a homily for Advent 4A
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
“Don’t be afraid”
The most common phrase Jesus utters in His ministry is some variation of “don’t be afraid”. So often, the disciples are in the midst of something really hard, something truly frightening. Like Jesus appearing to them in the boat, rocked by storms and He tells them to not be afraid. Peter hears this and decides to walk out on the water. It’s a great story of fear and faith and our human confusions.
The best part, to me, of that story is that it has this truly interesting interaction: Jesus tells them not to be afraid and Peter tells Jesus to invite him to walk on water. It isn’t Jesus’s idea, but Peter’s. So Jesus says “come.” Peter hops out of the boat and starts walking on the water. But then he realizes what is going on and he begins to sink. So he calls for help again—like they had done in the boat. The shocking part of the story is that Peter does walk on water. We overlook that part. He wants to walk on water and then does.
We also have a common theme in scripture of fearing GOD. That GOD is to be loved and feared. It is a strange confusion that I don’t think we understand too well. I don’t want my children to actually fear me. Respect me? Yes. Hear me? Certainly. Listen to me? Absolutely. But cower in the corner, averting their eyes when they see me? No, no, heavens no. There are far too many parents who think they, like GOD, are to be feared that way. And that is wrong.
This fear is different. The angel that comes to Joseph in a dream has a specific message: don’t be afraid to marry your fiance. He was prepared to call it off and not go through with it. And the angel, this manifestation of GOD comes to Him and says Do not fear this, for this is GOD’s baby.
I am thankful that I married a remarkable woman. A woman I trust with all of my heart. But I’ve gotta say this: if she had come to me 9 years ago, after getting engaged, started the planning, and I drove home from seminary to find my fiance pregnant. I can’t say I’d be so trusting. I would be full of emotions: I’d be hurt, sad, and maybe afraid. But most of all, I’d be angry. I don’t care if she told me that an angel visited her and said that GOD is the baby’s daddy. In seminary, taking on this new call to ministry, if I heard that GOD knocked up my fiance, I wouldn’t believe it. I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably start with a paternity test. Maybe that will tell us the truth. If it’s mine, then I guess we’re moving up the wedding! If its someone else’s, then I’ll need that ring back.
If Joseph were in my shoes, there is no fear. Just walk away. For he has no responsibility. But were I in his shoes? That’s a different story.
Remember that 2000 years ago an engagement isn’t a verbal agreement, but a contractual obligation. This means that she was legally owned by her father but contractually owed to Joseph. For us, an engagement is the time in which we show off the ring and make all the wedding plans. In their culture, it meant that the property sale is pending.
And the laws were written to protect the property and those exchanging her. So if a man sleeps with another man’s fiance, the adulterer and the woman would both be killed. And there’s no telling what evil might become of Joseph if the world discovers Mary is pregnant. Much easier to break the engagement and walk away than to face what might happen.
Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife the angel tells him, because more than anger and sadness, what was overtaking Joseph was fear. Fear to face this. To believe. To trust.
A different kind of love
At it’s core, the story of Joseph and Mary is not a heartwarming tale of true love in the Hollywood sense. This would make a lousy romantic comedy. Man meets girl. Man falls for girl. Man gives Father an appropriate dowry. Angels visit Man and girl. They marry. Girl gives birth to Son of God. Man disappears from the rest of the story. This is no Romeo and Juliet.
This is a story of trust. Trust in each other. Trust in GOD. We see this when the Angel helps Joseph change his mind and suddenly, they are married and Mary is giving birth and they name the boy Jesus—as the angel instructed. We don’t dwell on the scorn, the looks, the potential trauma that awaited them. In the text, it doesn’t exist, even though it might have happened.
What might better be inferred from the text is that Joseph married her to protect her. That they could tell the world that Joseph is the father, while the reader knows the truth [wink, wink].
The trust this story demonstrates is a trust that GOD isn’t passive—that GOD is active, here(!), acting in this world.
Jesus is called Emmanuel, “God is with us” for Jesus is the very presence of GOD. The work, their service in bringing the in-breaking GOD to humanity was about trusting that GOD will break through. That GOD is one who breaks through. That GOD breaks through.
A season of trust
It seems this time of year that we get all excited by the trappings of the holiday-to-come, counting our wisemen and shepherds, arranging the greens and putting up trees. Perhaps worrying about whether Christ is in our Christmas. But the bigger question for us is if GOD is in our Christmas. Is GOD with us? For this isn’t a story about a baby or a story of personal salvation. It is a story about a GOD who breaks through.
For many of us, Advent has been a challenging season this year. The loss of loved ones, planning for Christmas, the new year. And yet, in the middle of this, I have noticed those small moments of GOD breaking through. In conversations, in prayer, in worship, in Target, in the hospital.
I have been witness to a GOD that transforms people’s lives without our knowing it. Without our acknowledging it. Without our believing it.
This week, let us celebrate Emmanuel—the Inbreaker. May we celebrate a GOD that comes to us, trusts us, invites us—that we, like Peter, may step out of safety onto the waters of doubt and fear and walk to Jesus. For it is in the Jesus Event that GOD broke through—that GOD became here.
May we be joyful for GOD’s unfailing presence, may we be moved to make that presence known to everyone we meet, and may we feel loved and protected in the boat or on the waters for GOD is always with us.