Fear, Love, and Holy Disruption
A sermon on Matthew 1:18-25.
Last week, we heard Mary’s response to her divine pregnancy in the form of her song of praise, and I shared my wonder at her ability to respond with such eagerness to the total disruption of her life.
This week, we get Joseph’s reaction, and at first glance it is much more understandable than Mary’s, although still laudable.
He learns that the girl he is supposed to marry has become pregnant.
He knows that he is not the father. (She says it’s the Holy Spirit, but…what is he supposed to think about that?)
He could publicly shame her, or worse. Deuteronomic law says that he should denounce her and have her stoned to death. But instead, he decides to just quietly end the engagement.
In a demonstration of moral strength, he follows the example of his namesake, the Patriarch.
Just as the earlier Joseph offered forgiveness to his brothers after their betrayal of him, just so our Joseph’ instinct, even after being wronged in his eyes by his betrothed, is to show mercy to Mary.
As far as the relatability of Joseph’s reactions within the Christmas drama, this all feels a lot more realistic than Mary’s poetic song magnifying God’s pattern of holy disruption….
Until we get to the angel’s visit in Joseph’s dream… and then I’m confused again.
It’s not the fact of the angel that throws me for a loop. This is scripture, I’m perfectly willing to accept the idea of angelic messengers – in dreams or otherwise.
What doesn’t make sense is the angel’s opening exhortation: “Jospeh, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
It’s confusing because, why is the angel talking about fear?
The set-up of the story doesn’t mention fear, it says he is “unwilling to expose (Mary) to public disgrace.”
So, the emotional tone seems to be more about Joseph’s concern for Mary.
There is probably some implied hurt on his part, maybe a sense of betrayal that he is willing to set aside because he’s a “righteous man,” but there’s no suggestion of fear for himself.
And, what is more, fear doesn’t make sense.
Why would HE be afraid? No one is threatening him.
He could be afraid of what might happen to Mary if she was exposed, but then the remedy would be for him to marry her as an act of protection, claiming the baby as his.
It doesn’t make any sense to tell him not to be afraid to marry her.
If the angel’s goal is to get Jospeh to go ahead with the marriage, it would make more sense for him to say:
“Don’t be angry that Mary is pregnant. She didn’t betray you, for the child is from the Holy Spirit.”
Or even “Don’t be confused about what is going on here. You can trust Mary. She was telling the truth about the child’s origin.”
But “don’t be afraid…?”
Just what about taking Mary as his wife is Joseph supposed to be afraid of?
It is interesting to me that the biblical usage of the Greek word used here for fear (φοβέω, phobéō) has a primary connotation of being frightened away, of fleeing, or being put to flight.
So, the angel is telling Joseph, “Don’t run off. Stay in this situation that you find yourself in….”
And the implication of that command is: “God has something for you to do here with this unexpected baby.” Continuing on with the angel’s message: “You, Joseph, are going to name him. You are going to raise him. He has important work to do, and you have a role in that work.”
When I look at it from that perspective, suddenly fear makes sense.
Joseph DID have something to be afraid of in staying with Mary… not because he didn’t believe her story about “being with child from the Holy Spirit,” but because he did believe it.
I mean, think about what a head trip that would be!
You are just living your life: practicing your trade, planning to marry a strong and capable young woman to start a life together that will follow the pattern you were brought up to expect, and suddenly:
Surprise! Change of Plans! You are going to be the adoptive father of the Son of the Most High God!
I have to admit… that does sound a little terrifying!
How in the world, does one gear-up to step into that role?
The SALT Commentary this week suggests a few ways of imagining the shape of Joseph’s fear:
“Perhaps he’s afraid of getting in the way of God’s work. After all, doesn’t Isaiah’s vision of God’s “sign” feature a “young woman with child” — not an engaged couple? Or perhaps Joseph is afraid of overstepping his calling, unable to see a role for an ordinary man like him in God’s glorious plan of redemption. Perhaps he considers himself unworthy of being the stepfather of God’s child (!!). Or perhaps he’s simply unnerved and bewildered that God — the author of creation, whom “no one may see and live” (Exodus 33:20) — has come so unimaginably, intimately near. It’s easy to imagine him thinking, Surely a child conceived from the Holy Spirit needs no human father!
It is in this imagining of what it might have felt like inside Joseph’s fear… inside his instinct to just, quietly remove himself from the world-changing drama suddenly playing itself out in his personal life… that I come full-circle in my experience of this story.
Because, in his fear, Joseph is, perhaps, even more relatable than I first thought.
I have a hard time imagining myself singing Mary’s song in the fullness of her celebration of God’s Holy Disruption.
But it is all too easy for me to imagine myself wanting to just quietly step back from the overwhelming responsibility of playing a pivotal role in God’s redemptive plan for the world.
I wouldn’t want to be a jerk about it! I wouldn’t want to lobby against God’s plan or put Mary in any more danger for her willingness to participate.
I might even want to be able to characterize myself as “righteous” in my decision to step back… to remind myself that I am following the law in the most compassionate way possible.
But it would be fear that was driving me, not love. Fear not only about the way God’s plan was disrupting my life, but also the fear that I wasn’t enough… that I couldn’t do what was being asked of me.
How do you not get absolutely swallowed up with fear by the idea that God is doing something with profound consequences and that YOU are supposed to be part of that?
How do WE hear the call to be part of God’s Holy Disruption in the world and not retract back into fear?
I think, maybe, that the only answer to that question is to look at fear from a different angle.
We know the shrinking side of fear, the instinct to pull back and run away from a challenge that feels too big for us.
But when we name our fear, when we are willing to admit it, fear also gives us the chance to admit our need.
When we recognize that we are acting out of fear, then we can also recognize the lie that births our fear:
The lie that WE have to be the ones to shoulder the responsibility in our own strength…
that we somehow have to find the ability within ourselves to do whatever God is asking of us.
But the end of the angel’s message to Joseph is what explains why he doesn’t need to be afraid, and why we don’t need to be afraid either.
It’s not Jesus’ divine paternity that set’s Joseph’s fears to rest – he already knew that from Mary.
It’s the meaning of the baby’s name: “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Joseph’s job – according to the angel – is to give the baby a name, and that name is a reminder about where salvation comes from:
It comes from God, from the God who comes to be with us in all of our human vulnerability, in order to SAVE us.
And because of that promise, we don’t have to feel overwhelmed and inadequate and afraid of what God might ask us to do in the work of Holy Disruption.
Because we are never asked to do anything alone, or in our own strength.
It is always Jesus who saves us from our short-comings, from our mistakes, from everything that pulls us away from God’s plan… including our fear.
So, I do relate to Joseph in his fear, when I think about God calling me to be part of a plan of Holy Disruption…
But Joseph also gives me hope that fear has an antidote.
Jesus came to save us with the kind of love that casts our fear by reminding us that whatever God asks us to do we will never have to do it alone.
Thanks be to God