Joseph sees a shepherd in the field. He is dipping a piece of bread into a clay pot. But the shepherd’s hand stops with the bread suspended halfway to his mouth.
Joseph notices a bird above him. It too stalls in midair. Its wings momentarily frozen in flight.
Joseph feels the night breeze--brisk--against his face. But it suddenly evaporates.
In this one instant, everything is still, and in the next moment the world returns to its regular motions.
Joseph is confused--not quite sure what has just taken place. But then it dawns on him. A midwife will no longer be necessary. Mary’s child--the son of God--was born. Joseph realizes that this was why everything grew still, if only for an instant.
There are two ways to hear this story. And how we hear it depends on who we think the protagonist--the main character--is.
If Joseph is the main character, then this is a cautionary tale. It is the story of someone who is not where he is supposed to be. Joseph leaves Mary on a foolish quest. He walks away from the manger. And, when the incarnation--the most holy of moments comes--he is not there to witness it.
So the story ends with Joseph walking back to Bethlehem every step of the way. Maybe he thinks to himself that he should have followed the counsel of Habakkuk. If only he had kept watch. If only had not become impatient. If only he had not allowed himself to be distracted from the most important thing.
If Joseph is the main character, this is a cautionary tale and it can only end with the sad refrain “If only…”
But what if we hear this story from a different angle. What if God is actually the main character--the protagonist? Our focus shifts from what Joseph failed to do to what God did for all the world and for Joseph and for us.
God sent his Son--the Savior--for the world. And God, made it possible for Joseph to experience it even though he wasn’t exactly where he was supposed to be. In fact, God so loved Joseph--that God stopped the world from spinning on its axis--for one brief moment so Joseph no matter how far he was from the manger could still know, could still experience it.
If we hear the story from angle, it is not a cautionary tale but a story of grace. And what it has to tell us is this: It’s not about us. This miracle doesn’t depend on us.
Wherever we are--however far we stray from the manger--God still comes to save. We are at all times well within the reach of God’s love.
If we hear the story this way, Joseph doesn’t walk back to the manger crestfallen and filled with regret. He runs and jumps and maybe even skips the whole way. His refrain: “Christ is born! Christ is born! Christ is born!”
I like this way of hearing the story better. Mostly because I need grace much more than I need cautionary tales. I need to be reminded that’s not all up to me. I need to know that there is no foolish thing I can do--to keep God from coming to me with love in His eyes.
It was my first Christmas at my new church in Rochester. Christmas Eve in Rochester and in our church was a big deal. From noon to midnight, we had six services of worship. Thousands came.
I guess because it was a big deal--and because I was new--I was all-keyed up. Worried about my sermon. Worried that some little detail would go wrong and the services would not be up to par.
I was thinking of all this as I drove to church that day. I was also thinking that with all those services, I might not have much time to eat so I went through the drive thru at McDonalds.
I placed more order, handed the attendant my card and waited for the burger, the shake that would get me through. But I noticed that it was taking a long time to fill my order. I looked through the little window and say the attendant talking to someone who looked like the manager. She was shaking her head. When the attendant came back, she wasn’t carrying a bag. It almost looked like she was repressing a smile. She leaned over to hand back the little piece of plastic I had given her. “Sir,” she said, “I think this is your library card.”
I wish I could tell you I snapped out of it as soon as we sang the opening Christmas carol in our first service. But truth is, I didn’t. The whole day. I stayed anxious and uptight.
After preaching my homily six times and joining in on seventy-two rounds of Silent Night, we finished our last service at midnight. When a bleary eyed custodian and I locked the door it was well after. Merry Christmas, we said.
I got in my car and headed toward home. The streets were deserted. It was pitch black. And utterly quiet. As I braked for a stoplight in the middle of downtown Rochester, it started to snow. I had never seen snow like that. It was as if the outer skin of the world had been punctured and all the fluffy, white contents of heaven came pouring in all at once.
I did something dumb. It was so beautiful, so mesmerizing I couldn’t help myself. I got out of the car and stood in the middle of the road. Where the yellow line used to be, now covered in white. “What did it matter,” I thought, even the police are in bed.”
I held out my hands. I looked up. And in that moment, all mortal flesh was silent.
Christ came. He came for me. And it didn’t seem to matter that I wasn’t anywhere near where I was supposed to be.
So...I bring glad tidings of great joy. Wherever we go, we are within God's reach. Ready or not--or too distracted to notice--Christ will come. He will come for us.
My prayer is simply that you and I will be blessed this Christmas to know to that--to experience it, if only for an instant. Amen.
Dr. W. Mark Ralls