Sunday, December 18, 2016
As Christmas came in December of 1863, life for the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow felt anything but peaceful and hopeful. For one thing, he was still struggling with the unexpected death of his wife who had died roughly two years before. At the same time, his son Charles was serving in the Union Army during the Civil War and had been severely wounded just a few weeks before at a battle in Virginia. And finally, the war itself, now in its third year was weighing on Longfellow not only as he wondered about members of his own family, but also as he thought about the well being of the country as a whole.
In turn, on Christmas Day itself, Longfellow began to pour out his feelings in a poem. In his writing, he wrote about the bells of Christmas that sound out the joy of the season as well as the hope of Christ for peace on the earth and good will to men. Yet, as he thought about those same bells, in his honest and raw emotion, he had to admit that the sounds of those bells were being drowned out in his heart and soul. They were being overshadowed by the cannon’s firing, the hated being voiced by the North and the South that filled the air, violence, death and life’s many aspects of tragedy. As he thought about this, he wrote the very words that we sang just a few moments ago…“for hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men!”. (I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, wikipedia.com)
As the first Christmas approached, the bells of joy, hope and peace had been drowned out in Joseph’s life too. In his situation, that which had led to his own uncertainties and stresses was not war or death as Longfellow had faced but rather uncertainly about what was going on with Mary, this woman that he had committed himself to marrying. Now, during the period of their engagement, she had apparently not kept their promises to each other and worse still, she had tried to cover up her poor decisions with both an unwillingness to tell the truth and with a desire to concoct a truly unbelievable story about carrying God’s child. Their wedding bells could no longer be heard in Joseph’s mind as he continuously rolled over in his mind what has happened.
Yet, almost out of nowhere, Joseph was able to muster a profound sense of peace in this horrific situation. When I say he was able to recover a sense of peace, I am saying something somewhat similar to what we said about Elizabeth last week when we spoke of her ability to find joy. Here is what I mean. The biblical idea of joy, as we discussed last week, is the sense of an interior well being, contentment or settledness that exists regardless of exterior circumstances. It is different from happiness in that joy is again not dictated by what happens in day to day life but rather by what has happened in our soul.
Similarly, peace, as the Bible speaks of it, is not the absence of war or violence or life’s struggles, but rather it is the presence of an interior calm that we are able to maintain even when life is chaotic.
Just as he reaches the breaking point with what he has heard regarding Mary, Joseph seems to reestablish this inner peace. It comes his way even though life around him remains chaotic.
Life is chaotic, but, Joseph appears calm.
There are two things about what Matthew tells us regarding Joseph that I think helped the young carpenter to have such a peace and I want to mention them this morning as helpful in our own quests to be at peace in our soul even when peace seems absent in our world.
First, Joseph had resolved to do the right things even if others did the wrong things. One of the most beautiful parts of Joseph’s story is his decision to treat Mary justly and fairly even though he was certain that she had betrayed him. Yes, Joseph had decided to divorce Mary but he was going to do it in as gracious a way as possible by finding a way to preserve as much of her dignity as he could. He didn’t want to hurt Mary. Again, even though he sensed that she had wronged him terribly, he did not feel it was right for him to respond with similar behavior of his own.
What does this have to do with our own peace you ask? Honestly, I think it has a great deal to do with peace for both us and for our world. If we pledge to ourselves that no matter what others do that we are going to respond with right behavior, we find a peace in knowing that nothing that happens to us is going to rob us of keeping our moral convictions or doing what we know we should. Likewise, if we can model to the world the idea that bad decisions or evil done by others is never license for us to act with an equal measure of hatefulness, a level of peace may indeed find its way into not only our lives but to other corners of our world too.
Last week, I had an opportunity to test the state of my spirituality – I went shopping on Woodruff Road in Greenville! While I was there, I approached the same intersection twice. The first time, I was appalled at how people behaved. They honked, made ugly faces and starred down their fellow drivers at that incredibly congested intersection. The second time I came to the same intersection, I was the frustrated one and joined in with an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude. You see, we convince ourselves that we are justified in responding to the evil of others with evil on our own as if this is our God given right and responsibility.
Yet, Joseph’s story challenges us to do the right thing – even when no one else expects it. When we do, it changes us and changes the world. It is a critical element of interior and exterior peacemaking.
Second, Joseph was a man of faith and trust no matter what. From what we know of Joseph in scripture he was a fairly simple man. I say this because we are taught that Joseph was a carpenter which comes from the Greek word Tekton used at a later point in Matthew to describe him. Tekton means not only a carpenter but more specifically it means a general, entry level carpenter as opposed to the term architekton or master carpenter from which comes our word architect. From a simple life came a simple faith. In essence, when God spoke to him in a dream and said that Mary’s story was true and that Joseph should not hesitate to remain committed to her, Joseph accepts God’s word and does as he is asked with no questions ask. It is a remarkably simple faith exhibited by an apparently simple man.
In essence, Joseph finds a peace about what is ahead with a life built around a common statement of today – “God has said it, I believe it and that settles it.” I know that sounds trite and so matter of fact. I know such a statement appears to oversimplify complicated situations. But, think about it for a moment. How much of our inner turmoil is built around our inability to simply accept, affirm or live by what God has said to us? So often, God speaks and our response is not to accept it but rather to continue to question, to continue to push back with our concerns or simply to delay to accept what we have heard.
Let’s be honest, Mary’s story about what had happened to her was full of question marks. It didn’t make any sense whatsoever. Yet God told Joseph Mary was not leading him astray and that he could trust her. God told Joseph to go forward with their planned marriage and to treat this child as a son. And, Joseph simply accepted God’s word and did what God said. When Joseph made this decision, don’t you know that the inner knot in his stomach began to fade away?
Back to Longfellow’s Christmas poem that we began with today. In the midst of his despair – the death of his wife, the horrific injury to his son, the war that would not end – he began to hear the bells ring again and the sounds of Christmas, piercing the silence. For some reason it brought him peace, for some reason it made him hopeful again.
He really couldn’t explain it but he trusted it. There were lots of questions but he gave himself over to a God he could not deny and whose love he could not shake. In turn, his mood in the poem quickly switches from the dark belief that the Christmas bells have been drowned out by the sorrows of the world to this moving statement of profound trust and hope that end the poem, – “then pealed bells more loud and deep: God is not dead nor doth he sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
God speaks, we hear…but will we trust it? Will we act on it? Will God’s word settle it for us? And, will we believe with simple faith, the faith of Joseph, and find peace? Amen.