When I was 12 my sister took me on my first roller coaster.
The coaster she had chosen was called “the American Eagle” and it looked to be the most terrifying of all the roller coasters at the theme park.
It was this enormous old wooden roller coaster that that I had serious misgivings about.
Still, I didn’t want to be a coward, so I went.
I remember quite vividly those moments before the ride started.
There was no shoulder harness, just rickety metal lap bar which only went down as far as the largest person in the two person car, so needless to say it did not fit snuggly across my lap.
There was a handle bar in front of me that I could just barely reach and so I stretched my arms out as far as I could and gripped that handlebar for dear life.
And from the moment that car started to move to the time it stopped I clung to the handlebar, with my eyes tightly shut and I screamed at the top of my lungs.
Once the ride stopped I realized it really hadn’t been that bad after all.
The problem is of course I hadn’t really let myself experience the ride at all.
I did everything I could to distract myself from being scared only to discover that I also distracted myself from anything exciting or fun about the ride as well.
And while I can say that I rode the American Eagle that day, I can’t really say that I was courageous about it, or that I had truly experienced the ride at all.
This, I think is very close to our general reaction to the unknown, if we can we avoid interacting with what might be considered as scary. We do our best to control our environment by holding on to what we think is secure and by trying not to see or hear those unknown things that we fear.
In today’s Gospel Joseph is challenged by God to face the unknown with faith and courage.
There is a reason that every time an angel appears in the gospel we hear him say “do not be afraid”.
It is not just that an angel is a rather awe inspiring and terrifying figure to behold, though surely that is true.
But the message he brings is sure to be something that requires courage.
If an angel ever approaches you and the first thing he says is “do not be afraid” be prepared to be taken on the ride of your life.
Both Joseph and Mary discovered this when God chose them to be his human parents.
I am sure they had their own plans, plans to consummate their marriage in the normal way, plans to live a normal life in Nazareth with normal children. These plans probably did not include an ill-timed pregnancy and potential social disgrace.
But God does not play by our rules. He is not bound by our social expectations.
God has his own timetable, and he knows what is truly important in this world, and he knows what we are truly capable of doing.
It is for us to answer God’s call.
But as we all know, this is not really all that easy to do, because it means giving up our illusions that we are actually in control of our own lives.
There is something about us that desperately wants to be able to know what is going to happen.
We want to plan out our own future, we want to be in control of our own destiny.
And yet there is a part of all of us that knows, deep down that we are not really in control, that God is calling us out of our comfort zone and into the unknown, and that can be truly terrifying to come to terms with.
So we try to distract ourselves, we close our eyes so we cannot see what God is actually showing us, we make as much noise as possible in order to block out God’s call, and we hold on as tightly as we can to our own power, our own agendas.
What makes Joseph so wonderful is that, like Mary, he said yes to God.
He had to have been afraid; by staying with Mary he was risking his own honor and reputation.
Marriage was a very public act.
It would have been pretty easy for their community to figure out that Mary had gotten pregnant before Joseph had taken her into his house.
As good, pious, first century Jews this would have caused them a scandal.
So, I’m sure Joseph had misgivings, but when God called to him in his dream, Joseph did not plug his ears, or look away.
He trusted that, even in the midst of uncertainty, shame and fear, the divine presence is always going to be there, that God’s love will prevail.
Imagine the wonder and amazing joy Joseph must have experienced when he made that choice, that simple and yet courageous choice to say yes to God?
To be there guiding and protecting Jesus as he grew into a man, to be the earthly father of both his and our God made incarnate in the world – Joseph could never have planned or foreseen such an amazing future as the one God had given him.
Eventually I got back on that Roller Coasters and other ones as well, as the roller coaster starts I still get scared, every time, but eventually I learned to open my eyes, put up my hands and enjoy the freedom and excitement that comes with simply letting go.
And I will admit to you that there is nothing more joy inducing for me than a ride on a roller coaster.
The question is, can we do this with our relationship with God? Can we let ourselves experience the unknown that God is calling us to experience?
Can we follow Joseph’s example and despite all of our misgivings say yes to God?
It is unlikely that we will be approached by an angel, but God is still asking us to do something new in the world. Perhaps it is something as simple as involvement in a charity, or it could be a call to completely change the direction of your life. The small voice inside that we try to ignore, the one that wants to disrupt our comfort and make us get up and go and do something new, something different, that is the angel of the Lord.
Like a roller coaster ride, a relationship with God can be terrifying, it is filled with twists and turns and we do not get to choose where the ride goes, but it also promises an overflowing of joy unlike any we could possibly imagine.