We sometimes underestimate St Joseph, don’t we? We forget how the three dreams he had, the first of which we heard in the Gospel today, (Matt 1:18-24) made such a difference to the way God gave himself to us in and through Jesus. The correct thing to do in those days, if you discovered that your wife to be was expecting someone else’s baby, was to publicly shame her; and that might lead to her being stoned which everyone thought served her right. But Joseph, “being a man of honour”, decides not to make a fuss but to refuse her quietly. Then, when all was decided, God spoke to him in a dream, and he was suddenly faced with an unexpected challenge, to support Mary, and take her as his wife, and face up to whatever cruel things the neighbours might say about her, and about him!
I had a dream the other night! I found myself on a bus going into Birmingham.. yes Birmingham! I was then desperate to find the bus to take me home as quickly as possible… and you can imagine the rest! Yes, most dreams, as we all know, are muddled things; and using them to decide what God want us to do, is not to be recommended. I’m pretty certain God does not want me to go on a bus to Birmingham, but that doesn’t mean I should not ask myself what God does want me to do.
Joseph must have been very disturbed by his dream, just as Mary was when the angel told her she was to have a very special baby. Both of them could have chosen to say “No” to God. They could have chosen the easy way through life, and ignored the enormous challenges that lay before them if they said “Yes”. Remember that Joseph had two more dreams? First to get his wife and newborn baby up very early in the morning and set off, not back home to apparent safety, but into Egypt. Only later would he have his final dream and take his little family back home to settle in Nazareth. It makes me think of the terrible choices families are having to make in Syria. Shall we stay at home and sit it out, or shall we leave everything we know and head out into the unknown?
All of us have to make choices too, and because we are Christians, we have to try and work out not just what we want to do, but what God wants us to do. Luckily most of us will not face the agonizingly difficult choices that Joseph made, or that people make in the midst of war and terror; but nonetheless we all have choices to make. Some of these choices may be big ones. What shall I do with my life? Where shall I live? Shall I offer to become a priest or a religious sister or a deacon? And none of these have easy answers.
St Paul reminds us in our Reading from his Letter to the Romans (1:1-7) that, like those Christians in Rome, we are the “beloved of God… called to be saints.” Now those Christians in Rome were very brave indeed, because they faced the possibility of death if they were asked to acknowledge Caesar as a god, and refused to do so. Everyone else simply did this as a matter of course, the way of being a loyal citizen of the Empire, especially in Rome itself. You quietly prayed to your own god or gods of course – no-one minded that – but you always added in Caesar so as not to be guilty of treason. So being a Christian in those days was a dangerous business. That’s why if you read on in Paul’s letter you will hear him encouraging them, telling them that he thanks God for them and prays for them, and reminding them of God’s power.
Now most of us do not face the possibility of death in trying to do God’s will, but that doesn’t make it always easy to be a Christian, does it? For, as I am sure you know, God is just as much concerned with the ordinary everyday things of our life, as with those bigger decisions. Yes, God’s will will also mean facing up to doing things, often quite small things, that we would rather avoid. That may be being kind and talking to that person who we don’t really like. It might mean going to visit someone who is housebound or sick when we would rather stay at home in the warm and watch our favourite programme on the TV. It might mean choosing to do some voluntary work on top of what we do already; or if you have children, it will mean making many challenging choices as you care for them, including doing something with them, rather than leaving them to play by themselves, or sit in front of the TV or the Computer.
Like Joseph, and like those Christians in Rome, choosing to do God’s will will often require us to do things that we would rather not do. It’s easy to think that all we have to do for God is to try to avoid doing bad things, committing sins; but I am suggesting that it is actually much more important to think about the things we could do that we aren’t doing at the moment. Christmas is, of course, a time to sit back and enjoy ourselves, and yes I hope it will be that for you; but for us Christians, those called to be saints, it must also be a time when we try to do a bit more for others.
Let’s thank God that Joseph took up his challenges and did his bit for Mary and for Jesus. So perhaps this Christmas we might aim to be a bit more like him.