Do Not Be Afraid – Br. James Koester

Matthew 1: 18–25

I know this is not a fair question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Had I asked you five minutes ago, to tell me the story of the birth of Jesus, my hunch is it would have gone something like this:

One day an angel appeared to a young girl and told her she with be the mother of God’s son, even though she was not yet married. Before her marriage, she and her fiancé travelled to the town where his family came from. Because there were so many people in town at the time, the only place available for them to stay was the stable at one of the local inns. It is there, she gave birth to her baby boy, whom they named Jesus. After the birth of the baby, some shepherds found them, and told them they had been instructed by some angels to look for the baby.

You get the picture.

The story of the birth of Jesus that is imprinted on our minds and in our hearts, is the story that Luke tells us. That’s the story of carols and hymns, stained glass windows, great works of art, and countless Christmas cards. That’s the story we think of when we think of Christmas. That’s the story we will hear in a few days’ time.

But that’s not the only story. That’s not the only version.

There is another version, because there is another person involved, and that’s Joseph. It’s Joseph’s story, it’s his version of the story, Matthew tells, and is the one just read a moment ago.

In this version the angel comes, not to Mary, but to Joseph. While Luke suggests Mary is at first frightened, and perhaps confused, we see that Joseph is worried and troubled.

Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.[1]

You can imagine this. Joseph is hurt, confused, perhaps offended, even worried, maybe angry, because somehow Mary has become pregnant. Fearing scandal, both for himself, and for Mary, and perhaps wanting to protect his own honour as well, Joseph decides to break off the engagement as quietly as possible.

It is this Joseph, troubled Joseph, worried Joseph, even frightened Joseph, that holds my attention.

You may be familiar with icons of the Nativity. In some icons of the Nativity, we see Joseph, off to the side, sitting down, his head is in his hands. He is clearly wondering what on earth he should do. Beside him is an old man, carrying a crooked, twisted staff. That’s the image in your bulletin today, so take a look at it, because that image tells the story, which, while it is Joseph’s story, it’s also a story we all know only too well, from our own lives.

Joseph doesn’t know what to do, and the voices in his head, in the guise of an old man with a bent, twisted staff, are bending and twisting his thoughts, convincing him to do something other than what he had planned, all in the guise of doing the right thing. That’s Joseph. He is someone who wants to do the right thing, because, as Matthew tells us, Joseph is a righteous man.

That we are told Joseph is a righteous man, is a hugely significant detail. It is also a theme picked up over and again in Matthew’s gospel:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.[2]

Joseph is not only a good man, he is an honourable man, whose life is shaped by a sense of justice, compassion, and a dedication and devotion to God and the things of God. In other words, Joseph was a righteous man, concerned with doing the just, compassionate, ethical thing, in a manner that would not only please God, but would be of God.

No wonder Joseph was troubled. My hunch is, we can all sympathize with Joseph, because like Joseph we too want to do the right thing, the just thing, the compassionate thing, that not only would please God, but would be of God.

How often, when faced with a situation that challenges, and even confuses and hurts us, do we mull things over, maybe even with our head in our hands, wondering what to do, and listening to all the voices in our heads that bend, and twist our intentions, convincing us to do, not the right thing, but the easy thing, the logical thing. I know I do. Joseph certainly did. I bet you do as well.

I know I can get lost, for a long time, in muddled thinking. That was the case for Joseph. He thought about the situation. He mulled it over. He listened to the voices in his head, especially the ones that twisted and warped his thinking. And he came to the decision, that he would break off the engagement, and dismiss Mary quietly.

Sometimes the voice of reason comes to us in the guise of doing the logical thing. No one would have blamed Joseph had he done this. In fact, he would have been praised. But sometimes the logical thing, is not the righteous thing. Sometimes the logical thing is not the thing which, in the language of the Beatitudes, satisfies us or gives us a taste of the kingdom. And that is what Joseph was to discover.

Having resolved to do the logical thing, and dismiss Mary, he hears another voice telling him do not be afraid.[3]

If the quest for righteousness is one of the great Biblical themes, then so too is fear. From the moment fear entered the Garden of Eden, and we hear Adam say I was afraid,[4] until today, fear has been an overwhelming condition of humanity. Who among us does not know the taste of fear? Yet from that moment in Genesis, to the end of Revelation, God tells us repeatedly do not be afraid.[5] We hear it again today. Joseph…, do not be afraid….

If there is one thing that muddles our thinking, twists our motives, and warps our decisions, it is fear. We are afraid of so many things. And the voices in our heads, like that old man with the twisted, bent, crooked staff in the icon, knows it. And God who says do not be afraid knows it too.

The amazing thing, the incredible thing, the wonderful thing is, look what happens when we stop listening to those voices in our head, and that old man in the icon, that tell us to be afraid, that twist our thoughts, that confuse our intentions. Look what happens when instead we listen to the voice of God who tells us, do not be afraid. Look what happens: God, Immanuel, is born among us.

‘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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.[6]

The story of Joseph is not simply his story, it is our story, because it reminds us that when we listen to the voice of God who tells us do not be afraid amazing things can happen. When we, like Joseph, are no longer afraid, we will discover that God Immanuel is here in our midst.

So next time your thinking is muddled by fear, and that old man with the crooked staff is bending and twisting your thoughts, listen for that other voice, the one that whispers do not be afraid, and maybe, just maybe you will discover that God Immanuel, God with us, is in your very midst, the kingdom has broken in, and you are deeply satisfied.

Do not be afraid…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory[7]…do not be afraid.

Lectionary Year and Proper: Advent IV, Year A

[1] Matthew 1: 19

[2] Matthew 5: 6, 10, 20

[3] Matthew 1: 20

[4] Genesis 3: 10

[5] This phrase appears 67 times in the Bible, including in Matthew 1: 20

[6] Matthew 1: 20 – 25

[7] John 1: 14

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  1. Barbara Bertrand on December 28, 2023 at 09:34

    Bro James the word re;fear is an excellent but it seems that more often than not fear prevails.i could be just very negative & not doing the pray thing..tx again.

  2. Marilyn Bergen on December 27, 2023 at 12:15

    Br James, your words surprised me and lightened my heart! I was not expecting this reflection to go in this direction. I love the surprises we are offered by our God. “Do not fear, I am with you always”. With my thanks.
    Marilyn Bergen

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