Readings: Psalm 84:1-7, Matthew 1: 18-24, Secrets of Heaven #5122:3 (see below)
We are going to do Father’s Day a little early this year. Next weekend is a crowded weekend, with Father’s Day, Juneteenth, and June 19th (a special religious holiday to our tradition) all happening. So, today we’ll get a headstart on the celebrations by exploring a character in the Bible who gets a little overshadowed sometimes: Joseph, the father of Jesus. That’s right we are doing Christmas in June!
If the gospel of Luke focuses on Mary and her experience of the incarnation, the gospel of Matthew centers Joseph. It even begins the narrative with “this is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about…” and starts talking mostly about Joseph’s actions and experience. So, I mean, Mary had something to do with it, I think….but in all seriousness, Matthew’s account gives us a window into a different experience of how God comes to us, for God’s presence is with each of us uniquely and yet universally.
As we enter the account, we immediately see how kind Joseph is. We are told that he is faithful to the law (and according to the law would have been within his rights to publicly sever his relationship with Mary) but at the same time he was empathetic to her situation and didn’t want to unduly hurt her reputation. The text is not explicit about what Joseph believed at this point. Mary’s claim to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit was indeed preposterous! Yet even from within that undeniable turmoil of mind, Joseph managed to think about someone other than himself, or his ego, or his pride. Already he is a sympathetic character, someone we would be happy to have be a father to Jesus.
But then, over the next few chapters, we see a remarkable thing: Joseph is visited by angels in dreams four times over the next few years and each time, he listens and obeys without question. The first time we see in our reading for today, where Joseph hears that Mary is telling him the truth, that her son will be the Messiah and that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife, and to join her in this important partnership.
Joseph does so, and Jesus is born. But soon after that Herod becomes jealous and, via the Magi, tries to find the baby Jesus to kill him. So, Joseph is visited a second time…
13 When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod.
Joseph’s willing and swift action saved Jesus’ life. But the angels were not done talking to him.
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
In this short passage, two separate dreams, taking Joseph and his family one way and then another. Back and forth, trying to find safety and peace. Mary said yes when an angel came to her and told her that she would give birth to Jesus. And likewise, Joseph said yes when an angel came to him and told him to join Mary in taking care of her son. But of course, Joseph, like many of us when we start on a journey, didn’t know what he was saying yes to. Yet he showed up anyway, open and listening and ready to move.
And so when I came across Psalm 84 this week, I couldn’t help but think of Joseph when I read the verse 5: Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
Part of what Joseph was saying yes to was pilgrimage…a physical pilgrimage at times sure, but also a heart pilgrimage. Joseph was someone who loved; loved his God and loved his family, and he let that love, that care and concern for others, be his strength and his guide. He was open to his heart being set on pilgrimage, open to hearing what he needed to hear, learning what he needed to learn, acting when he needed to act.
When Swedenborg talks about dreams in the Bible, he often also talks about Divine Foresight and Providence, and the fact that the Lord is present to us and caring for us in even the smallest details of our lives. This doesn’t mean that the God manipulates outcomes in a way that overrides our freedom, but I think it does mean that God understands possibility in a way that we do not, that in God’s creation all things, even small inconsequential things or things that challenge us, can be brought to blossom for goodness, some way, somehow.
And in this story about Joseph and his dreams, we see the importance of our receptivity to God’s Divine foresight and providence. Because, it was not the bestowal of divine foresight in a dream that made Joseph special. He was special because of his openness, his acceptance, his willingness to listen.
We heard in our reading about God’s care for each person’s process and growth, to eternity. It said:
For one stage looks to the next in an unending sequence and produces chains of sequences which never cease.
Another translation puts it this way: for what is prior looks to what follows in a continuous series.
One part of what was prior, one part of the groundwork for the incarnation, was Joseph’s character, and his willingness to listen. His state of openness allowed for what was to follow. Likewise, *we* are invited to participate in God’s foresight and providence for us, knowing that part of our agency and our power is to cultivate the quality of our receptivity, to practice openness to hearing new things and accepting new ways of thinking.
By the time Jesus enters his public ministry at around age 30, none of the gospels mention Joseph anymore. A reasonable supposition is that by that time he had died. There is something very poignant about he fact that he may not have lived to see Jesus come into the fullness of his mission. The one who, according to Matthew, acted in so many ways to allow Jesus to be a fulfillment of the scriptures, representing such a long tradition of human spirituality, was not able to see Jesus become that fulfillment in his own way, in his own words, and through his own sacrifice. This feels really sad to me. So, on the cusp of Father’s Day, let’s take a moment to honor the man who was open and kind and faithful enough to say yes to the very strange heart pilgrimage that was and is the incarnation. The man who worked hard to protect and feed and shelter the body of the living God when he was a mischievous toddler, an impish child, and a stubborn teen. The man who worked to mould and guide and encourage the heart and mind of the one who would inspire so many around the world in the millennia to come.
May we all aspire to think so kindly, to listen so keenly, to act so faithfully. May we do as Joseph did and let God set our hearts on pilgrimage. Amen.
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! 2 My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. 3 Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God. 4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. 5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. 6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
Secrets of Heaven #5122:3
These are the matters that are meant by progressive stages of development and by continuous derivatives even to the final one. Such stages and derivatives are unending in the case of a person who is being regenerated. They begin when we are young children and continue through to the final phase of our life in the world; indeed they continue for ever after that, though our regeneration can never reach the point when we can by any means be called perfect. For there are countless, indeed a limitless number of things to be regenerated, both within our rational and within our natural. Everything there has limitless shoots, that is, stages of development and derivatives that progress in both inward and outward directions. A person has no immediate awareness at all of this, but the Lord is aware of every particular detail and is making provision for it moment by moment. If [the Lord] were to stop doing this for a single instant every stage of development would be thrown into confusion. For one stage looks to the next in an unending sequence and produces chains of sequences which never cease. From this it is evident that Divine Foresight and Providence exist in every particular detail, and that if they did not, or did so in a merely overall way, the human race would perish.