Don\'t Worry/Fear Not

Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matt.1:18-25
This is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love.
Let’s start by talking about human love. It’s a wonderful blessing. I’m not talking about falling in love, which can be mostly hormonal, but the love that comes from the soul, forming relationships with others that give us mutual caring and support based on trust. It takes time and work, and it’s not always ideal.
When you enter a new relationship, whether with one person or with a group, there is a period of uncertainty while trust is built. David and I talked about it when we were first dating as “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” People whose past relationships have been hurtful have a more difficult time with trust and forming attachments than people who’ve been blessed with healthy relationships.
When the bonds of love are broken, whether by death, disagreement, or some other cause, the pain can be devastating. It takes deep courage to love after experiencing loss. When you remember the pain you went through before, it makes you afraid to share your heart again. Not to love at all is to be without support, without friendship, to be alone. To love is to risk pain and disappointment. It can be frightening. It reminds me of the Simon and Garfunkel song that goes, “I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. God’s most important commandments to us are to love one another and to love our neighbor. Fear can keep us from doing that.
Zig Ziglar said, “Fear has two meanings: forget everything and run, or face everything and rise. The choice is yours.”
Of course, the purest form of love is from God. It’s the only kind of love that never ends, that never fails. It can fill your soul with hope and joy, even in the midst of pain and loss. This is the gift of perfect love we celebrate at Christmas, the love God sent down in the form of the Christ child to us to save us from sin and death. Jesus, whose name means “God saves,”  brought us grace and forgiveness we don’t deserve and can never earn, given through his death and resurrection.
The other gift we received from Christ is the presence of the Holy Spirit, God living in us to give us love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. Christ’s other name, “Immanuel,” means “God with us.” God doesn’t save us and leave us to fend for ourselves. God engages with us, walks with us, advises us, and loves us. God can give us the courage to love again, and the power to overcome fear, to face everything and rise.
Loving God back requires humility, a belief and trust that God knows better than we do and has our best interests at heart. It takes a willingness to stay open to the Holy Spirit and to keep surrendering our own plans to follow God’s.
Christmas can be a difficult time. Commercial retailers, advertisers, and card-sellers make a point of portraying Christmas as a picture-perfect celebration, an expectation no one can live up to. Disappointment is inevitable after such hype. Families dealing with divorce, separation, or other loss find the holidays especially stressful and painful. It’s not really “the most wonderful time of the year”.
Of course, Christmas has been difficult from the beginning, with unexpected twists and turns. While Mary sang with joy when Gabriel announced that she would bear the Messiah, our passage from Matthew shows that Joseph wasn’t so sure. After all, he wasn’t there to witness Gabriel’s appearance. Joseph was betrothed to Mary, the legal equivalent of being married. To their village, they were already joined before the public ceremony and consummation took place. Imagine his surprise when he learned that she was with child! He knew he couldn’t be the father. As a righteous man who followed the Scriptures, he could have accused her of adultery and filed for divorce, leaving her to the disgrace of her sinful, single-parent status. She would have had no means of support, and might have been abandoned by her family. His other legal choice was to have her stoned to death, killing the child as well. The law didn’t allow for the idea of forgive and forget.
But because Joseph was a righteous man, a kind man, he read the Scriptures with a heart that looked for ways to dispense mercy and grace, not harsh justice based on appearances. Although I’m sure he felt hurt at what seemed to be a betrayal, he decided to spare Mary from public disgrace and keep her and the baby from harm by divorcing her quietly, even though he himself might be judged harshly for being merciful.
Then an angel came to him in a dream and said that the baby Mary carried wasn’t caused by a sinful liaison on Mary’s part, but was indeed a miracle, the Messiah, God with us. Joseph’s angel told him to go ahead and wed Mary and name the child Jesus, which means “God saves.” By giving Jesus his name, Joseph legally acknowledged him as his son, adopting him into his family and thus into his genealogy from King David, another fulfillment of prophesy.
When God’s angels appear to people, they always begin by telling them to “Fear not!” Apparently, angels aren’t all cherubs that look like flying babies, but scary, large and powerful. The “fear not” they say isn’t just to help us stop shaking long enough to listen. It’s also a cue that God has something important and good in mind. The command not to fear is repeated in various stories and contexts 365 times in the Bible. That’s one for every day of the year!
No one could have blamed Joseph if he’d decided the dream was the result of eating a bad mushroom the night before. Who could believe such a thing? The story is incredible and miraculous, awkward and strange. Not only did Joseph have to surrender his doubts about Mary’s integrity, but he had to take on a child whose destiny was impossible to foresee in any kind of detail. He had no way to know what his part of the story would be, what challenges they would face, and what it would cost him to comply with the angel’s commands.
But like Mary, he had studied the Torah all his life. He knew the prophesies, including the one in Isaiah 7 that Matthew put into the story. Joseph chose to believe God, to play his part in being the parent and protector of the holy Child, to put aside his fears and worries and accept the risks. He chose to love Mary as his wife and to love Jesus as his own child.
God coming as a child meant a long period of vulnerability while he grew to adulthood. Mary and Joseph were carefully chosen and equipped by God to be the kind of parents Jesus needed, the kind that would love him, protect him, and teach him to love God and the Word.
Shifting to the Isaiah passage, some modern preachers would accuse Matthew of quoting verse 14 out of context. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” The whole of Isaiah 7 is about conflict and politics.  Isaiah was trying to reassure King Ahaz that Jerusalem would not be captured by the enemies he faced and offered to give him a sign from God. Ahaz refused, saying he didn’t want to tempt God. But he was really afraid, not trusting God to help Israel. Then when Isaiah promised him that a child named Immanuel was coming and that God’s plans would take the place of his own, well, the king was ticked off. People in power have a habit of believing they know best. Ahaz had his own plans in place and didn’t want to change them just because God had something else in mind. He was too proud to let God have control. As I said, loving God requires a degree of humility. We can’t expect to do things our own way and have it work out the way we imagine it will. “God with us” means that we should expect the unexpected, trusting that God will lead us in a new and better direction. Only God knows what’s going to happen, and God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours.
This resistance to God’s will is part of our selfish human nature and not easy to get past. It’s difficult to trust God when circumstances and people have hurt us in the past. Faith is starting down a twisting mountain path when you can’t see what’s at the bottom, letting go of fear and trusting God. Faith knows God isn’t just with us, God loves us and is for us.
Prayer and faith make it possible for us to trust and love God enough to keep on going. Yes, life can be dangerous and challenging and painful. No, we can’t anticipate or plan for everything that comes our way, even when we try to listen to the Holy Spirit. But God knows the inside story. God promised to be Immanuel, God with us, even in the most difficult times. We need to walk by faith and not by sight. By faith, we can help each other survive the evil that lies around us. By faith, we can choose to believe that God is with us and in us in the good times and in the hard times, leading, guiding, and supporting us through them all. The Holy Spirit leads us to live in community and be God’s hands and feet to carry love and help to each other and to our neighbors.
Like Mary and Joseph, we must be ready to say “yes” to God’s will, to behave in ways that are higher than that of the culture where we live. We can have the courage to do the will of God even if it seems odd, even if others will draw the wrong conclusions and gossip. We can join Mary and Joseph in being models of faithfulness. We can love each other and our neighbors without counting the cost, we can face everything and rise, because God so loved the world that He gave us the best Christmas gift of all.

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