The following is a sermon I prepared for Advent 4–December 22 at First Lutheran Church in Lee, Illinois. Icy roads caused the cancellation of the service, so, I offer this sermon for the members of Lee and for anyone interested. I pray it adds to Christmastide reflections.
If an angel of the Lord appears before you and proclaims “Do not be afraid!” what do you expect? What would you feel, deep down inside?
- Would you feel like Bilbo Baggins, and anticipate an invading hoard of orcs to be coming up over the horizon? “Do not be afraid!”
- Would you expect to hear such words only if something very dramatic were to happen? Perhaps the airplane you are on is being hijacked by terrorists and you know the chances of coming out alive of this one are nil. “We are about to go down – but don’t be afraid!”
- The people of the Bible heard these words in circumstances dramatic and grave—
- Like the Israelites when they were being pinned in by Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. “Fear not!!!”
- Or like Jacob when he was commanded to do something foolhardy by the Lord – “Look, I’m asking you to go down with your whole family and live in Egypt.” But fear not!!! It’s all part of a plan.
- In the Bible people were especially full of fear when they encountered the Lord –
- Adam was afraid when he heard the Lord approach in the Garden.
- Sarah was afraid to face the Lord when she was caught laughing at the idea of angelic messengers who renewed the promise of a son at her age.
But there is something quite odd to hear the angel speak to Joseph.
The angel says, “Joseph, don’t be afraid…don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
Why? Isn’t Mary meek and mild and saintly? Isn’t she the Virgin Mary? What’s so dangerous about a wedding?
But, Joseph already knows. And we know Joseph knows. Mary may be beautiful. Mary may have a heart of gold. Mary may even be the love of his life.
But Mary is pregnant! And Joseph isn’t the father.
And, besides this, the angel knows something Joseph doesn’t: A miracle is about to happen—a mind-blowing miracle that will lay bare just how thin and fragile Joseph’s faith in God really is.
So Joseph, as good and as brave a man as he might be, has many reasons to be afraid. To appreciate this we need to know a few things.
- First, Judea in the first century is an honor and shame culture. Your worth as a human being isn’t registered in what college you went to or what grade you made. It isn’t even a matter of what neighborhood you live in or what kind of car you drive—or whether you have a camel or an ass to ride. Your worth is your honor and your good name.
- And second, marriage isn’t when two love-birds run off to get hitched. No! It’s a sacred contract between two families. Two very large families because it includes parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. And a marriage is a complex contract arranged usually by mothers and ratified then by fathers or elder stand-ins for the fathers.
- And third—Joseph and Mary are betrothed – but that isn’t our engagement ring from Jareds – it’s the start of the long process and it is a guarantee that the woman involved is…indeed…a virgin. Sex during this time is a grave sin – it is adultery. It is an insult – an abomination — a shame. If, during the months of betrothal, the woman is found to be pregnant…well there can only two outcomes. If she was made pregnant in the village, then she should have cried out and stopped things – so, if she didn’t, both she and the man who got her pregnant are to be stoned to death. If she got pregnant in the countryside – well, she couldn’t have raised a rukus out there, so only the man is stoned. It’s all there in Deuteronomy.
- Today it can be a joke on late night television. But in Joseph’s time this is very serious and very dangerous stuff.
- So, this is Joseph’s good name and honor. No—this is the good name and honor of his whole clan and his village and his children after him and his children’s children for endless generations!!!
- Now, according to Deuteronomy, the good name of the village, of the religion, of Joseph, can only be served by stoning Mary.
But Joseph is righteous, Matthew tells us. A little hint. He has already decided to bend the rules because his gut tells him religion is not just about honor and keeping rules. It’s about compassion too.
So, Joseph has decided to put Mary away quietly.
Perhaps she can keep her pregnancy quiet. Go off to her relatives- maybe even to cousin Elizabeth – and have the baby in secret and perhaps find a home for it. And that way two families may have saved their honor.
But the angel says, “No, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child born of her will save the people from their sins.”
Matthew tells us a story of Jesus that puts the focus not on the sins—but on the sin. And the fountainhead sin—the mother of all sins is faith without fulfillment.
The unfolding of Matthew’s Gospel is a story of conservative, strict religion. Jesus will say, “Not one jot or tittle of the Torah will pass away.” But Jesus adds, “I am concerned not just with strict religion or pure religion or even with the honor of being strict and conservative with religion. I’m concerned about fulfillment.
Matthew uses those words all through the story.
