Saturday, December 28, 2013

Patience and Uncertainty

Isaiah 63:7-9
Hebrews 10:2-18
Matthew 2:13-23

*****

I am not a particularly patient person. I'll be honest with you, most of the time, I want an answer, a result, a plan, the enactment of said plan, and I want it NOW.

Someone, somewhere, once said, "Instant gratification takes too long." I completely resonate with that.

I want to be the best at everything I attempt. I do not mind working hard for it. I enjoy the effort and attention required to improve in and truly master a specific skill or skill set. But I want the pay off for today's AND tomorrow's hard work to have been handed out yesterday.

And if I'm totally honest with you, and myself, this impatience isn't rooted so much in a desire to "have it all" or even to "have it all NOW." It's a desire for certainty, stability, settled-ness. I want there to be no surprises. I want there to be no chance of fluctuation. I want to know so that I can deeply rest and relax in what is rather than having to constantly worry about whether or not....

This leaves me deeply in awe of the Holy Family and other characters in the story of Jesus.

Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting. Expectant hope is the undercurrent of the season. And it's beautiful. But I'll be honest, if I had been chosen as the mother of Jesus, it would have driven me crazy.

"You, a virgin, will bear a son," Mary is told. There is no timeline given for when Mary would conceive.

With a first child, Mary may not know what to expect during her pregnancy.

Marriage to Joseph surely looks different now that it did just moments before that fateful, celestial visit. This is assuming, of course, that Joseph will still have her.

All kinds of promises have been made about who Jesus will be -- "He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob's descendants forever; his kingdom will never end" and "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too."

Crazy big promises about who Jesus is and who he will be. Again, no indication as to how and when these promises will be fulfilled.

And yet Mary, we are told, ponders all of these things in her heart (Luke 2:19). She accepts this uncertainty, seemingly, with grace.

The Magi, we are told, had a two year journey.

Having seen the star and knowing what it signified (though we are never told how they came by this particular knowledge) they travel to Jerusalem in search of Jesus.

After speaking with Herod, the local ruler, they head toward Bethlehem in accordance with Hebrew prophecy. Again the star that alerted them to Jesus's birth guides them to his very presence.

Two years from the time the star appeared until they completed their journey and Herod, realizing that he had been outwitted, ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem and its surrounding areas. Two years they waited, traveled, searched before finding the answer. Two years before they could bow down to worship the incarnate God.

I often wonder if they knew it would take them two years. And I wonder if they ever had doubts on the journey or just thought about giving up and going home, particularly when there seemed to be no end in sight.

And then we have Joseph. Joseph who is told not to divorce Mary, who is carrying a child that isn't his. Prior to this angelic visit, I imagine there was some uncertainty in Joseph's life concerning his relationship with Mary.

Joseph who was told in a dream that this child his wife is carrying would "save his people from their sins." Joseph who obeyed, though he likely had no idea how or when this promise would be fulfilled.

After this, because of the census, Joseph packs up his VERY pregnant wife and moves their family to Bethlehem for a time. We are not told how long the census took, but with all our electronic devices and organization options and systems for sharing information, the U.S. Census today takes months of labor. It is not then inconceivable that 2000 years ago the census of the entire Roman Empire could take the first two years of Jesus's life and then some.

Then, Joseph is warned in a dream that this child he is raising, who isn't even his, is in danger and that he should move to Egypt until the danger has passed. Joseph is given no time frame for how long he will be in Egypt. He is just told, "Stay there until I tell you."

This isn't like going off to college! When you go off to college you know that you'll be living in a town for four years. You know that you'll be investing in relationships with your peers for four years. You know that at some point, you might get a part-time job to help with expenses, and you'll be doing grunt work at low pay for four years.

Joseph moves his entire family to Egypt with no idea how long he'll be there. Should he invest in building a business or find bit work where he can? Should he jump into a social life and start building relationships right away, or hold back a bit in case he's moved again shortly? Should he buy a home or rent? Contact relatives in short order to tell them where he is, or wait it out?

And then at some point, we are not told how long after the move to Egypt, Herod dies and Joseph is visited by an angel, yet again, in a dream, and told to return to Jerusalem. So, Joseph does.

Joseph shows an unfailing obedience to God. He does things that most people would find crazy: marrying a woman who got pregnant with an other's child DURING their engagement; moving to Egypt in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT; returning to Jerusalem with no warning. He does it all at God's promptings. He must have EXTRAORDINARY trust in God.

What's more, every act of obedience Joseph takes is in accordance with prophecy.

Now prophecy is an interesting thing. Prophecy, even Old Testament prophecy, is not so much a foretelling of the future, but a continual call to God's justice.

