Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent Reflections on Joseph: The Power of "With"

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" - which means, "God with us" (Matthew 1:23).

Whether in story or song, we yearn for resolution. We don’t always get it. Some musical composers seem to delight in the discordant, regarding the unfinished sound as artistry. Some writers leave us wondering and guessing, regarding the jagged edges of the tale as closer to reality. They may be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the ear and the mind instinctively seek resolution. We want the chords to progress in such a way that we hear and feel the conclusion of the piece. We like for the varied plot-lines of the story to come together in such way that the fragments form a unified whole. “They lived happily ever after” is what we like to hear.

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth lacks resolution. As we typically read it and hear it read, the story ends nicely enough with Joseph taking Mary as his wife. But while this ending is simple, it isn’t neat. Much is left untold.

The fall-out from the marriage remains untold. Craig Keener writes that “Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation.” And then there’s the little detail about “having no union with her” until the birth of Jesus. They’re married, but not fully married. This isn’t quite happily ever after. Resolution eludes us at the end of Matthew’s story.

There is one line however that helps us make sense of what Joseph did and how he did it. When the Angel spoke the words that the prophet Isaiah had spoken long ago, the child is identified as Immanuel – “God with us.”


“God with us.” That truth is at the core of the Christmas story, and in some way it is at the core of our own stories as well - especially the messy stories, the stories that lack resolution and leave us groping about for what’s next.

The power of “with” changes everything, precisely because it is truly “with.” God present in the varied realities of this day: God with us in all places and all circumstances. God with us in offices and malls, in gyms and courtrooms, on airplanes and tennis courts. God with us in illnesses and in our sleep, in heartache and in love.

The power of “with” tells us that God is not simply “above”: Aloof, distant, watching to see how we’ll manage and whether we’ll screw up. And it also tells us that God is not “against.” The messy story you’re living right now is not punishment or revenge.

We tend to think that when God is with us, the story will always resolve. We sometimes doubt “God with us” because if it were true, life would surely look differently than it does today. Joseph wouldn’t be stuck in a celibate marriage with a pregnant wife, and we’d be getting something other than we’ve got as well.

But “God with us” means that God enters fully into the life you have right now. And if God embraces your life, maybe you can embrace it too. You can do the hard thing and accept the difficult reality – just as Joseph did. And you can do it with deep peace and bold confidence, knowing that ultimately in all things God is working for your good. All things will one day resolve, and until then we live in faith obedience. That’s the power of “with.”

I will claim the Angel’s words to Joseph as your promise to me, O God. You are with us. In Jesus you entered fully into the experience of life and embraced it all. Because you are with us we can do the same. Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we might live fully in you presence today. Amen.

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