You are needed by God for the Incarnation of God’s love into the world, maybe in ways that seem small, but are still challenging to you: don’t be afraid, then. God is with you.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday of Advent, year A
Texts: Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-16
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Maybe . . . maybe you also need to take Joseph of Nazareth seriously. 1
It’s not obvious that you should. Joseph is barely in the Gospels. Only Matthew gives any part of his point of view, and after the escape to Egypt, Joseph disappears. Except for when his twelve-year old son says, “you’re not my real father” after being absent for three days.
Joseph isn’t the one Mary’s first-born son called the greatest ever to be born of a woman. That’s the great forerunner of the Messiah, John the Baptist. Joseph isn’t asked to carry the Savior of the world in his own body, and become beloved to two millennia of people. That would be Mary, the Theotokos, the one who bears God into the world.
But Joseph is worthy of your serious attention, nonetheless.
Hear again the greeting from God’s angelic messenger in Joseph’s dream.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. Pretty common greeting. God’s angels often say this. Mary heard it at the beginning. So did the Bethlehem shepherds. Jesus essentially said “don’t be afraid” to John the Baptist last week. But Mary and John had critical jobs they were asked to do for God’s mission, big jobs that certainly could frighten. The shepherds were about to see a terrifying mass of angels in the sky.
What fear did the angel want Joseph to put aside? “Don’t be afraid to get married,” the angel said. That’s it. Go ahead and take Mary as your wife. It’s an anti-climactic mission compared to the others. Marry this woman, and don’t be afraid of that.
Joseph’s job in the Triune God’s entering human life is to be a husband. To provide for this mother and this child. To protect them, even from hateful kings. Over the years, the Church has called Joseph of Nazareth “the guardian.” That was the job.
And yet, and this is what you need to notice, he still was told not to be afraid of this calling.
That’s not as easy as it sounds.
Trusting God enough to follow God’s call, trusting that all will be well, even in your confusion or fear, isn’t easy. King Ahaz of Judah couldn’t do it. Or didn’t want to. As we heard a couple weeks ago, he was wicked, and didn’t worship the God of Israel. But Isaiah still told the king, as he trembled in fear under the threat of Assyria and anxiety over the northern alliance, “ask the God Who Is for a sign. Trust God will be with you. Don’t be afraid.” Ahaz refuses.
Isaiah gives him a sign anyway. “Immanuel,” Isaiah says. A child will be born with a name which means “God-with-us.” God is with you, Ahaz, even though you’re a terrible king and a wicked person. God will protect Judah, and before a child can be born and weaned, this political crisis will be over.
Joseph was also asked to set aside his fear and trust God.
Marriage wasn’t what he was really afraid of. He was engaged to Mary, after all.
But in light of Mary’s pregnancy, he faced shame and scandal and humiliation among his fellow townspeople. He faced the loss of his hopes and expectations that he would have a quiet life, working his trade, raising children to carry his name and his bloodline to the next generation. There was plenty to fear.
And even if they had more children, which Scripture says they did, he would never have a first-born son with Mary, and with this particular child he’d always be in a supporting role. A side player. Just there to protect and keep safe, and, we hope, to love. Mary would be called Mother of God. “Father of God” wasn’t Joseph’s call.
Joseph’s call diminished his expected role as father and head of the family, and, hardest of all, required him to believe Mary’s story about the pregnancy. That great pain hovered behind all this.
But of course, his role was critical. Mary needed to give birth safely. This child, God-with-us, would be vulnerable for years and needed to be fed and clothed and cared for and kept safe until he could do what he needed to do. A poor, single mother, without means of support, fending for herself and her child in the world is never a safe reality. Joseph’s role, small as it was, was absolutely necessary for God.
That’s what Joseph needed to trust. To set aside his fear about.
That’s why Joseph of Nazareth is so important to you.
Here’s what Joseph is for you: someone who does a critical job for God, only it’s one that’s barely noticed, that to the world looks unimportant, that might even cause embarrassment or sadness, that needs a change of expectations.
But it was also a job only Joseph could do. In this whole story, only one person was engaged to Mary, chosen for him by his family and hers. No one on this planet was in Joseph’s position to be guardian for her and for this baby.
Joseph asks you a simple question: what if you’re like me, and there’s something that only you are suited for, something God needs for only you to be and do as God’s Christ in the world? And what if it’s not very important? What if it seems insignificant? What if it means sacrifices for you? What if it’s being the person in your family and among your friends who guards the love of God, makes sure it’s revealed and lived in your life? Would you be willing to do that?
Now can you understand the angel’s greeting: “Don’t be afraid”?
God will ask you to do something today, or tomorrow, that will cost you in some way, but that only you can do. Maybe your expectations about how your life will go, or what you deserve will have to change. Maybe it will be inconvenient, or make you fear embarrassment, or be really challenging.
Maybe you won’t ever get an angel visit – or even an angel in a dream – though some certainly have experienced that, even to this day, and perhaps even in this community. But God gets the message through, always, and the call, always.
And always, God’s message to you is: “don’t be afraid to do this. To be this.” God’s message to Joseph (and to Ahaz, if he’d have listened), and to you, is “I am with you.” Emmanuel. My Spirit is in you, giving you courage and hope, to do what I need you to do.
And therefore, all will be well. Even if it’s sometimes hard to see that can be true.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
1 Borrowed from the opening line of Vicar Bristol Reading’s powerful sermon from last week, 3 Advent A, with thanks. Go read it. Better yet, watch the video at the link below. – J. C.