Rev Katherine Rainger reflects on the ancient and contemporary desire for peace.
Challenge, expectation and opportunity
Listening will enable us to respond like Joseph responded: with faith, and an open heart.
Daily Reading Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Growing up, one of the ways I knew it was Christmas was the annual reading of Matthew 1:18-25 in Church.
It didn’t seem to matter what church I was in, this reading featured heavily. It is a pity that this is perhaps the only time that many encounter this reading. This is a big shame because this reading really talks about challenges, expectations and opportunities through listening.
In this reading there is the opportunity to see ourselves. Perhaps we are like Mary, unexpectedly pregnant, or in a similar situation of public censure and condemnation. Perhaps we are like Joseph, faced with a pregnant fiancé, knowing it’s not his child, expecting ridicule from community. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel has given us a powerful reading about challenges, expectations and opportunities. How can we listen to these, in our personal lives, in our daily work, and in our interactions with wider society?
Poor old Joseph often gets forgotten except perhaps at Christmas time. Joseph is presented with challenge, expectations and opportunity. The writer tells us that Joseph is a “righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly (1.19)”. He knows the weight of expectations upon Mary and upon himself.
The challenge here is real with societal consequences. Joseph is grappling with a very personal and intimate matter that involves more than himself. He had decided to listen to the voices of community that told him to enforce societal mores. He was going to do this “quietly” and spare Mary as much shame as possible. The opportunity of the Angel visiting Joseph was a moment where he could listen and reflect. He could still decide to dismiss Mary, but we know that he decides otherwise. It becomes clear to us that listening is vital in our responses to both challenges and blessings in life.
Recently, our dad suddenly died with no warning, no goodbyes. A police officer arrived at my home in Melbourne and asked if she could come in. Normally police are never that polite! She gave me the news that Dad had been found ‘deceased’. I had only seen Dad days earlier, full of life, and full of plans. He had lots of Dad jokes too. I struggled. I still struggle. The Creator and I have lots of conversations about this ‘challenge’!
The challenge is how to deal with that huge loss and how to struggle through the necessary arrangements and changes that follow. We know that our dad is with the Creator, we know that he is home, but we are challenged by the suddenness, the unanswered questions. As I grieve, listening has become even more important. I need to respond to this loss in ways that resonate with who I am and what I am called to be. I must respond to the challenge of our loss by listening. Listening to the words of kindness that come. Listening to God’s promise of love and redemption. Listening to Elders who continue to guide me and teach me. The value of sitting on country and doing nothing but listening is so incredibly important when faced with life’s challenges. It is also important in realising the opportunities that we are presented with in times of crisis.
Sometimes we are called to be in a place of challenge like Joseph. This may bring us into conflict with community expectations. But sometimes the challenge is because we have moved away from our calling, seduced by fame or by fortune. Sometimes community speaks loudly by not speaking at all. We need to listen to what is being said and what isn’t being said, so we can respond and grow.
We should always take an opportunity to reflect on what we are being asked to do, how we should respond in ways that are genuine and in keeping with the Creator’s calling for each one of us. Are there signs of confirmation around us? Are there moments of affirmation from our community? Listening will enable us to respond like Joseph responded: with faith, and an open heart.
What challenges do you face this Advent and Christmas season? What expectations are weighing heavily upon you and your family? And what opportunity might present itself if you take a moment to breathe, pray and reflect? What will you hear if you take that moment to listen? My prayer is that you and I continue to respond to the challenges of life like Joseph did - through listening and responding with an open heart. May the Creator bless you in all your challenges, in all your expectations, and in all of your opportunities.
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