And Jesus says it – I have come to fulfill. The meaning of the whole of the Sermon on the Mount is about fulfillment. Jesus says it may sound as if he wants to violate rules, –to do away with the law and the prophets – No – he says – I haven’t come to do away with them, but to fulfill them. The words he uses mean to bring them into alignment with God’s heart; and to have the human aligned—you don’t say one thing and do another. You don’t say one thing and then do another. But you are aligned through your self and in line with God.
Matthew says it – it is all about fulfillment.
And fulfillment cannot come without compassion and mercy and forgiveness of sins.
Fulfillment is faith without the fear. It grows out of the God we worship—out of the perfect love of God. And, while perfect fear casts out love, perfect love, as John tells us, casts out fear
- Matthew is the Evangelist who reports Jesus’ several stories of not picking out mites from people’s eyes when you have a log in your own.
- Matthew reports Jesus’ talking about the heart of a fledgling church being all about doing everything possible to get people to repent of their sins so you can forgive and restore them. He says the church shouldn’t obsess about keeping score of sins or judging people, but leaving the judging to God on the last day.
In other words, it’s all about grace. Grace and mercy and forgiveness of sins are at the heart of the Good News and of the New Age of the Church. It is the fulfillment of all the Scriptures and of all the plans of God.
Martin Luther had a word about grace and about fearlessness. Confronting people who seemed afraid to make any moves in life, Luther said, “Sin and sin boldly, but believe in the grace of God more boldly still.”
The angel of the Lord got the story of Christmas going by telling Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
- You can sense in Matthew that the first meaning is this:
- Don’t let your concern about your own self-image or honor get in the way.
- Don’t let your concern even for your family’s self-image or the reputation of your religion stop you. Don’t let your faith by distorted by IMAGE PRESERVATION.
- Sometimes you can be so honorable and so right that you can’t be saved. You can focus so much on your own righteousness that you miss the righteousness that God is giving you as a wondrous Christmas gift.
- So, put the grace of God—the picture of a forgiving God in the center of all your thoughts. THAT’S FULFILLMENT.
We all have Joseph moments in our lives. They are moments when the way we want to be seen to be good threatens to swallow the instinct we have to do good itself. I know a man who was struck by the beautiful and noble way a widow mourned for her lost husband. He longed to reach out to her, but he himself had failed in a marriage before and he feared that it wouldn’t somehow be right to seek happiness in another marriage. It took the encouragement from several good Christians to persuade him that God’s rules can and must be understood in the light of God’s love. And now his faith and his life are more fulfilled.
We can understand Joseph’s fear in a second way. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” may also mean, “Don’t be afraid to let God do a miracle in your life.”
- Isn’t it true? Aren’t we, deep down, scared that God will do a real live miracle in our lives? Yes, I guess some people are afraid to be bold in following Jesus because they think it WON’T turn out. But I think it’s far more common for us to be afraid of following – afraid of being compassionate like Jesus because we think a miracle WILL HAPPEN – and then our lives would have to change radically.
- The angel says, “Your God is about to make a move that will change the world, Matthew – and, incidentally, it will change your life too! Your Son will be Immanuel – God with us.” All the time Matthew quite possibly is thinking, “I’m not sure I want God that close.”
- But in the end, Matthew surrenders his fears. Life with Mary will be hard, but, with God on their side, they can face anything.
We all have these Joseph moments too–when we are on the cusp of something miraculous and it scares us. We have a door we can walk through. We can do the things that only saints can do:
- Shake hands with the homeless and pay for their meal.
- Welcome somebody lonely for a Christmas meal.
- Visit someone in the nursing home or in a prison.
- Be a mentor to a lost teenager.
And let’s face it, whenever we do these things we are making life more dangerous.
When we open our lives to miracles of grace we will eventually discover that life has changed drastically. In a way our lives aren’t our own anymore. Our time isn’t our own. Our money—our stuff—isn’t our own. Because we have opened a flood gate of loving people and being loved; and all that love brings in the doubling and tripling of pain.
In Luke’s Gospel Simeon says it to Mary, but surely he could have said it to Joseph as well, “A sword will pierce your heart.” If Joseph lived long enough he would have seen his son crucified as a traitor to Rome and as a pollution to his own faith.
Yet, this is just what it feels like to live a fulfilled life, and to have a fulfilled faith. It’s dangerous; but do not be afraid!
Joseph faced his fears and Jesus was born for the fulfillment of all God’s plans, so that we all might love more dangerously and more boldly but believe in the grace of God more boldly still.
Joseph faced his fears and now we know there is not anything we can’t face when God is with us.