It was the 23rd of December, 2004 and because there were just a few
more things to buy that would make Christmas practically perfect in
every way I was wandering the very congested hallways of the Fashion
Mall at Pentagon City. My attention was on a mother speaking in rapid
fire Russian to her children who had absolutely no interest in listening
to anything she had to say to them at all. In this I heard a very
distinctive voice say the following, “He will give his angels charge
over you and will not let your foot be dashed against a stone.” When I
heard this paraphrase of Psalm 91 a second time, I stopped and turned to
see who was saying this, wondering all the while if I was having my own
special Joan of Arcadia moment in the mall. In fact I saw an older woman
with her hand clasping the hand of a distressed man assuring him again
and again that he was not alone, but watched and loved.

As we have entered Christmas amid the ceaseless bombings in Iraq and
the almost unimaginable devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in
South Asia, I have thought often of that moment of grace, of the
willingness of one person to reach out and clasp the hand of someone who
for whatever reason was being washed away in the sea of life. In the
accounts of the survivors of the tsunami it is striking how many of them
tell of a voice heard and heeded about the impending danger, the
difference between life and death. It also can be said about this
disaster and so many events in life that so many times there is no
warning spoken, and voices that cry out danger go unheeded, just as a
mother did on a department store escalator.

It will be a theme that we will return to again and again in Matthew,
and it is especially evident in today’s gospel, to what voices do we
listen, to what extent do we prayerfully act upon what we hear? Our
first model of effective listening and acting in this gospel is not
Jesus. It is not even one of the twelve. It is Joseph. On the Fourth
Sunday of Advent we heard the first of Joseph’s encounters with a divine
voice of instruction asking him to fly in the face of his cultural and
religious beliefs and take a risk in faith and wed Mary. Joseph’s
willingness to take this bold step is an essential contribution to the
birth of Jesus and the salvation that God will give through the life,
death and resurrection of Jesus. Today we hear about the other dreams of
Joseph. In listening to the angel’s voice in three dreams, interpreting
this voice and acting upon it, this favored child is rescued from the
murderous designs of a wicked and threatened ruler by Joseph. There is
another theme at work here too. Whether we are exploring the birth of
Jesus or his life in this gospel we are never far away from the reality
of power turned violent and evil, injustice clothed in religious and
political respectability.

This faithful listening and acting has consequences that are tragic
as well. The story that was read and proclaimed earlier this week of
Holy Innocents slaughtered (so gently excised from our reading) points
to the reality that Jesus was possibly one of the few survivors of a
lost generation of his people. In this story of new birth and adoration
we are never far from the reality of death, never far from the truth
that whether it is nature or a despot who rages, it is always the most
vulnerable, the most dependent and needy who suffer the most. Jesus’ own
earthly family also acts in costly ways as Joseph obeys these dreams.
The flight to Egypt and the return are along a rugged road, journeys
filled with natural and human dangers. In making this escape Jesus
assumes a place not of grandeur, but of humility. He becomes one more
refugee, one more of the dispossessed. Jesus assumes an identity with
the helpless and a place in Nazareth out of which not much that is
desirable ever comes.

To what voices do we listen? What voices prompt us to act? Listening
to God demands a great deal of us, and that’s why it’s so easy not to do
it. It requires praying and reflection on the ways in which God has
spoken to God’s people from the beginning of time. It requires at
minimum going out of our comfort zone of established thinking and
acting. As we hear in these early stories of the life of Jesus and the
actions of Joseph and others it may require tremendous sacrifice. Daily
we are offered the option in ways great and small to engage in the
grasping love of self or the sacrificial love of another, listening to
the bit of Herod in us all or listening to God.

One of my favorite moments in that rather awkward movie Bruce
comes when Bruce has played God long enough that he must pay
attention and listen to all the voices speaking to God. There are of
course prayers of blessing and thanksgiving and petition. What the movie
character has the most difficult time listening to are the voices of the
suffering. They are overwhelming. (It leads to a brief scene in which we
see Bruce listening to God in authentic ways for the first time.) This
is the implicit message of all of our Scripture readings today–that to
listen to God leads to all of the joy and delight of discovering that we
are God’s children as much as Jesus is God’s Son and it also means that
in this discovery our ears are opened to listen to those who suffer. We
have been given as children access “to blessings in heavenly places” and
we are the means by which those blessings are enacted here and now. We
can only give in true charity to those to whom we have truly

To listen to the voices of over 100,000 dead in the disaster in South
Asia and the hundreds of thousands of victims that remain is
overwhelming. Yet we can be like Joseph. We can listen to the voice of
God, taking action on behalf of one, or two, or ten, or twenty others.
We can be a voice of comfort that is heard above all the noise of life.
We can take the action that can be a first step in redeeming a horrific
event. To what voices do you listen? We may scoff and say it was only a
dream. Or we may hear an angel speaking. One voice will cost you
nothing. The other will make all the difference. Amen.