When our first child was about two and a half years old we thought it would be fun to take her to a Disney movie in the theater. We jumped on the idea quickly and had just enough time for her to finish her lunch of nutritious SpaghettiOs, grab a sippy-cup of milk and head out. We excitedly purchased our tickets, bought an obligatory bucket of popcorn with so-called butter on it, and headed to seats in the back row. It was fun. She was mildly interested in what was on the screen. She dug into the bucket of popcorn happily with greasy little fingers until….it wasn’t so fun. She fussed a little bit. (We quickly became those parents!) Garrett headed out to settle her down while I continued to watch the movie. They were gone for longer than I expected. Suddenly he showed up in our row, holding a limp little girl. Even in the dark theater I could see that his white button-down oxford was no longer white. He motioned with his head for us to leave, the kind of message that leaves no doubt about the needed course of action. When we got out into the lobby I could see that he was covered with a pale orange substance all over his work shirt. The rushed lunch of SpaghettiOs (which is questionable as a food group anyway!), milk and popcorn had been too much for a toddler’s tummy. In the safety of her daddy’s arms she had let loose her wretched stomach. We drove home after a failed but memorable first movie outing as mommy and daddy.
There are moments that mark us as parents and we realize that we’re in deep with this tiny little bundle that has turned our lives—and hearts—upside down!
I remember visiting a parishioner years ago in my first church. He and his wife were moving from a large home to a condo. They would be leaving the area so I stopped by to wish them well. Just the husband was home. They had a daughter in her early 20’s who had the mental capacity of a three-year-old. She was mobile and able to follow simple instructions but required continual guidance. This relocation was significant because the daughter would be moving into a group home for the first time as her 60-year old parents moved into their new life. They had known for quite some time that they needed to set her up in a long-term living situation because they wouldn’t always be there to care for her. So this became the topic of conversation between us.
I asked him how he was doing with the move. He immediately spoke of his heartache over putting their daughter in a new home. He said he would miss the rhythm she gave to each morning. He got up at 5:30 to shower and enjoy a cup of coffee. Then he awakened her at 6:30, turned on the water for her and she was able to shower on her own. He helped her get dressed and used the blow dryer and hairbrush to ready her hair for the day. She sat down to a breakfast he had prepared and they chattered happily together before the bus arrived to take her to her adult daycare program. In the evenings she played contentedly in the home and her parents tucked her into bed each night with prayers. More than two decades of loving investment poured into this girl who would now become the responsibility of others. I was deeply moved by the love of this daddy who knew he was doing what was best for his child but was heartbroken as he let her go. Her diagnosis at birth of severe cerebral palsy had been very challenging. But now, when it was time for her to leave the nest, the tears flowed readily.
We have a beautiful story in Matthew’s first chapter that gives us an insight into the man entrusted with the care of Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God. Joseph, we are told, learned that his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant though they weren’t yet married. This was scandalous and an obvious affront to their relationship. So God connected with Joseph in a dream. The angel named the Holy Spirit as the other parent of this unborn child. Joseph was urged to proceed with the wedding plans since Mary’s pregnancy was God’s work, not anyone else’s. In the genealogy of the Messiah that precedes this passage there is one man after another who is named as “the father of” somebody, who becomes the father of the next generation. When it comes to Joseph something is amiss. Awkwardly it states, “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” The unusual wording around Joseph reeks of scandal that we can be sure lingered over their family always.
Joseph was not a man of few words. In the gospels he was a man of NO words! He is described as being righteous. If your fiancée showed up pregnant in 1st century Israel, the righteous thing to do would be to divorce her. The more vindictive option was to have her stoned. So Joseph’s decision was the more compassionate. He did it quietly because he didn’t want to subject her to public disgrace. This was a man whose heart had broken by the apparent infidelity of his future bride. These are remarkable actions given that he lived in a patriarchal society that would punish to the fullest extent this affront to his manhood. Quietly, privately Joseph made plans to terminate their engagement.
