I love Star Wars—but I haven’t had a chance to see The Rise of Skywalker—which is being marketed as the last Star Wars movie. “The Saga Will End. The Story Lives Forever.” My husband Stuart is glad this is the last movie—because he hasn’t liked any of them from the first. Some of you might feel that way, too. Not me. I was walking in an airport this week and was mesmerized by the ads showing Rey, the strong female protagonist, light saber in hand, with the line, “Be the Hero of Your Own Journey.” Do I want to be Rey? Absolutely. I want to fight intergalactic evil in a linen wrap suit and a serious ponytail. I want to be the hero of my own journey. Somehow this ties into the beginning of a new year with the standing invitation to be someone other than myself—to be more organized, exercised, better dressed, slimmer, smarter and non-procrastinating. I also want to ‘help’ the people in my life be better. Change their behavior or bad situations. Make them more healthy, obedient, thoughtful, generous, attentive—or at least happier. If I could identify and banish all that seems bent on destroying my personal galaxy, I could be the hero of my life. You have had these thoughts, too. I call it, “The World According to Marilu.”
That’s why I am astounded by the way Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, goes about his business in scripture today. He isn’t the hero of his own journey at all. I’m going to review the story because usually we choose the Wise Men over Joseph and the angels, so you may not be as familiar with his story.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt because Herod is going to kill all the boy babies in Bethlehem in hopes of killing Jesus. Herod dies a few years later and an angel appears again to Joseph and tells him to go back. Another angel tells him not to go to Bethlehem because Herod’s murderous son is there, so they go back to Nazareth. This fulfills scripture about the Messiah being called out of Egypt and being from Nazareth. In all, four angels appear to Joseph to give him directions on how to keep Jesus safe.
Who is Joseph? We really don’t know that much about him. He is the silent, stoic figure in the Nativity set and doesn’t have even one line in the Christmas pageant. In the gospel of Luke, we find out he is from Nazareth. This is the last we hear of him in the gospel of Matthew, where he is a man without a past or a future. This is a somewhat dark and difficult passage—so why does Matthew include it when the other gospel writers do not? Dr. Matt Skinner tells us that this text is in this gospel because it gives us, “the contours of grace in all its strangeness as God becomes human to overturn the human ego.”
Those ‘contours of grace in all its strangeness’ are seen in God’s care of our future in the Christ child through Joseph. I imagine that when he agreed to marry a girl named Mary and bind their families together, he did not have fleeing into Egypt in mind. Or raising another man’s baby—even and especially if that baby was a product of the Holy Spirit. Joseph would have had the same dreams that most men would have had about marriage, a long life with a woman who loves him and has his children. He would have had the same dreams that all of us have, to live in peace without problems.
The Netflix movie, Marriage Story, touches on some of these themes. Charlie and Nicole start out with the sparks of love and excitement in their relationship. Nicole says that the ‘dead space’ in her woke up when she met Charlie. Charlie found someone who could look up to him and love him. All marriages start out with high hopes and big blind spots. If you notice, neither Nicole nor Charlie talk about loving their spouse but more about what the other would do for them. Eventually another person stops meeting our need for approval and we feel rejected and abandoned. We search for someone to meet all our needs, even as we know that it is impossible. There is only one person who can meet all our needs and that is God in Christ Jesus. We place humans in the God seat and are disappointed when it doesn’t work out.
Human relationships all have human egos involved. Our ego is built for survival, as tight and defended as a Humvee or bomb shelter. It puts us on the throne of our lives, makes us the heroes of our own lives. We call the shots. We set the goals.
We identify what needs to be changed in the other person and the world. But the ego never delivers what we really want—which is to be loved. The ego is the law because it condemns us as we are and tells us we, and the people around us, need to be different. Egoism kills love of God, self and others in search of perfection of the self. Ego has been called Edging God Out. Our egos resist the grace of God given through Christ because we want it our way. We want to be the hero of our own story. We want the credit for a life well lived, a journey well done, decisions well made.
At the end of the film, Charlie sings a song that is a ballad to the intervention of the ego he has had. He sings, “Somebody crowd me with love Somebody pull me up short Put me through Hell Somebody force me to love Somebody make me come through, I’m as frightened as you at being alive.” You can hear the contours of grace finding him in the ashes of his marriage. His white flag is up through the crack in his bomb shelter heart where grace can seep through. We are all frightened at being alive but afraid to admit it and ask for help from the only one who is truly not afraid, Jesus Christ.
There is an interesting twist in the gospel story today about Joseph. Herod and Joseph are both Jewish men raised in Palestine at the same time. Herod has built roads, ports, aqueducts, palaces and a big earthly kingdom. Because of this, he wants to be seen as prosperous, significant, powerful and royal. Jesus’ birth upsets that order and Herod fights to restore his power. When Herod is visited by the Magi, who tell him about God’s inbreaking into the world with the long-awaited Messiah, he only wants to eliminate the competition. His bomb shelter of a heart is impenetrable. It’s his dream or no dream. He will not surrender.
Joseph, on the other hand, has his status quo upended when he is visited by angels in four dreams. These messengers give him direction in order to keep God’s dream alive, which is our rescue in Christ. Our dreams pale next to the dreams that Christ has for us. The contours of grace overturn Joseph’s ego over and over again. He actually disappears from the story afterward because of it. The thought of our story disappearing is an anathema to us.
But God is the central actor here, as He is in our lives whether we admit or not. God becomes human to overturn the human ego and save us from ourselves.
Theologian Matt Skinner tells us, “Herod and his resistance to the reign of God remain alive and well today.” We don’t want the reign of God to come because our reign would be over. We want just a little more time to be the hero of our own lives before we ask God for help. Like Herod, we settle for a cheap candy bar when Christ is offering a banquet of abundant love and forgiveness. Your saga will end, but Christ’s story in you will live forever. Be assured, however, that our ego never gets so big that Christ cannot see us through it and love us. We can push God away with it, but it will eventually be deflated and we will see that Christ Jesus has been standing with us all along with open, loving arms saying, “I am the hero of your journey. Come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest.”