of your life, the reason for all your loving and living? Will you commit to live and love and forgive like Jesus? I did, and it was worth all the risks. I’m so proud of my adopted Son, the Christ.

Last but not least, don’t dismiss your dreams. Try to listen to them; you might be surprised what you can learn from them. A wise person in your modern time once explained the importance of dreams as follows: ”Dreams are the perfect way to hear from God. When you are dreaming, you are quiet, so you can’t ignore God. Plus, you are not easily distracted. You’re basically all ears for about 7 hours every night.” 

Our dear friend Job in the Holy Book reports the same thing with different words: For God speaks again and again, though people do not recognize it. He speaks in dreams, in visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they lie in their beds. He whispers in their ears…

 If you have trouble interpreting your dreams, you have psychology to help you along with the Holy Book. It’s not easy, though, and you will wrestle and feel fear. Sometimes dreams urge you to heal from past hurts – those too are messages from God. Messages from God are not intended to make life easy, but rather to make life rich and worth living. Remember that God desires us our fullest potential, a potential that reflects God’s own divine image and likeness. And God’s messages are not a one-shot deal either, but an ongoing challenge. If you read on in the Gospels, you know that for me the dreams kept coming:

“Joseph, wake up – Herod wants to kill the child – take him and his mother to Egypt.” “Joseph, wake up – Herod is dead – take the child and his mother back to Nazareth.” Now, looking back, I can honestly say that it was worth all the anxiety and gut-wrenching fear. Jesus grew in wisdom and strength and grace. And I was one proud husband and father.

So don’t be afraid to put your trust in God, even if that leads you into unusual places and decisions. At the end of your life, I pray that you can join me in saying: what a ride it was, worth all the blood, sweat and tears. Then you will be ready for your final and most complete act of trust – to hand over your life to the One from whom your life came in the first place. There is nothing more amazing than this.

You will not hear me speak words in Scripture, but I am grateful you have given me a hearing today. I thank you for your patient listening. And give Jesus a chance – he’s really worth it. One more week until his birth is celebrated. As I, Joseph, descendant of David, retreat back into the shadows of the Holy Book, know that I pray that your heart be ready to receive my son. AMEN

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What’s in a name?

One day my book editor told me that I’m affectionately called the “Hyphenated One” at his office. I sighed. Even after living in Canada for over thirty-five years, I still have to fight to keep my long name. I had a medical appointment recently. “Marie Ternier, please,” the receptionist called out in the waiting area. I didn’t recognize my name, and she called a second time. “Marie Ternier, please.” I got up. “The name is Marie-Louise, with a hyphen,” I said, “and Ternier-Gommers, with another hyphen: my married name first, Ternier, followed by my maiden name, Gommers. The order is Dutch. Computers hate my name, but truly, I’m never called Marie.” The receptionist barely took note of my speech. I went home and mused. What indeed is in a name?

“Marie-Louise Colletta Cornelia Josepha, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the priest likely said as he poured water over me at 3 days old in Tilburg, the Netherlands. While names are unique to each person they also connect us to our past: my middle names come from my father, my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother

But even though the hyphenated stuff is a real headache in this country, I could not part with it. Hyphenated names are very European, very French in fact, and not just when your name finds itself at the end of a line and needs to be cut in two. I grew up with Marie-Louise, I respond to Marie-Louise – esp. when pronounced the French way (why a Dutch girl should care about that is a story for another time). Pre-owned is fine, first-class is fine, even clear-headed is fine. But not names for some reason; somehow it is assumed that a name such as mine surely would have been shortened long before I could even say it myself.

Our name is very unique to us: “By name I have called you, by name I have saved you; by name you are mine, you are precious to me.” (lyrics based on Isaiah 43:1) Often parents wait to name their newborn until they’ve laid loving eyes on her/him, to make sure the name “fits.” Biblical names remain among the most popular and “durable” ones in every time and place, grounding a child into a rich and deep heritage.

For a name shapes our character and becomes integral to our identity. The fact that name–calling can cut so deeply into us (and I certainly had my fair share of that as a child) merely serves to illustrate even more how very personal our name is.

Scripture says that God knows us by name; Scripture also tells us that God’s name is as important as ours. I love the realization that God calls us by name. Several biblical figures who had a major encounter with God undergo a name change: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Hadassah was known as Esther, Levi became Matthew, Saul was also known as Paul. When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus in the garden but did not know it was him, she only recognized him when he called her name: “Mary.” In the monastic tradition it was customary to change one’s name as one made the life-long commitment to religious life. Initiation rites for young adolescents in aboriginal cultures involve being given a new name. Somehow our name is an intimate aspect of our identity before God and the world.

In the ancient world to know the name of something also denoted to gain a certain power over. Some of that is still true today: each one of us recognizes her/himself by their name. Addressing someone by their first or given name implies a certain familiarity and intimacy. Addressing someone by their last name implies a formal or distant relationship.

The most intimate name I know is Jesus, one who was named by the angel at conception: “You shall name him Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us” (hey, another hyphenated name:)). Jesus showed us in word and deed what it looks like to live to the fullest of our human potential in a God-like manner – fully human and fully divine. That is the deepest desire of my heart: to become all that God is calling me to become after the example of Jesus the Christ. No wonder St Paul recognized Jesus as deserving of the highest honour: “Therefore God hasWhatName1 highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “ (Philippians 2:9—11)

So once in a while reflect on your name; recall how it has shaped who you are and how you live your life. And always remember God loves you and calls you by name, your first name. In fact, God has carved your name in his heart while he holds you close in the palm of his hand. As for me, I’m keeping my hyphens. This two-in-one name has shaped my character and my self-identity. l Besides, I wouldn’t want to risk arriving at heaven’s door and not recognize when I’m being called: Marie-Louise. If I’m being called that is.

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