(This message continues an Advent series of stories that re-tell stories of our faith in the belief that God invites us to use our imaginations to hear and see in new ways God’s transforming power among us.)
Stories engage our senses and captivate our thoughts. Come and listen to a story about a time when people were waiting for something and expecting someone who would change everything.
My name is Benjamin. I have no claim to fame. But the story I tell is about people I knew who became well-known throughout the world. I grew up in in an ordinary town among ordinary people. My best friend was a boy named Joseph. Early on we became best friends and remained so for the rest of our lives. We were like brothers. Growing up, we heard the stories of our faith, including the old story of two boys whose names we shared: young Joseph, the one who later became a ruler of Egypt, and his brother Benjamin. Joseph and I loved that story!
As we grew older like other boys we got married and had families. Joseph, however, experienced a lot of loss. He was married twice, but both of his young brides died young. By the time he was thirty Joseph was engaged again, this time to a young girl named Mary. This relationship changed their lives forever—and, in fact, changed the world forever.
One night Joseph came to my door. It was obvious that he was troubled. His voice and his hands trembled. His expression was a combination of confusion and anger—but mostly, fear. When I heard his story I understood why. Joseph told me that earlier the same day Mary had come to him. She said she had to speak to him; it was urgent.
And then Mary told my best friend about an experience she’d had the day before. She was returning home from the market when a hooded figure approached her. He appeared to be one of those who asked for alms in the local public places. But as he came near her and lifted his head it was a face like none other that she’d seen. His eyes were like fire, deep and penetrating. When he spoke it was like hearing the voice of God—not loud and deep, but like something from another world. There in the street, people were walking by, taking care of business, not seeming to notice the stranger; in fact, they didn’t even seem to be aware of Mary’s presence.
The stranger spoke briefly with Mary and then slipped away into the crowd. Later, as Mary shared with Joseph what the stranger had told her, she was strangely calm. I wouldn’t have been calm in that situation. Not if I were Mary. Not if I were Joseph! Because the stranger had told Mary that she was pregnant, and that her child would be great. Could this be the long- awaited King who would set our people free from Rome?
But who would believe such a story? Mary must have been so afraid. If it was true that she was pregnant who would believe such a story? She was only fourteen years old. Her life was in the balance. If Joseph didn’t believe her story legally he had the right to put Mary to death.
I’ve known Joseph all my life. He is a man of great patience and compassion. He’d had many opportunities to practice these virtues, especially since when he himself had experienced great loss he had been blessed by the care of others in his faith community. I also think that because Joseph had already experienced two losses that were beyond his control he didn’t want to experience another loss, even if it meant the possibility that his fiancé had been unfaithful to him. So, instead of flying off the handle, Joseph asked questions. He said, “Mary, do you believe it’s true? And if so, why?
Well, as Joseph later told me, Mary’s conversation with the stranger was full of signs that pointed to the power of the Holy One, the Divine, the one whose name we dare not speak. Joseph said to Mary, What convinces you that this is true? Was it the appearance of the stranger—his eyes or his voice? No, Mary said, it wasn’t that.
What, then—was it something he said? Was it that he said you have found favor with God? Was it that he mentioned my ancestor David, hinting that the child to be born was the new David? Joseph asked. No, Mary said, it wasn’t so much that.
Mary paused, and Joseph told me it seemed like forever before she spoke. Mary answered, I believe what the stranger said to me is true because he said, “Do not be afraid.” This is the message that the Holy One has given to our people at every turn. When something seemed impossible to do or believe, the Holy One would send a messenger, and that messenger would always say, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.”
Mary was quick to add, But I am afraid, Joseph. I am afraid.
I’m afraid, too, Joseph said. I need time to think about what you’ve told me. I don’t know what to think.
That’s when Joseph came to me, troubled, confused, afraid. We talked for a long time—well, I should say he talked. I mostly just listened. But maybe that’s all Joseph needed from me. After our conversation as he left, I didn’t know what he was going to do. Would he cut off the engagement? Would he have Mary punished? Killed?
But against all odds Joseph trusted Mary. It was a huge scandal in the area—all kinds of nasty gossip. And after the child was born it didn’t take long for kids his age to taunt him with jokes about who his real father was.
And yet, as this child named Yeshua, who would later be known to the world as Jesus, grew up, people knew that he was different, something special. And he had a way of turning the jokes about his real Father around when he spoke of his Father in heaven. Many continued to scoff; but many others listened.
Turns out that Joseph loved his son, taught him the tools of his carpenter trade. I was just sorry Joseph didn’t live long enough to see his son find his voice, and to see that he would become a source of hope and healing for many who heard him preach and teach.
And I was converted, too. I confess that I started out skeptical of Mary’s story but as her son grew to be a man I often heard him, and what stuck with me most was these words: Don’t be afraid. Like many before him, including his own mother, these words of comfort and assurance convinced us that there is hope and that we are never alone. Even though we are afraid, the Holy One invites us to step out in faith.
We leave this story here and return to our own time and our own place to watch and prepare for Jesus, who has come to change everything and will come again.
Questions to Ponder
- What is the most important point of each of today’s readings? What questions occur to you?
- Where do you find yourself in the readings? What troubles you? What encourages you?
- Today’s readings offer examples of God’s people seeing signs of God in their world. Where do you see God at work in the world? In your own life?
- Bible stories typically provide very little detail about the lives of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and many others. To what extent is imagination part of your relationship with God? How might you re-tell Advent and Christmas stories, according to your experience and understanding?
- Advent is about waiting for God. To what extent does God wait for us?