Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent IV, December 18, 2016
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
This Wednesday, as many of you probably know, will mark the winter solstice. That means it will be the shortest day of the year with only 10 hours and 14 minutes of daylight here in Houston, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. That also means Wednesday night will be the longest night of the year. Those who find that the darkness brings with it an unwelcome companion named seasonal affective disorder look forward to the extra sunlight that each new day will soon share with us, if only momentarily. Indeed, most of us want that light to invade the darkness.
But there are some people who actually celebrate the night. With the approach of winter, which all of us surely noticed is quite literally at our doorstep this morning, I’ve been reading an interesting anthology, published a few years ago, that, in fact, does just that. It’s entitled Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night’s Journey Into Day. The first part of that anthology is called “The Twilight Zone” and is appropriately introduced by a few words from Rod Serling.
For me, his name brought to mind the time when I begged my mother to let me stay up all night to watch a marathon of old black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone. That series, created by Serling, featured stories that often included an unexpected twist at the end. Those stories were usually a little scary, which is why boys like me liked them and also why I was glad to see the light of the rising sun coming into the room after that rerun marathon. It was the first time that I had stayed awake through the darkness and seemed like the longest night of my life.
Burning the Midnight Oil also includes in its anthology a quote from the journal of Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, who died in 1957. He was a famous polar explorer, and one evening “close to midnight” in 1934, while alone in Antarctica, he wrote down these words:
As a rule it doesn’t take me long to go to sleep. But a man can live a lifetime in a few half-dreaming moments of introspection between going to bed and falling asleep: a lifetime reordered and edited to satisfy the ever-changing demands of the mind.
I can relate to that, and I’m quite sure that you can too. Who here hasn’t stared at the ceiling in the middle of the night, reviewing the events of the day and piling on top of them worry upon worry about the days ahead? Who here hasn’t wanted to edit all of that and leave the mistakes on the cutting room floor?
Joseph surely must have felt that way in today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. He led a quiet life in the sleepy town of Nazareth. He was a devout Jew, and he had met a nice Jewish woman named Mary, who would have been in her very early teens and was now betrothed to him. That, by the way, was a more complicated legal situation in the first century than engagement is in our own day. Perhaps the wedding plans had already been arranged, and Joseph was putting the finishing touches on their house. But everything falls to pieces when Mary goes off to the hill country for a three-month visit with cousin Elizabeth and comes home pregnant.
There you have it. In the eyes of the world, this is not a good thing. In the eyes of Joseph, this is not a good thing. Scripture is very clear that Joseph knows this is not his child. So, given the culture in which he lives, Joseph tries to do the right thing in the midst of a very awkward situation. They won’t get married, but Joseph will protect Mary from public disgrace.
Dear God, please help me figure out this mess that I suddenly find myself stuck in. Amen.
Are you familiar with that prayer? Well, you’re probably not familiar with it, but there’s 100% chance that the person sitting next to you uses that prayer a lot! I often imagine those are the words that Joseph prayed late one night when he couldn’t go to sleep. It surely must have felt like it was going to be the longest night of his life.
At least he had a plan. The book that was to describe the rest of his life together with Mary would be quietly closed and put away, never to be opened again, and life would go on. And since there was no thunder from the heavens, this must be what God would want him to do. It seems like the right thing to do, so it must be the right thing to do. Remember that Joseph, we are told, is “a righteous man.”
Finally, he falls asleep, hoping his mind won’t be so restless when he wakes up the next morning. Little did he know that he was about to enter what could only be described in the world of our contemporary imaginations as The Twilight Zone!
Like most of us, the last thing Joseph probably expected was for God to answer that crazy little prayer. But God did answer his prayer that same night in a dream. The word spoken to him obliterated his carefully thought out plan. The word spoken to him opened wide the book that was to describe the rest of his life together with Mary. And words would be written in that book that far exceeded anything he might have asked for or imagined.
Sometimes the scariest thing of all is when God really does answer our prayers. Sometimes, when God answers our prayers, we wish that he hadn’t. All we really want is for God to rescue us on cue from the messes that we find ourselves in. The last thing we actually want is for God to change the course of our entire life. Who knows where that sort of meddling might lead? It would probably take us out of our little worlds we love and into the real world we fear. And that’s more than a little scary. But the man betrothed to Mary, the man who indeed would marry her, would always be able to remember these words from his dream:
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid . . .
Joseph was chosen to be the guardian of the Christ Child. Joseph was given the honor of naming him Jesus, whose birth we remember at this time of the year. It’s a familiar story about a stressful situation with a twist at the end that brings the good news of salvation to all of God’s children, including you and me.
Recently I ran across another quote by Admiral Byrd, one that doesn’t appear in the anthology that I described earlier but does fit its theme. The time that he had spent alone on his second expedition to Antarctica, which nearly resulted in his death, had seemed, to him, like a failure. But there was something more to that experience, something he would later describe for audiences in this way:
And here I was, near the axis of the world, in the darkness where the stars make a circle in the sky. At that moment the conviction came to me that the harmony and rhythm were too perfect to be a symbol of blind chance or an accidental offshoot of the cosmic process; and I knew that a Beneficent Intelligence pervaded the whole. It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of a man’s despair and found it groundless.
Photograph at the South Pole by Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation
While that sounds beautiful and tidy, the only reason I’m able to affirm those last few words is because I don’t believe that God can only be heard in the music of the spheres. The message of Christmas, the message of what we’re about to celebrate next weekend, is that God did not remain distant from all of the ugliness and all of the untidiness in our real lives and in the real world that surrounds us.
I believe God came into the messiness of the world that we contemplate in the middle of the night, whether we’re staring at the ceiling or looking at stars. I believe God came into those stressful situations, and comes still, as a light shining in the darkness. There are many people sitting around you this morning who also believe that to be true. So I hope you’ll be open to the possibilities of that promise today.
1 BACK TO POST “HOUSTON, TEXAS, Central Standard Time, Duration of Daylight for 2016,” Astronomical Applications Department, U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C.
2 BACK TO POST Even in Houston, it was unseasonably cold this particular weekend because of a polar vortex that affected the continental United States. One of our Sunday morning liturgies began while the temperature was in the mid-30s outside. Of course, I had to tell some of our acolytes that it was 17 degrees below zero at that moment in the Twin Cities, where my family and I lived for seven years before we moved to Houston. The last polar vortex was in January of 2014, our last winter in Minnesota, which turned out to be the coldest winter in the Twin Cities in 35 years and the ninth coldest winter there since 1872.
3 BACK TO POST Richard Byrd, quoted in Burning the Midnight Oil: Illuminating Words for the Long Night’s Journey Into Day, edited by Phil Cousineau (Berkeley: Viva Editions, 2013) location 904, Kindle edition. The date for this quote, however, seems to be wrong in this anthology. So the date I have used comes from Byrd’s own account, Alone on the Ice, from which these words derive.
4 BACK TO POST Matthew 1:19.
5 BACK TO POST Matthew 1:20.
6 BACK TO POST Richard Byrd, quoted in “People & Events: Richard E. Byrd,” Alone on the Ice, The American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service.