When our plans fall apart, look for God

Fourth Sunday of Advent

In the name of God: who finds us where we are, loves us where we are, and guides us on the path to faithfulness.  Amen.

You know how sometimes you’ll encounter some creative act and you think to yourself, “Wow.  I really wish I’d thought of that.”?  For me, it usually happens with writing.  I’ll be reading something and a particularly profound thought will come across on the page – the kind of passage that stops me in my tracks and makes me reevaluate the way I see the world…  And I’ll think to myself, “Wow.  I really wish I’d thought of that.”

Well, this gospel passage, whenever it comes around every three years, reminds me of a particular sermon that I heard on the fourth Sunday of Advent probably 15 or so years ago.  The preacher began by retelling the story.

Mary, this young, unmarried woman, is found to be pregnant.  The Gospel writer is quick to try to calm the ladies in the back who are feeling as if they might faint at the very thought by telling them that the child is of the Holy Spirit.  Clutch your pearls if you must, but don’t faint just yet.  Pay attention.  The story isn’t over.

The thing is, Joseph, the man who was planning to marry this young woman, knew he wasn’t the father.  He knew he wasn’t.  It just wasn’t possible.

He was good man, who was faithful to his religious tradition.  He knew the law allowed for some pretty serious retribution against her.  To put it plainly, he would have been within his rights to call together the men of the town to help him, and they would have stoned her to death. 

But being a man of such faith and of such devotion to the scriptures, he knew that the laws of vengeance weren’t all there were.  He also knew about a God of justice, compassion, and love.  Perhaps it was because of his nuanced understanding of scripture, or perhaps he was driven by heartbreak.  Whatever the cause, he decided to “dismiss her quietly” – to help them both minimize the shame of the situation and to try to move on to some kind of future for themselves.

But just as he came to this decision, an angel visited him in a dream.  The angel told him there was nothing to worry about – that Mary hadn’t been unfaithful.  Really, this situation had come to pass because of deep faithfulness – a new kind of faithfulness that the world had never before known.  The child that was to be born had come from the Holy Spirit.  “So, go ahead and marry her,” the angel said.  “Help her raise the child and become like his father on earth.”

Here’s the part where I wish I’d thought of it first…  The preacher I heard those years ago recounted this story, and exclaimed in summary, “This whole thing is just one pickup truck shy of a shotgun wedding.”

I wish I’d thought of that.  You can just see the angel like a cousin from Duck Dynasty – with a long, gray, unkempt beard; wearing overalls and chewing tobacco; resting the long barrel of a shotgun on his shoulder and saying, “Why don’t you just go ahead and marry that girl.” – more a statement than a question.

But, of course, it’s really not exactly true.  The thing about shotgun weddings is that they are about trying to save face in the face of shame and social pressure.  But this wasn’t about saving face.  In fact, it probably made some things a lot harder – at least harder than the way Joseph intended to proceed.  Instead, this was about being faithful to the will of God – even when that will doesn’t make any sense at all to us.

I really do love this version of the days leading up to Jesus’ birth that we read about in Matthew – and not just because it calls to mind one of the best sermon one-liners I’ve ever heard – but because it tells us a side of the story that we often forget: the story of Joseph.

As a sort of foster father to the Anointed Child of God, his calling was particularly peculiar.  In one moment, the life he’d dreamt for himself was ripped from possibility.  The new love that was blooming was called into question.  And finally, his faith was tested in a way he never could have prepared himself for.  For Joseph, the first Christmas wasn’t exactly as joy-filled as these later ones are for us.  There were no happy memories of Christmases past to hold him up.  There were no established traditions to help him find his way.  He just had to step forward in faith, with his equally unprepared bride, and forge a path.

The experience of Joseph teaches us something important: that God does not need adherence to our standards of perfection or propriety in order to act.  Our standards are just that: ours.  When we’re at our best, our hope is that our standards more closely align with God’s, but God never has to get in line with us.  As tempting as it often is, we don’t need to show God the way.  God already has the way.

And not only does God not need to get in line with our expectations in order to act, sometimes, when we’re farthest beyond our own expectations, that’s when God is most active.  That’s when the ground is most fertile.  That’s where the magic really starts happening.

It’s worth remembering – at the holidays, and really all the time: when plans fall apart, when our dreams seem out of reach, when we’re lost and without any hope, those moments don’t separate us from God.  More than anything, they place us squarely in the fields where God’s plans are already being sown.

We tend to think of Joseph as a sort of supporting player, mostly on the sidelines, really only stepping in now and then to round out the whole – steering Mary on the back of the donkey, filling in the manger scene…  But even though we don’t talk about him much, Joseph was a complicated character: despairing, conflicted, heartbroken, and ultimately faithful.  And, his story is very often more like our own than anyone else we encounter at Christmas.  We, too, are complicated characters, trying to make our way through this story in as faithful a way as possible.

But God doesn’t need our standards of perfection to be God.  God can, and usually does, work with unmolded clay before finally finding the beauty within.  That was true in the story of Joseph, and it will be true in our own lives.  Even when we’re lost, God will find a way.  Amen.