December 18th Fourth Sunday of Advent 2022
Pastor Tom Dowling
Fourteen years ago, I was preparing to preach a Christmas message as an intern pastor in Dodgeville.
I remember only a little now of that Christmas sermon that I spent so much time preparing for.
I remember how, at one point in that sermon, I spoke about that beautiful hymn, Silent Night.
It’s a hymn that when song on Christmas Eve brings a bit of heaven to earth.
But that Christmas sermon almost didn’t happen…
At that time in my life, I was doing seminary the traditional way of living on the seminary campus for three years and then living off campus for one year of internship at a church.
I started my internship there in Dodgeville at the end of that summer.
I remember in the beginning feeling so overwhelmed.
It wasn’t so much that I felt that I could not do the work – it was that I felt that I could not handle the work – which is a big difference.
Meaning I had the skills – more or less – but certainly not the confidence.
And so, I thought to myself how I might quietly find a way to leave my internship.
Kalen and I were newly married and I knew that if I told her I was quitting my internship that would not go over so well with my new wife.
So, I had to be very careful with how I was going to do this.
But in the struggle of my discernment, I somehow found a way to stay with it.
And over the course of the year, I was tremendously blessed by the work that I was doing, by the people that I ministered to, and by those who ministered to me.
Even now whenever I go through that little Wisconsin town of Dodgeville or when I think about that time in my life and the people that I got to know there – so many good memories come to my mind.
The Holy Spirit was certainly interceding and gently and at times forcefully pulling me along that year of internship – speaking to me to stick it out – to stay with it.
In today’s Bible reading from Matthew, we hear of Joseph’s decision to leave not a job, which was my situation, but to leave the one he was engaged to – Mary.
But just when he resolved to do this the Lord intercedes through an angel and the angel tells Joseph to stay with Mary.
By doing so Joseph is greatly blessed for he becomes the earthly father of the Son of God.
Now all of us here – in some way – can identify with the man Joseph.
All of us here have had experiences in life where we have wanted to leave something.
Whether it be a job, a town, or some kind of life situation that would greatly impact those around us – in Joseph’s case he wanted to leave Mary because of what he knew – all of us here have faced, at some point in life, that difficult decision of whether to stay or to go.
I imagine with Joseph he wrestled over his decision to stay with Mary or to leave her.
Discernment is never easy.
Discernment is hard work.
Now the word discernment means understanding or perceiving something in such a way that you can see a clear path forward.
Discernment refers to the ability to make smart judgements and to be aware of the subtle and not so subtle movements of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes though the way is not clear at all.
And we pray and pray and hope that we can find some direction from God.
Joseph is in discernment.
At that time the Jewish law stated that engagement was legally binding.
And when he hears that Mary is pregnant with a child, that is not his, Joseph discerns that the best option for him is to leave Mary.
But before he does so the Lord intervenes.
In a dream God speaks to Joseph.
Just like how God spoke to the other Joseph in the Bible in the book of Genesis.
God speaks to this Joseph too in a dream.
Two thoughts here.
First, God is always speaking to us and God will use whatever ways God can in order to get our attention.
Secondly, we may not be as faithful as Joseph was or as clear in our discernment as Joseph was after he received the guidance of the dream but nevertheless, God keeps speaking to us.
Joseph immediately listened to God and he did what God told him to do when God spoke to him through the angel.
But again, even when we don’t listen to God – God doesn’t give up speaking to us.
When we turn the other way and when we turn away from God – God still intercedes on our behalf – God continues to reach out to us – until we finally stop and listen to him.
I have learned in life that when we turn from God or if we have a big misstep the best thing we can do is to humbly come before God and say, “Ok Lord, I took a wrong turn again. I had poor judgement. I did not listen to you. But I am listening now… I am listening now.”
How many times have I prayed that exact same prayer to God over the years.
“Lord, in this situation I did not listen to you. I missed your will but I see what I did and I am listening to you now. I have learned my lesson.”
I am grateful for the times in my life when I was like Joseph and I listened to God’s voice but I am equally grateful for all the times in my life when I did not listen to God and yet God still worked in my life and more than that – God gave me grace.
Grace being a second change and a renewed hope that we have another opportunity to listen and to honor God’s will.
All of us here have regrets – things that we did that we wish we did not do, sins that we committed that are painful to remember, and choices that were in direct contradiction to God’s will.
At times it may feel like we are lost in the dark and that we are wandering aimlessly in life.
And when we come to that point in life, that is when the good news of the Gospel impacts us.
There is a reason that God decided to send Jesus.
In Matthew verse twenty-three of chapter one we hear:
“The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.”
Even though here in Wisconsin we have the longest nights of the year a light still shines very, very bright this time of the year.
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we are very close to celebrating the birth of our savior.
Jesus comes as the true light among us.
He will be with us and he will save us.
He saves us from sin and death and he saves us for a life of joy and peace.
Joseph had a great responsibility.
He was to care for the Christ-child and to nurture him until he would become the Savior of the whole world.
God gave Joseph a mission and Joseph listened to God.
In what ways is God speaking to you this Advent?
Every Advent season is an opportunity for us to listen to God in new ways.
From this place of worship as you leave today and go about your week, this final week before Christmas – where is the Holy Spirit interceding on your behalf?
How is God preparing your heart and your mind for the coming of his Son?
Is he speaking to you through prayer, through Scripture, or is God speaking to you through your dreams just as he did through Joseph’s dreams.
Dreams can be a powerful way that God speaks to us – whatever way God is speaking to you – keep listening.
Christmas is a reminder to each one of us that God is always speaking to us and that God is always calling us to something greater in life – to a higher purpose.
Let’s be like Joseph and let’s hear God’s voice and respond to God’s voice with our lives.
This coming Christmas may we hear the Lord’s true voice and when we hear his voice let us faithfully follow him.
And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing in the coming Christ-child.