Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Wilderness of Waiting

Scriptures for Sunday, December 4th


How many of you have ever driven a long distance to go on vacation?  Have you experienced the phenomena by which the trip there seems to take forever but the trip home seems shorter?  In studying the common occurrence, psychologists tell us that our anticipation of something changes our experience of it
We experience that with Christmas too. 
Do you have a child in your life who just can’t wait till Christmas?
How do they respond to the anticipation?
Have you ever seen a child so anxious with anticipation they were about ready to burst?
Its one thing when we anticipate something good coming.  At times, the anticipation of something wonderful can be even more exciting than the thing itself.
But, what if what you are anticipating is not so pleasant.
Have you ever waited with someone as they anticipate bad news?  As they wait on news about cancer results?  Or as they anticipate the dissolution of a marriage.  Or the collapsing of the job.
Though the event itself is traumatic, the anticipation of it can be even worse.
In those moments, our temptation can be to run.  Even though I am a pastor, I have to admit to struggling to endure with someone who is going through considerable pain.  Especially if that pain is drawn out.  It wears on them.  It wears on me.  At times, I just want to run, to save myself.  In those moments, I can at times lash out or grow embittered toward the very person I am trying to help because they have become such an emotional drain on my life.
It is in the context of this that we can use our imagination to think through Joseph’s experience of the nativity.
We shared last week that the wedding plans were going smoothly until something unexpected and strange happened. Mary is with child and not by Joseph. Her story of a visitation by an angel is bizarre and borders the unbelievable. 
So here is Joseph-  engaged to a woman who the world would think ill of.
Either they would think Joseph got her pregnant out of wedlock
Even worse-  that she had cheated an Joseph and was no longer a virgin.
Either way, Joseph’s reputation was trashed.  This despite the fact that scripture indicated he was a righteous man.  Thus, he may have been greatly respected, but that was all for naught now.  
But he evidently cared more for Mary than his own reputation as he chooses “to dismiss her quietly.”
I don’t think we understand how agonizing a decision this would have been for him.  His reputation is on the line.  
As a righteous man, what he should have done to maintain his integrity is to dismiss her publicly.  Likely, the best way to preserve his reputation was by dragging her to the village square, publicly proclaim her adultery and have her stoned.
This is what a righteous man concerned about his reputation would do.
And yet, he decides to do the difficult thing- to sacrifice his own reputation, and likely, his own family and friends, by sticking with her.
Thus, this very decision to stay with the pregnant Mary was the very one that likely delivered him into his own wilderness.
He was probably racked with doubts-  I mean, does he really believe this?
He may well have been cut off from his own family-  all he has to rely on is the very woman who has caused him to be shamed.
And he has to endure this for not just 9 months, but his entire life.
Anyone who knew him would mock him behind his back.
His reward-  well, he is largely forgotten to history.
Think through the Christmas carols you know-  do any feature Joseph prominently?
I struggled to find a hymn that featured him, and even in that hymn Mary plays a more prominent role.  
So, Joseph endures the disgrace of staying with Mary, only to be mocked by family and friends and to disappear in the Christmas narrative.
Would you have the strength to do something similar?  To knowingly lose your reputation to help someone else?  To remain with someone who was going through such pain and tragedy?
Its often a thankless job.  The person experiencing trauma is hardly in the position to be grateful.  And if there is social stigma involved, you are unlikely to be lauded for your efforts.
Think of those who cared for AIDS patients in the height of the 80s.
Or for those who devote their work to loving and caring for prostitutes
Or for those who continue to fight for justice on unpopular issues-  like gay rights or the death penalty.
You get thrust into the wilderness.  And you can lose your reputation.
When you are in the wilderness, it can seem like it will never end.  Think of the Israelites wandering through the desert.  Or Elijah running from the murderous Jezebel and hiding in a cave.  Or Jesus being tempted in the desert.
Our scripture from 2 Peter acknowledges the difficulty of that moment.  He tries to provide words of comfort for people waiting for Christ’s return.  
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. “
But, frankly, does that comfort anyone in a crisis?  That God’s time is not like ours.
But here is the funny thing about the desert.  When you are willing to enter in, to endure, your life can be transformed forever.
The Israelites eventually reach the promised land.
Elijah gets to see God and be recharged for worship.
Jesus emerges from the desert to be acknowledged by God in baptism.
And Joseph gets to be there when Christ enters into the world.  
All because each was willing to wait out their time in the desert.  
Can you do it?  Can you endure? 
As we anticipate this Christmas season, let us learn a lesson from the poor forgotten Joseph.  Let us learn to endure with someone in crisis, let us open our hearts to someone who is dreading the coming of this holiday season.  It is in enduring with them,  willingly exposing ourselves to their pain, where we can find Christ this holiday season.