Matthew 1:18-25

When the Moment of Crisis Comes

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The simple truth is this: none of us avoids a crisis. All of us have trouble in the course of our lives. Someone may appear to be always on top of the world, but what this shows is that we do not know that person well.

Take a man who is success in business, who cannot help but make money. He is elegantly dressed — his shoes are shined, his tie is choice, his cufflinks gleam. He has a warm smile, a firm handshake, a confident voice. But look beyond all that, and find out more.

Get to know this man, and there will be some crisis or trouble in past or present. Perhaps an early business failure, or a broken marriage, or a handicapped child. Perhaps he feels overwhelmed by cutthroat competition or desperately bored with both work and home.

Appearances can be deceiving! Even the successful, the self-assured, the attractive have their burden to bear. None of us avoids crisis. All of us have trouble in the course of our lives.

Because this is so, the great difference does not lie between those free from trouble and the rest of us. The great difference appears between those vanquished by their problems and those people who find in their problems something worthwhile that redeems the rest.

Today’s Gospel is the other annunciation story. Not the one about Gabriel appearing to Mary with a message, but the annunciation to Joseph.

Joseph. Remember him? Before he gets to the Bethlehem stable, he is a young man who just wants to marry his fiancee, settle down, make an honest living as a carpenter, and raise a family. Then it happens! Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and knows that he is not the father. He feels betrayed, rejected. The engagement must end, and with it the hope this couple had for a happy life together.

He decides to end the engagement quietly rather than subject Mary to public disgrace. This will spare him and Mary and their families a great deal of grief. But still Joseph is heartsick. Nothing is to come of his love for Mary, nothing at all. She has no future now, and he does not want the future that awaits him.

Joseph lies awake at night pondering the huge horror that has overtaken him. Finally he falls asleep. But his sleep is not peaceful. He is disturbed by a dream, the sort of dream one still remembers years later.

In this dream a brilliant heavenly figure appears — the angel of the Lord. The angel calls to him by name, and reminds him that one of his ancestors was David, Israel’s greatest king. Then the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid, but to keep the engagement, to marry in spite of everything. For the child Mary carries inside her has no human father, but is from the Holy Spirit. The baby will be a boy, and Jesus is to be his name. That name means Savior. It will be the right name for this child, for somehow he will save his people from their sins.

Joseph wakes up, his mind strangely tranquil because of the dream. He does what the angel told him to do. He marries his fiancee, the baby boy is born, and he is named Jesus. People assume that Joseph is his father. But Joseph and Mary know otherwise.

There is a crisis! There is plenty of trouble! And what happens? Joseph is not crushed by what occurs. Instead, he receives a message that changes everything. But that divine message would be useless except for one thing:  Joseph is willing to hear it and act on it.

Indeed, this dream that Joseph has is only the first in his series of important dreams. Each of them is meant to move him in the right direction, to keep his family out of harm’s way. Joseph is willing to hear the message and act on it.

The first dream is this one where he is directed to marry his fiancee and to name the child Jesus. In the next dream, the Lord’s angel tells Joseph to take his family to Egypt, for Herod is set on killing the child. Once Herod is dead, Joseph dreams again and is told to bring his family back to Israel. Yet another dream warns him not to settle in Judea where the ruler is Herod’s son, but to go instead to Nazareth in Galilee. In every instance, Joseph hears the message and acts upon it.

So Joseph faces one crisis after another. He has trouble enough and to spare. But he hears the messages intended for him and takes the necessary action. What makes him so receptive?

Consider how he is described in today’s Gospel. The word applied to him is “righteous.” Joseph is a righteous man. He is obedient to God as he knows God. God is not a stranger to Joseph, so when a crisis comes and God sends him a message, Joseph hears the message and does what must be done. Joseph is a man of faith before the crisis, so that when the crisis comes, he is able to act in faith, to do the right thing.

Here’s an important reason for the life of prayer, an important reason for the regular practice of prayer. If we are in relationship with God through a life of prayer, if we value God’s company on ordinary days, then, when the day of crisis arrives, and our world comes apart at the seams, we can recognize God’s voice speaking to us at the heart of the crisis, we can respond in faith by doing what God would have us do, by living as God would have us live.

Over the years, a number of Christians have shared this observation with me. Life is challenging enough even if you have faith, but what happens with people who have no faith, who do not pray? What happens to them when the inevitable crisis occurs?

They lose a loved one. How can they begin to hear God’s voice speak softly to them in their bereavement when their grief shouts so hopelessly? In a troubled time, it would be hard for anyone to hear the divine voice, to see the vision of a greater purpose, but how hard it must be without the experience of listening to God in better times!

God speaks to us in a variety of ways. For Joseph, it was through the Jewish law and a remarkable series of dreams. For us, it may happen through scripture reading and liturgical worship, through personal devotions, the beauty of nature, the warmth of human love, the circumstances of each day. Our response to God constitutes our prayer. No one who knows about prayer says it is easy. Routine practices can seem empty at times. There’s always something else waiting for us to do.

Yet it’s vital to persist in prayer. It’s vital that we do this — and for several reasons. One of the most important is that through our prayer, our response to God, our relationship with God, we become able to recognize the divine voice whenever it speaks, even in the heart of crisis.

Times of crisis are sure to come in every life. Where we have a choice is in how we will respond. Will the noise of our own fears drown out everything else, or will we hear God’s voice speaking to us at the heart of the crisis? Having heard that voice, will we take the necessary action? Will we be obedient to the message?

Our response is never simply private. What we do in response to God’s voice has impact on other lives beyond our ability to reckon. The moment of crisis arrives, we hear the divine voice and act upon it, and what happens may be like what happened with Joseph: a widespread redemption, unexpected and unstoppable.

Copyright 2004 The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.