When the prophet Hosea wrote "Out of Egypt I called my Son" it was a remembrance of God's deliverance from oppression.

What the prophet Jeremiah wrote --
A voice is heard in Ramah,
     weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children 
     and refusing to be comforted,
     because they are no more."
it concerned the slaughter of Israelites when they were overthrown and taken captive by the Babylonians. It is a call for God's justice in the face of oppression.

When Isaiah wrote  --
This is what the Lord says--
     the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel --
to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, 
     to the servant of rulers:
"Kings will see you and stand up, 
     princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful, 
     the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.
he wrote of a man chosen by God to redeem his people; one who would be despised and abhorred for a time, but worshipped for eternity; the ultimate promise of justice for the oppressed.

But prophecy is not destiny. We all still have choices. We all are granted free-will.

Mary had it. Joseph had it. Even Jesus himself had it.

Now, something you may not know about me is that I have a deep love of the Harry Potter book series. There is a scene in the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in which the nature of prophecy and justice is discussed.

Harry, in a conversation with the headmaster of his school, is told this:
If Voldemort had never heard of the prophecy, would it have been fulfilled? Would it have meant something? Of course not! Do you think every prophecy in the Hall of Prophecy has been fulfilled? .... Harry ... Voldemort made a grave error and acted on Professor Trelawney's words! .... Don't you see? Voldemort created his worst enemy, just as tyrants everywhere do! Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back! [Voldemort] heard the prophecy and he leapt into action, with the result that he had not only handpicked the man most likely to finish him, he handed him uniquely deadly weapons.
This seems to parallel a number of characters in the bible. I'm just going to bring to your attention a few:

Pharaoh's oppression of the Israelites was ended by one who was raised in his own household -- Moses, but not until after the Passover and the angel of the Lord brought death to of all of Egypt's firstborns.

Herod who heard the prophecy of a great king who was born to rule the Jews, responded by calling for the slaughter of the innocents -- all boys two years of age and younger.

Satan who, wanting to be like God, turned against his creator and brought about the downfall of all humankind, separating us from God, bringing spiritual and physical death to our lives, making us slaves to sin, and oppressing our very spirits.

The Lord who used Moses to deliver Israel safely from Egypt; Joseph who following the instructions from an angel of the Lord, fled with his new family to the safety of Egypt; Jesus, the very Son of God and Son of Man who has shared in our humanity so that by his death, he would break the power of him who holds the power of death -- that is, the devil--and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Moses, Joseph, even Jesus...any of them could have said no. Moses tried to, ultimately choosing to obey God but with his brother Aaron at his side. Any of them could have been satisfied with their place in life and said, "No," to God. Even Jesus!

Jesus, who was made like us, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

But it didn't have to be that way. Fully human. Free will. Jesus could have said, "No." But he didn't.

Jesus's birth into strife and slaughter is reminiscent of the Passover and the pascal lamb slaughtered for the salvation of Israel, foreshadowing the death Jesus would suffer for the salvation of all humankind. A promise with no timeline for fulfillment, but once Jesus said, "Yes," it was certain. Jesus said, "Yes" to God and God's plan of salvation and when he did so, his crucifixion became a certainty. Still he chose to obey. Still he chose, everyday, to walk that path.

I'm no fan of road trips though I make several of them. I'm no fan of open-ended plans. I'm no fan of "the journey." I want to get there, where ever and whatever "there" might be. I struggle to trust the process. Will it all end terribly? Will it ultimately be as good as expected? Will I EVER arrive?

Uncertainty when all I really want is stability. Perpetual change and chance and risk when all I really want is safety.

I like to imagine I'm not alone in that. I like to imagine there are others like me who want to know, unequivocally, that it's going to be okay, that the journey we are on is going to turn out good, that we are on the right path, and to know how long we'll be journeying this particular path in our lives.

And I imagine there are those, whom I may never understand, who think the uncertainty of the journey and the element of risk is half if not all of the fun. After all, there are Marys and Josephs in the world who hear the voice of the angel of God and respond without question.

Trust. Obedience. Placing their hope in God. Finding certainty and security in God alone. And why? So many risks that are asked of those who believe, who trust, who respond in obedience.

It reminds me of another great work of literature, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. Having learned about Aslan, a lion and the Christ-figure in the series, Susan asks Mr. Beaver, "Ohhh.... I'd thought he was a man. Is he...quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion." "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Who said anything about safe? Course he isn't safe. But he's good."

Whatever journey you're on this Christmas season, whether you love the uncertainty of the path before you or you hate it, remember that God is faithful and loving and above all God is good. Trust in that, and when you are called to do crazy things, to risk big, to give it all for Him, remember that you have a choice. I hope you choose to trust God.