Reading through the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel this morning, I was struck afresh by the overwhelming amount of angelic intervention.
- An angel tells Joseph what’s up with Mary’s pregnancy and not to leave her high and dry.
- The magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod
- An angel warns Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt
- An angel tells Joseph it’s o.k. to return after Herod dies
- Joseph is warned in a dream about Archelaeus, so he goes to settle in Nazareth.
This sends a clear message: God is involved. God is directing. The reader knows that this is story that has God’s undivided attention, and in which God is intervening to secure the needed outcome.
When we read Bible stories, we are always reading of the special, dramatic moments. We are reading about the few blips of tangible divine intervention, in word or deed, that unfold over thousands of years.
At times, this kind of drama has created some false expectations for me about how God would direct me in the everyday mundane.
I grew up in a house where everything evolved under the hand of divine direction. I think that, by and large, this was a good thing. My parents prayed a lot, and were always looking for the hand of God directing the events of our lives, and/or listening for what might be next.
The one time I clearly remember them not doing this (the decision for my dad to retire from the navy and my parents to move to Charlotte after my brother and I graduated from high school) it was a total disaster.
I think there were times when I super-sized my parents’ commitment to seeking divine guidance.
I think I missed out on some opportunities that way.
Maybe, just maybe, my unfolding life isn’t the birth of the messiah. Maybe, just maybe, my life call isn’t to evangelize the whole Mediterranean basin.
Maybe, just maybe, my life is lived in the fits and starts and wondering and groping after wisdom that typifies 99.99% of the life of the people of God, rather than the biblical .00000001% that finds dramatic divine intervention for a specific plan of God to be enacted.
There have been times, though, when I got my dramatic sign.
When I was a freshman in college God told my seventeen year old self that God wanted me to be a preacher. That gave my life solid direction for the most of the next fifteen years.
Seriously, I never understood when people would try to probe motivations for why someone would want to be a pastor / preacher. I didn’t have any ulterior motives. God told me to. What do you people want from me?
It was awesome.
Until it wasn’t.
Until my denomination wouldn’t ordain me (its own severe mercy, for which I am and shall be eternally thankful). Until I could not get a job as a preacher. Or pastor.
Then my world came unglued.
It wasn’t just that I had a goal that was part of my identity that had been stripped away. It was that the one place where I had had my angelic intervention, heard the divine voice, had… what? misled me? been an object of my own making?
In all honesty, I still think that I am most myself when I preach. That sense of divine call sometimes nags at me still from the back of my mind.
Listening to oracles is always a tricky business. Rarely do they speak. And rarely do they mean what we think they mean when first we hear them.
But I don’t think this leaves us helpless or hopeless. It simply means that the mundane processes of acting wisely will involve more of us, and our community, than we might have imagined by watching the sexy highlight reel that is the biblical drama of divine intervention.
It means that the ways we seek for God will be through conversation and prayer. Yes, there will be the Spirit’s promptings, and we will need to learn to listen to those as well.
But in the end, we realize that most of what is before us is in our own hands, to do with as best we can, with all the fidelity to self and family, to community and calling, to God and neighbor that we can muster.