Beyond Fear

Sermon for Sunday, December 22, 2019 || Advent 4A || Matthew 1:18-25

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to talk about the movie Frozen II. But first let’s talk about fear. Whenever an angel of the Lord appears in Holy Scripture, the angel always begins the message for the same four words: “Do not be afraid.” Today’s Gospel lesson is no exception. Mary’s fiancé Joseph has resolved to “dismiss her quietly” because of her pregnancy, but he takes one more night to sleep on the decision. During that night, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. My question is: Why would Joseph be afraid to do this? I can think of many reasons for Joseph’s fear, and I want to talk about three of them this morning. We’ll dispense with the first two quickly because the third is where I really want us to focus.

First, Joseph might be afraid that Mary is lying to him. She’s pregnant without any relations with him and she’s telling this fantastical story about the Holy Spirit. Since marriages are based on mutual trust, perhaps Joseph is afraid because he thinks that Mary has betrayed him. Such thinking would put Joseph in a long line of men not trusting the experience of women, especially when women are making decisions about their own bodies. But based on Joseph’s concern for Mary’s public standing, I don’t think this is the reason for his fear.

A second option is that Joseph is afraid for his own reputation. I can see him weighing the public’s reaction to the scandal. Either he is the baby’s biological father and therefore he and Mary had relations before they were married. Or he would have to endure a lifetime of people whispering behind his back about raising another man’s child. Gossip about the first possibility might die down after a while, especially once he and Mary had more children. But the second? That would be with him forever, especially once Jesus becomes his apprentice. Perhaps Joseph fell into the trap of valuing his own reputation more than he valued the promises he and Mary made to each other at their engagement.

Honestly, this second option is the mostly likely of the three, but I want to propose a third option, one that each of us can totally identify with. The third reason for fear comes embedded in the angel’s next words: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Is it possible the angel invites Joseph to let go his fear, not because of trust or reputation, but because Joseph is standing on the precipice of a decision that will change the course of his life?

Not only is Joseph going to become a father earlier than he expected, which would be a big enough change in itself. Joseph is also going to be the father of the One who is the Christ, the One who will lead all Creation back to the reconciling love of God. Whoa. That’s big. Fear would be the natural response to such a mission: fear that Joseph won’t be a good enough parent; fear that he will make a mistake that will mess up Jesus’ identity; fear that his child, the Messiah, might run afoul of the authorities and pre-decease him.

Fear shrinks us. Fear makes us smaller than we really are. When we are afraid, our vision narrows until it latches onto a single possibility for deliverance from our fear. For Joseph, that narrow possibility is dissolving the engagement and going about his life. Surely, his parents would find another match for him. But the angel tells Joseph to look beyond his fear and see the life God invites him to live. Joseph is standing on the precipice of a decision: one way leads him to safety and predictably at the price of his promises to Mary. But if Joseph had taken this path, he would have been undone. He would not have recognized himself in the mirror after choosing his reputation over his promise. I think he waits to dismiss Mary because he can feel the unraveling sensation in his gut that accompanies a choice which negates who we are at our cores.

The other way leads him into the unknown, but with Mary and Jesus at his side. He wants to choose this option, but the lies society has told him hold him back. The angel’s message gives Joseph the courage to stand against those lies, to stand by Mary and the child. Yes, this is the person Joseph is meant to be! The unraveling sensation vanishes when the core of who he is asserts itself. This core – which is the spark of God’s presence in each of us – begins shining. And Joseph knows himself to be the person God yearns for him to be.

The angel’s message gives Joseph the permission to listen in this moment of decision. And Joseph looks beyond his shriveling fear and sees a shining future, a future of danger and uncertainty, yes, but the future God is calling him into. And this danger and uncertainty is why the angel reminds him of the child’s other name: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

We will always have fears. Fear is an evolutionary response to walking through a jungle filled with lions and tigers and bears (oh my).  And yet, when we are standing at the precipice of a life-changing decision, God invites us to look beyond our fear to see how God will be with us in the midst of the unknown. There is no greater promise in the Bible than the one stitched into the name Emmanuel, this promise that God is present…always.

At the beginning of the movie Frozen II, Elsa hears a voice calling to her to come explore her identity. At first, Elsa sings,

Everyone I’ve ever loved is here within these walls
I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls
I’ve had my adventure, I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you into the unknown

But as the song progresses, Elsa realizes that she longs to go where the voice is calling her. At the start of the song, their two voices sing together but they don’t quite harmonize. There’s something off. But by the end of the song, as Elsa looks beyond her fear, their voices combine in beautiful harmony. That’s how I imagine how God-with-us is present in our lives: God’s voice and our voices singing in harmony, weaving in and out of each other as we move toward an unknown future…together.

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