In the early months of my marriage, I wasn’t all that concerned with my career or what it was God was calling me to become. I was living in the moment, like all 20 year old men perhaps, wanting to finish college, needing to make enough money to survive on, but generally, not overly concerned about life in general. But then came the night of Christopher’s birth, when after 40-some hours of labor, I was able to look into the deep blue eyes of my son. My son!
And something changed forever as I held the silent baby in my arms and stared in awe into his eyes. I realized that he was a part of me, even if he was better than I deserved. And at that moment, a small voice inside me said, “Dude, this isn’t all about you anymore. You need to get focused and start living like somebody, because HE is somebody!” It was, in the words of Thomas Long, a “holy disruption”—in other words, a singular interrupting grace from God that changes us for the rest of time and eternity.
This helps me appreciate what it was like for Joseph. His life was going just the way he expected. He was living a quiet life in the quiet little town of Nazareth, working hard to make a living, trying to be a faithful and obedient Jew. He was betrothed to Mary, which meant they were legally bound to one another, and their relationship could only be broken by a decree of divorce, even though they had not yet finalized their marriage. They were not yet living together as husband and wife.
So I can imagine how shocked, angry, and embarrassed Joseph must have been when he got the news that Mary was pregnant. He knew that he wasn’t the child’s father! He figured Mary had been unfaithful and that the only way to avoid public disgrace was to divorce her. But Joseph was a kind and fair man, who didn’t want Mary to be publicly shamed either. He could have made a big fuss, and Mary would have been subject to the death penalty under Jewish law, but, instead, as Matthew tells us, Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly”.
At that moment, Joseph thought his life had taken a disastrous, embarrassing turn for the worst. But then he discovered he had experienced “a holy disruption”. God stepped into his life, and changed it, sending Joseph in a new and positive direction. Joseph simply looked reality in the eye and chose to trust God to change his life forever.
This idea of the Eternal God becoming human is what distinguishes Christianity from all the other world religions, so the coming of Jesus Christ is the ultimate “holy disruption,” and it shows us God’s deep, intense commitment to the world God created. We call this God “Emmanuel”, to remind ourselves that God really wants to be with us. No matter what else we might do, no matter what we experience, no matter where we go, Our God already knows and understands.
In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw tells the story of Mary Wilson, a World War II hero. When the Allied Armies got bogged down in the southern boot of Italy during that war, they attempted a daring breakout by launching a landing on Anzio Beach. However, the Allies got pinned down at the beach and were almost driven back into the sea.
Mary Wilson was in command of 51 nurses who made that landing. At one time, bullets ripped through the tent in which she was assisting a battlefield surgeon. The situation got so bad that arrangements were made to evacuate all the nurses. But Mary refused to leave at the time when her skill was needed most. As she told her story to Mr. Brokaw, she related, “How could I possibly leave those troops there? I was part of them!” This is what God says about us at every moment of every day.
And that holy disruption continues even now. The same One who came into the lives and hearts of Mary and Joseph is the same One that keeps on coming to us. And because this is true, we should never be surprised by “holy disruptions” that God causes in our lives! William Willimon tells the story of a young woman whom he served as campus minister of Duke University:
“Her enthusiasm and excitement were self-evident. ‘I love, I really love, teaching those kids, and they love me,’ she bubbled.
“I had been in on long conversations with her about what God intended her to do with her life. She had decided to offer herself to Teach America, and that organization had placed her in a miserable little school out in an impoverished rural area of the South.
“She obviously loved it, and was surprised how much she loved it, and how much the children loved her. It was wonderful!
“’Wonderful,’ she agreed, ‘and also more than a little scary. What if God really is working through me? What if this is how God expects me to spend the rest of my life?”
Those were precisely Joseph’s questions, when that holy disruption entered his life. These are OUR questions as well, aren’t they? We’re afraid that God really IS working through us. We’re terrified that God is asking something really BIG from us and before we jump in, we want to pause and try to find a loophole, an excuse, an explanation that will allow us to say “no” to God with a clean conscience.
Emmanuel God comes to us all the time, challenging us in little and big ways to be better than we ever thought we could be. God’s holy disruptions are everywhere in our past histories, and they will continue as long as we are on this earth. Our challenge, then, is to respond like Joseph: with faith, with surrender, with joy as we answer the call to serve our God.
This is one of the deep truths of Christmas, that God is truly with us, disrupting our lives as He wills, calling us to live more deeply and more faithfully in a transfigured reality. So, don’t be surprised at all at God’s willingness to disrupt your plans. It happened to Mary and Joseph. It happened to this priest when he was a young dad. It happened to the young woman considering a calling to teach. It happened some 2,000 years ago when God decided to enter into our living and our hurting by becoming one of us, in the flesh.