18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to break off the engagement quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, Yeshua, which means “God saves.”, for the child will save God’s people from their sin.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary home as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Please pray with me this morning, church:
God, our Joy,
There are a great many things that frighten us.
A great many things that unsettle us.
You promise to be with us in the midst of our fear.
As we await the arrival of Christ,
Continue to be with us, God.
There are more than a few moments in my childhood that I think back on, laugh at myself, and shake my head. “What the heck was I thinking?!” I never met a tree that didn’t look like it could be good for climbing. We would stack bricks up and put a piece of plywood down and try and ramp our bikes and catch some air. More than a few times did I think about climbing onto our roof and jumping down onto our trampoline to see how high I could bounce. Rollercoasters, I was all in.
These days I watch our 3-and-a-half year old jump on beds and climb all over couches and fling himself at me while we’re playing in the floor…and I haven’t the faintest idea of where he gets it.
Fear wasn’t a word that seemed to be part of my vocabulary for the majority of my growing up years.
And then at some point…I developed that knot you get in your stomach.
You know the one I’m talking about?
Rollercoasters seem less fun. Keeping the bike tires on the ground seems like a great idea. “But what if my 30-something year old body won’t let me climb trees or do the thing I think I should be able to?”
And then, I think, somewhere in there we start projecting that fear onto others. Don’t jump on that. Don’t climb there. Don’t do this. Probably don’t do that.
Maybe, like me, your list of things that there are to be fearful of has only grown in recent years. Viruses and germs and unstable situations and tensions between nations and political leaders whose idea of machismo is a measuring contest of the size of their nuclear arsenal…plus whatever the talking heads get paid to tell you is the next thing to be afraid of.
It’s as if fear has come to rule our lives.
There are some very good things to be afraid of. I’m not denying that. Snakes come to mind. And some others. But I’m wondering if we’ve given fear too much control over the steering wheel, and the map, and the Spotify playlist in the car. Are we giving fear more power than it deserves?
“Do not be afraid” or “Do not fear” is one of the most often repeated phrases throughout all of Scripture. Have you noticed every time an angel shows up in the Bible, the very first words the angel says are “Do not be afraid?” Now, to be fair, just kind of look at some the descriptions of angels in Bible to figure out why, right? Ezekiel’s got these figures that are like 4 wheels covered all over in eyes that are all spinning around each other like a gyroscope. Isaiah and Ezekiel both describe a figure that has 6 wings that cover their feet and faces and fly around holding burning fire and live coals. There are 4-headed figures, eyes of fire, figures that shine brighter than sunlight. I mean, I think fear is a totally valid reaction to something that looks like this.
And yet…into the midst of this very real, very valid, very rational fear, comes a word of peace: “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t give fear more power than it deserves.
Joseph had every valid reason to be fearful, the appearance of aforementioned angelic figure notwithstanding. Consider everything the angel had told him: “Turns out your fiancé’s pregnant, and I know it’s not yours, but don’t worry, it’s God’s child, conceived in her by a spirit. And it’s going to be a boy. And don’t worry about racking your brain trying to come up with a name, I’ve saved you the trouble. His name will be Jesus…Yeshua…Joshua…which means ‘God saves’ because your child will save God’s people from their sins.”
“Ok…cool…yeah…sounds good… Yep…no problem…” Right? Of course not. I don’t imagine that Joseph was just all of a sudden totally cool with all this. I don’t imagine Joseph just accepted everything the angel told him at face value. I’m certain Joseph had a few questions, wanted some clarification. I’m certain Joseph was fearful.
And yet…”Don’t be afraid.”
The Gospel according to St. Matthew is the only one that records this interaction with Joseph. Mary gets most of the airtime in Christmas pageants because Luke does such a good job writing the story and the Magnificat makes for really good drama. “Let it be with me according to your will”…lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty…all that stuff. It’s really pageant material.
But I think many of us are more like Joseph than we are like Mary, if we’re honest.
Joseph doesn’t say anything in these verses from Matthew, we’re not given an insight into what Joseph is thinking, but Joseph’s actions say a lot. In the midst of exciting, yet honestly, terrifying news, in the midst of an encounter in which Joseph would have very valid reasons to be fearful, Joseph displays extraordinary resolve. Against everything his Hebrew tradition told him was the way to deal with these things, Joseph was faithful to what he heard from God. Joseph is obedient, in spite of his religious tradition.
In the midst of great fear, Joseph shows tremendous faith.
That’s one of the things we’ve heard a lot over the past couple of years, right? Faith over fear.
I want to reframe that a little bit this morning. I don’t think it’s so much faith over fear…sometimes there are very valid reasons to be fearful. But how can we be faithful in the midst of fear? How can we be honest about our fears, the things that terrify us, the things that keep us up at night…how can be honest about the very real and valid fears we experience, while at the same time listening for God’s voice, doing our best to discern where God is calling us, and trying as best we can to be faithful to that call?
How can we be faithful in the midst of our fears?
Joseph doesn’t have any line of dialogue in this narrative. Joseph is emblematic of a kind of quiet steadfastness. Joseph is obedient, but Joseph listens. Joseph, in many ways, is any and all of us who have ever quietly done a job, not made too much of a fuss, gotten our work done, and not sought out recognition or accolades. I think of Joseph as most of us who have ever volunteered at church. It’s nice to be noticed and thanked, but mostly, all of us just kind of lean into our ministry areas and our passions and we do the work because there’s work to be done.
I think of what our life together will be like in January, when Danny’s away on J-term at seminary and I’m on parental leave, the week in and week out of this congregation will take all of you, joining together and getting done what needs to get done because there’s work to do. And it’s not work for the sake of busy-ness, I see it as a model of faithfulness. And obedience. And a consistency and commitment to doing what’s necessary for New Hope to thrive.
It’s a faithfulness that trusts that God will continue to walk alongside you despite who’s in the office or not. A faithfulness that trusts in the spirit of this community who, almost 50 years ago, did the work of the church together because there wasn’t anyone else to do it.
This is what I mean when I say that you are the ones who are called, church. You are the ones God is calling in this time and place to tend this particular garden.
And more than anything, this faithfulness trusts that God will keep working to bring forth signs of life, that springs will continue flowing forth in the desert, that fragrant and beautiful flowers will continue blossoming out in the wilderness, and shoots will continue sprouting up from stumps. Joyous baptisms, wonderful First Communions, the marvelous sounds of young voices and older voices singing together in our choirs. This is the kind of vibrant life God is bringing into your midst. This is what God has promised. God keeps God’s promises, and God has promised life and life abundant.
God has promised a Savior, a Messiah…not the powerful warrior-king that we’re expecting, but a vulnerable and naked baby whose cries ring out from a makeshift crib among farmers and their livestock and echo through the quiet night.
God with us.
In the most unexpected of ways.
In the most human of experiences…that of a newborn.
As we make space for Jesus this Advent and Christmas, our expectation starts to take on a more persistent posture. Beginning yesterday, and for the week leading up to Christmas, the church has used 7 names for God in their vespers and prayers, known as the ‘O Antiphons’, to mirror this persistent posture in pleading for God to finally make God’s self known among us. Titles such as O Wisdom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O King of the nations, O Emmanuel.
Pleading for God to finally break into our world…to stand in the midst of all our fears…those things that trouble us, the things that unsettle our hearts, the things that keep us up at night…that God would come stand among them…not to fix them…but to be with us in them. That you would know, dear child, that God does not abandon you. That in the midst of fear, even when your own faith is tattered and wearing thin, that God is faithful.
That God is with you.
God with us.