Putting God First

Homily Fourth Sunday of Advent
stjoseph-dreamingToday’s Gospel from Matthew (Matthew 1:18-24) begins with this confident proclamation: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” The story goes on to describe the conception of Jesus – from Joseph’s perspective.

This reading reflects what we heard earlier today from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-14) as he foretold the birth of Jesus: “… the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Which means “God is with us.”)

But we know this is not the only story of the conception of Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear the story from Mary’s perspective in the story of “The Annunciation.”

Both Mary and Joseph were visited by an angel who helped calm their fears (“Do not be afraid”) and then announced how God wanted them each to aid in bringing his Son into the world.

These stories are an interesting contrast in style. Mary’s encounter with the angel includes dialogue between Mary and the angel (the angel proclaiming what God wanted, and Mary asking: “how can this be?”). And we hear Mary’s beautiful proclamation of humility and faith, “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

But, what words do we hear from Joseph during his encounter with his angel? None!

Surprisingly, there are no recorded words of Joseph in the Bible. But even without words, today’s story teaches us a lot about Joseph:

  • He was a righteous man – he obeyed the law
  • He was also a compassionate man – he didn’t want to expose Mary to shame

Joseph was ready to quietly end his relationship with Mary. But after the angel spoke and Joseph awoke from his dream, we discover one of the finest qualities of Joseph: He was obedient and was willing to do whatever the Lord commanded of him.

Neither Joseph nor Mary was looking to play the role God planned for them as a parent of Jesus. But (thankfully) they each put God first: before their personal wants or needs. I think that is a strong message of Christmas: Putting the wants and needs of God (and others) before our own.

SHARING OUR GIFTS WITH GOD

A few weeks ago, I was out of town for work. During some down time, the group I was with was discussing our family Christmas traditions. We talked about:

  • Which Christmas Mass our families attend, and why?
  • When and how do you decorate your home for Christmas?
  • How does your family exchange gifts?

That question about exchanging gifts was a particularly interesting one. One woman in the group shared that her family follows the tradition of giving their children four gifts each:=

  • Something they want
  • Something they need
  • Something to wear
  • Something to read

(The Internet tells me this is a “thing.”)

I asked the woman, “How does that work out – only those four gifts?” She went on to tell me that buying her children something they could read was easy. She loved to introduce them to her favorite authors and to literary classics, so that was always fun.

She admitted that shopping for clothes was one of her passions and that she loved to pick out special outfits for her children and grandchildren to wear, so that one was a no-brainer.

I asked how she handled giving her children what they want and what they need. “There,” she said, “Things can get a little tricky.” She went on to tell me about the challenge she was facing this year.

Her son and daughter-in law needed a new dishwasher; their old one had seen better days. But the dishwasher they wanted was a top-of-the-line model and cost more than she was willing to spend. So she had the dilemma of providing what her children needed versus wanted.

The woman’s story got me to thinking about how we, as parents and grandparents, would do whatever we can to support the wants and the needs of our children. It also got me thinking about how our give-and-receive relationship works with God.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this Advent, and that thought came to mind as I reflected on today’s readings.

Joseph, through his actions, and Mary, through her words, teach us that our relationship with God is more than simply asking God for what we want or what we need. A healthy, loving relationship exemplifies mutual giving and receiving.

What Joseph wanted was to be holy and righteous, and to avoid exposing Mary to shame. But fortunately, Joseph also listened to what God wanted and needed from him.

  • God wanted Joseph to take Mary as his wife into his home
  • God needed Joseph to play an important part in our salvation history as Jesus’ earthly father

PAY ATTENTION

From my experience, we don’t witness a lot of angels proclaiming heavenly messages from on high (they are rare occasions in the Bible). But that doesn’t mean we can’t hear God speaking.

To hear and to know what God wants and needs from us, we have to pay attention.

  • We have to take time to pray and reflect on the Word of God
  • We need to ask God for answers and direction in our life
  • We need to be open to all possibilities with God
  • We have to wait (patiently) and listen for his guidance

This type of relationship can give us strength, even in the most difficult and challenging times in our lives.

I invite you to reflect on these things for the remainder of Advent (and throughout the Christmas season):

  • What is it that God wants to do for you?
  • What is it that God needs you to do for him?
  • How will you cooperate with God?

It doesn’t have to be as grand as being the mother or father of God (thankfully, those jobs are already filled). But think about how the world is changed because of the simple cooperation of a faithful Mary and an obedient Joseph.

Ask yourself: What is the change in this world that God is calling me to be? And then, listen for “Angels” – they come in many forms.

BE NOT AFRAID

This Advent, I have been reading the book, “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life by John O’Leary. It’s an inspirational story of a local man who barely survived burns on 100 percent of his body when he was nine years old. (I highly recommend the book as a stocking stuffer this Christmas!)

One of the chapters in the book tells of several visits the author received from an “Angel” by the name of Jack Buck, who helped the frightened nine-year-old “Be not afraid” with words of hope and encouragement (“Kid, listen to me. You are going to live, got that? You are going to survive. And when you get out of here, we are going to celebrate …”)

O’Leary claims it was those visits and those words of encouragement from a man he could not touch, see, or speak to at the time – because of swollen eyes, a ventilator tube down his throat and head-to-toe bandages – that made all the difference in his ability to not only survive, but to eventually thrive in his life.

The chapter ends with these words of encouragement and challenge:

“My friend, we frequently cheapen our ability to influence radical change. We underestimate our personal ability to be a spark that ignites and influences the world in profoundly important ways. We possess the ability and opportunity to positively and permanently effect change around us. Simple action and ordinary people change the world. It starts with one. It starts with you. But you have to pay attention.”

I pray that in the busy-ness of this season, and throughout the year, we are able to “pay attention” to the joy that God brings into our world, and to the Spirit of God working in each of us.

As we proclaim Emmanuel (“God is with us”), let us focus on being with God: reflecting on what God wants and needs us to be.

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