So God got involved. Joseph wasn’t given a vision or a burning bush to assure him that he was really in a holy conversation. He was given a dream. I wonder what it would take for us to believe impossible news? Would we awaken from sleep and act on a message we received in a dream? Or would we write it off as nonsense that typifies our dream narratives? Joe got up and quietly did the unconventional thing: he married her. He made a commitment to become her husband—and a daddy. When the baby was born Joseph was given the power to name the child. Naming privileges go to a parent, right? As he held that tiny boy in his arms in the subdued light of a stable, he pronounced the name he could still hear from the dream nine months earlier: Jesus. God arrived in human form in the quiet of the night to a young couple who had the courage to believe in a dream.
When did God get your attention in such a way that you stepped outside of your usual boundaries to do what you were told? Grand Rapids Griffins announcer, Eric Zane, walked down the stairs in his home one day and said out loud the name of a classmate from high school. He hadn’t been in contact with the man or even thought of him for ages. But something nagged at him and led him to look the man up. He had a successful career in film and was living in Los Angeles. Eric went on Facebook and discovered, much to his surprise, that this former classmate had already sent him a friend request, which he accepted. After a volley of several messages, Eric learned that this man was in an advanced stage of kidney failure. The two connected by phone and, as he learned about his classmate’s condition, Eric distinctly heard a voice in his mind say, “do my will.” In that very moment he decided to donate a kidney to this long-lost companion. He told the incredulous friend of his intentions and they both started the testing procedure to see if he was a match. He was. And so last Wednesday, in the thick of the pandemic, this Hudsonville announcer boarded a plane, wearing as much personal protection equipment he could find, to be taken to an LA hospital to donate part of his body. Reacquainted after 30 years, these two men are now bonded as brothers because God planted a message in the heart of someone who listened and obeyed.
When did you or someone you know just get up and go because God got hold of you?
In his dream Joseph was given just enough information for the present moment. He didn’t ask for nor did he receive a contract that spelled out the complete range of responsibilities he would have with this boy. He obeyed God even though there’s stigma attached. They travelled to his hometown of Bethlehem to be registered for a census. Yet there was no family to welcome them or offer them lodging. That would have been common hospitality in that time. On this very first Christmas there was no joyous homecoming of Joe with his relatives. Had word of his sudden and suspicious marriage reached them? We don’t know if this marriage cost him his family ties. What we do know is that his “yes” to God meant that this unwed mother was now his wife and this baby boy made him a daddy, a daddy who got to choose his name.
Like so many other Biblical stories we learn from this that God is at work in our very imperfect lives. Aaron Klink writes, “That is the message part of this text brings—that unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work.” When have you failed to live up to your image of a perfect Christmas? When did your plans fail—and God blessed you beyond your wildest dreams? In this Christmas of 2020, when so many cherished traditions must be put on hold, where are you seeing God at work in your life? Where is God using you for the good of others?
In Matthew’s Gospel the word “birth” in speaking of Jesus’ arrival, translates as Genesis. Perhaps that’s why Matthew’s Gospel is the one that separates the Old from the New Testament. In Jesus’ birth there is a Genesis, a new creation, that offers promise to a world that is covered in their own sin. Do we need a savior and, if so, from what? From aimlessness, narcissism, loneliness, sickness, prejudicial behavior and despair? Jesus arrives just in time for those finding refuge at Mel Trotter Mission, for those separated from their parents at border camps, for single parents who are hanging on by a prayer and folks who get in line for a couple of boxes of food the night before distribution. What are our moments of exile from which we need saving? Will we hear the words given us in the night? Will we follow the nudging? Or will we write it off as a bad night’s sleep?
The definition of righteous is one who is morally right, virtuous, or justified. Joseph may not have had any speaking parts but we are blessed to meet a man who was righteous before God. We are inspired by a single man who quietly did what was right even though it flew in the face of all that was acceptable. We are in awe of a guy who accepted the responsibility—the gift—of raising the Messiah, a boy that was not his own flesh and blood. And, because of a whisper in the night, he became his daddy. Abba. Papa. But really just daddy.