Year A Advent 4: playing the fool

You have to wonder how many times Joseph had that dream. I mean, once is good; but after a few days, a weeks, wouldn’t you find yourself wondering all over again what was going on, worrying whether you had been made out a right royal fool? And then, perhaps, the dream would return, the angel so clear, so present that its light was like the daytime and its message the voice of God; and Joseph would waken and see his wife, Mary, and decide, yet again, that it was worth seeing this through, this strange thing that had come to pass; that he would take a risk on her, on God, on the angels, on this unusual, unexpected baby.

It must have been a decision he had to make time and time again, daily as he woke. It must have been the last resolution he made before he went to sleep, to make it again tomorrow. I wonder how many times he had that same, recurring dream.

We know that Joseph was visited more than once in his dreams; later, he was warned to take his family across the border as refugees, ahead of the genocide that was about to be visited on his people. Later still, the angel of his dreams called him home, sounding the all-clear and promising, once again, to go with him, at least in his dreams.

There would be people who would think Joseph soft in the head, to listen to such night stories, to listen to Mary’s stories, to have such trust and such faith; there would be people who thought him a fool. But Joseph knew, one day at a time, that God was with him. Joseph trusted, one day at a time, that God would not leave him. Joseph decided, one day at a time, not to leave Mary, or the baby, but to become his father, and know himself blessed to do so.

The genealogy of Jesus the Matthew sets out makes Joseph the son of David; so Jesus, “son of David according to the flesh,” became Joseph’s son somehow in a very real sense, when he chose to make it so. We all know that there is more than one way to make a family, and the gospel blesses and embraces us by choosing a non-traditional family for the Son of God to be born into.

Still, there would be those who thought Joseph a fool.

The Bible’s answer is, the fool is the one who says in his heart, “there is no God” (Psalm 14:1). The Bible’s answer is, the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom (1Corinthians 1:25). God is not afraid to look foolish, even to the point of gurgling and cooing like a baby. Jesus didn’t fear looking foolish in front of the crowds at the foot of the Cross. Fear of being made out a fool is our problem, not God’s.

We fret about what to wear, how to act, what to bring to the party. We wonder if the person we just helped when they were short of change at the coffee shop really was broke, or just canny. We worry that it may be too innocent to hope for peace in a violence-riddled neighbourhood, let alone a war-torn world. We consider that if we talk to frankly about God, about Jesus, about our feelings for each other and ourselves, we will look naïve and unsophisticated; so we guard ourselves and end up feeling lonely and anxious instead.

Well, I’ve looked a fool enough times to tell you, I believe it all. I don’t know what it all means, and I frankly don’t need to know all of the intimate details of how it all happened, but I believe, I trust, I know that at the conception and birth of Jesus, God entered the world in a new and totally unexpected way; that God was born into our world, into our history, into our DNA, in order to love us more closely and restore us to the relationship that God had intended for us at creation; and every time I really think about what it meant for God to be born of Mary, I fall in love all over again.  I get so excited that I want to shout it from the rooftops (I wonder who else I might meet up there by the chimney pots!). I love that God loved us so much that the ultimate divinity would take on the ultimate in humanity, the utterly vulnerable, utterly dependent form of a child, of suspect parentage and insecure birth, in order to save us from our cynicism and our sin.

I know it’s still Advent. Some of you may be shocked to hear me using the C-word before Tuesday, but I told you, I’ve looked a fool enough times to risk it once more. I believe that Joseph did the right thing, believing his dreams, and following them. I believe that he loved Mary, and that he loved Jesus and fathered him as best he could. I believe that his willingness to be a fool for love, a fool for God, a fool for Jesus is one of the best examples of Christian discipleship we could have, and that before Christianity had even been invented.

There was more to the story. The dream that sent Joseph scurrying for the refugee camps; the dream that called him home to start over. We still see his kind, refugees pouring across war-torn borders, carrying their children, their few small belongings, trying to outrun death. We still see those who settle as immigrant, or those who return from war, or from prison or from poverty, struggling to start over, to make ends meet. We know those returning from illness, from bereavement, from sorrow, struggling to build a new life out of the ashes of the old.

We know something about new life, just as Joseph did. We know that there is still hope for that peace on earth that the angels proclaimed, just as Joseph did. If we are just faithful enough, just foolish enough, we might even recognize it when we see it, in a sleeping child, or a friend’s hand on a shoulder, a gift of food, an embrace. If we are truly faithful enough, foolish enough, we might even find opportunities to be that new life, that friend, that gift that reminds the foolish that God is still good, God is always good.

[I know I keep talking about the Euclid prayer walks, but I can’t help it: on our first walk, a woman of the city described how she had dreamed that the people of the city would come together and form a human chain, holding hands along Euclid Avenue, ringing the city with their prayers. God still visits our dreams; and dreams can come true.]

The promise of Advent is that Christmas, the Incarnation, was a unique event, but it was not a one-off. Like Joseph’s presumably recurring dream, we expect Christ to come again. Our Collect for this last Sunday of Advent invites God to make daily visitations to our conscience, to remind us one day at a time that God is still with us, and will come again and again, one day at a time, to help us.

If Joseph was a fool, to listen to those recurring dreams, then I think that I would rather be a fool than a wise man, because Joseph got to live out the rest of his days delighting in Jesus, seeing God at play in the world, Jesus at play in his own hearth and home.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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