Thursday, December 19, 2013

December 22, Advent 4, Children of the Light: Joseph's Dream-light

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Today I’m going to talk about your conscience. Your conscience. You prayed about it in our opening collect, when you said, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation.” Your conscience is your inner voice to help you “refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isaiah). It is your inner moral feedback loop, your gyroscope. You develop it as you grow up. An infant doesn’t have one yet, but as you grow up you gradually replace the voice of your parents with the voice of your conscience, an authority external by an authority internal, from obeying your mom to obeying your convictions.

I’m also going to talk about your imagination. Your imagination is the childlike part of you that your growing up should not diminish. It’s often discounted, because it’s so close to dreaming. But it is not the opposite of knowledge, or even of science. Think of Einstein, and Galileo, or Crick and Watson imagining DNA, think about Jefferson and Madison imagining a republic. Think of St. Paul and St. John imagining the desire of God, and of Our Lord Jesus, who had to imagine himself beyond where any human being had ever gone before.

Last week I told you to develop your “moral imagination,” as Nelson Mandela did, developing your innocence through suffering to love. Today I’m calling you to the imagination of belief, the imagination of faith. You need your imagination to believe this gospel, and to project your Christian life ahead of you.

Our first lesson shows you a failure of imagination, the failure of King Ahaz. Isaiah offered him a sign, any sign, and he refused to take it. He needed one, because he was in trouble. Jerusalem was under siege, surrounded by enemy armies, and the people were starving. King Ahaz was invited to ask for any sign he could think of, no matter how dramatic or supernatural. But he wanted to look strong. To ask for a sign would be to look weak, as if he were uncertain.

So God gives him a sign that is very natural, as simple as a young girl giving birth. Such a sign is easily discounted by the skeptical. You have to imagine an ordinary childbirth as the presence of God, Immanuel, God with us. You need the imagination of belief even to regard it as a sign!

In our gospel lesson, Joseph does better. But don’t think it was easy or automatic. The sign that Joseph got was very hard to believe. Who of you takes your dreams literally? Who of you would not recognize your dream as a projection of your wishful thinking? This dream just added to his uncertainties. His first uncertainty had been the character of his fiancé. How could she have done this to him?

And now he had the second uncertainty of whether to credit his dream, whether to believe that his dream had really given him some trustworthy information from God.

And most difficult of all was his third uncertainty, what his dream implied, which was a virginal conception of the baby inside Mary.

You realize that with their notions of biology, the idea of a virginal conception was even more preposterous back then. They did not know about the ovum, the egg that the mother contributes. They thought that the whole life of the baby came from the seed of the father, and that the womb of the mother was passive, like the soil of a garden in which the seed is planted.

You could maybe dream a virginal conception, you could even imagine it, but to depend on that, to take that as a sign from God that you should take this fallen woman as your wife, while it took very little imagine to consider pre-marital sex with someone else — Joseph, you’re dreaming.

How long did he lay there on his bed? Such ordinary things, a pregnant girl, and a crazy dream, that he should take as signs from God? That’s the imagination of belief. It doesn’t make things easier; it often makes things harder. It doesn’t reduce uncertainties, it usually adds uncertainties.

It’s that way with science too. Scientific advances settle some uncertainties and then present new ones, and it takes imagination to keep the advances going. Just so, your Christian faith is how you get at the truth of the world and the truth about yourself. But you will also find that getting at the truth can add to your uncertainties. Which calls for your conscience as well your imagination.

Joseph was a conscientious man. Consider his context. It would not have been illegal back then to have Mary stoned to death. More likely he would have demanded a financial compensation from her father, because marriage back then was still a contract between two men, and the woman was the property exchanged. But he had decided to take a step in charity, to divorce her quietly, that is, without any contest or compensation, so that she could just get married to the father of her child. He is a generous and conscientious man. He is indeed a righteous man.

But as he lies on his bed he can imagine what will happen to his reputation if he believes his dream. Instead of shame on her, shame on you, Joseph, dishonor to your reputation that you had your way with her before you were married. Dishonor to your whole family.

I wonder if he considered his own name: Joseph — that he had the same name as the dreamer of Genesis. That Joseph’s dreaming was the means by which salvation eventually happened to his brothers and his father Jacob, but his dreaming also caused him pain and suffering along the way. Oh my, what are you in for if you believe your dream?

Joseph gets up from bed and decides to believe it all. He steps forward into the unknown, like Noah stepping into the ark, like Moses stepping into the Red Sea, like Peter stepping out of the boat onto the water. You have to go with your imagination. But that’s not all; you also have your conscience to go on. You see it with Joseph when he takes Mary as his wife but does not take his marital rights with her, he holds off from having her. Which is remarkable: he does not treat her as his property.

This becomes the first modern marriage in all of human history, where his wife is not his property. Imagine that. It will take many centuries for mankind to imagine that. Thank you Jesus! You’re not even born yet and already you’re bringing new salvation to human relationships!

Now I can imagine Joseph sometimes thinking: “Why me? Why my wife? Why us? Why couldn’t we have a normal life like other people? Why can’t I have a first-born of my own like other men?” And then he had to depend upon his conscience, his conscience that was formed and developed in his own youth by all the best traditions of Jewish piety, and the daily meditation on the law and the prophets. If you are a righteous Jew, that is how you purify your conscience, that is the daily visitation of God, re-reading and rehearing and re-imagining each day the call of God and promises of God. That is what purifies your conscience and helps you get on with being generous and loving.

If you put these two things together, your conscience and your imagination, you get what St. Paul in our Epistle has called “the obedience of faith.” The obedience of faith is a way of describing the necessary interplay of your conscience and your imagination. The obedience is the conscience part, and the faith is the imagination part. Your faith is necessary so that the internal authority of your conscience depends upon the external promises of God in which you put your faith. Your imagination is necessary so that your conscience can be creative instead of static or frozen or fearful, so that you can get out of bed, like Joseph, and step out into uncertainty with love and generosity. So that you can walk as a child of the light.

All the world is dark around you, but do not be afraid to walk into it, because your light is shining out from you. The light shining out from you is the light of the Spirit of God inside you, “Immanuel, God with you,” God within you, for you are a “mansion” for God. A stable. A manger. You are a manger for God’s birth, and a mansion for the richness of God’s love.

The story of Joseph and Mary is a love story. Not a typical one. But love that conquers fear and shame. Love that enters your uncertainty and empowers you to enter the unknown. This is the love story of God for humanity. This is the story of God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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