The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 18th, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Brent Russett -Asbury Free Methodist
We have been following the thread of fear through the Christmas story. We looked at Zachariah and Elizabeth, then Mary. Last week we looked with you at the story of the shepherds. This morning we are going to look at Joseph. All the way through the Christmas story, you have those who were afraid. And all the way through the Christmas story, you have God urging, commanding, encouraging the people by saying do not fear.
I have noticed that there is a thread of fear that runs through most of our lives. We relabel it and call it worry, anxiety, stress, and sometimes we call it what it is fear. We fear the future because it is the great unknown. We fear evil people, and so we do what we can to make ourselves secure. We fear disease, and accidents, and rodents. The range of fear differs which each person, but there are few people who live without fear. We fear, even though we live in one of the safer places in the world.
And God steps into the middle of our world and says, “Do not be afraid..” And we wonder how. In our world the risk is real. Cancer, Car accidents, and crime are real. We wonder how not to be afraid when children don’t return when they should when the telephone rings late at night when so many things are uncertain. And yet God steps in the middle of our world and says do not be afraid.
If we heed his voice and act out of who we genuinely are, we are able to live well, live large. But if we operate out of fear, we will not be able to live well. Fear has a way of making us draw back from life, of shrivelling us up on the inside. Fear has a way of robbing us of life. That is something you intuitively understand. And knowing many of you, you want to live well. You want to live healthily. You want to live large. But the question is how?
This morning I want to take you into the story of Joseph. If you really want to embark on a journey of living out of who you really are rather than out of fear, I believe that he has something to teach you.
Matthew 1:18–21 (NIV)
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Mary and Joseph were engaged. But engagement was different back then. In our country, almost a third of the people who are engaged break off the engagement. That was not the case back in Mary and Joseph’s time. In fact, to break off an engagement, you needed to get a divorce. To be engaged or betrothed meant to already be thought of as husband and wife.
During this engagement period – I love this phrase – Mary was found to be with child. I don’t know how Joseph found out. Um, Mary, I didn’t want to say anything, but it looks like you are putting on a little bit of weight. Um, Mary, is that pillow under your shirt? Or maybe Mary told him a story that was unbelievable. Joseph, I’m pregnant, and God did it. I don’t know how she was found to be with child, but she was.
Now the news wasn’t really public yet. But it wouldn’t be long. And when that happened, Joseph would be embroiled in a scandal. He didn’t want that. Yet he was about to be embroiled in a marriage to a woman who obviously couldn’t be trusted. He didn’t want that. He knew he wasn’t the father. The pain in his soul must have been incredible. So, he figured, I don’t want to hurt Mary, but I just can’t marry her, so I am going to quietly divorce her.
Then an angel came to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. I’m sure Mary told him that, but it’s different coming from an angel. The message is don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. Why? Because at the base of the pain in his soul was fear.
Just an observation, but the basis of most lack of closeness in marriage is fear. Fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of trusting. Fear of opening up and getting hurt…
So the angel told Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, so,
Matthew 1:24–25 (NIV)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
In the act of taking Mary as his wife, Joseph showed courage. Courage to withstand the gossip. (People can count to 9 after a wedding) He showed righteousness. What he did what was right because he followed the command of God. He chose to be righteous rather than appear as righteous. He launched himself out into the unknown because the angel said, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.
And they lived happily ever after, right? And life was easy, right? Just do what the angel says, just trust in God, and don’t be afraid, and everything will fall into place. Right?
It didn’t quite work out like that. Remember the story of that first Christmas. Here you have this recently married couple who must make a long uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem by order of the king. It doesn’t matter that Mary’s 9 months pregnant. It doesn’t matter that there is no place to stay.
The angel said, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. But because he took her as his wife, he ended up in Bethlehem, homeless, with a wife who was about to give birth. If he had divorced her, he wouldn’t be in this situation.
I get some of the fear that Joseph was experiencing. We had planned to have our daughter Amy at a hospital with a midwife. She came a lot faster than we expected. We had her at home, with the midwife arriving with four minutes to spare. At that time, before the midwife’s arrival, I knew fear. But at least we had a roof over our heads and some help on the way.
Joseph could look back on the words of the angel, “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” and say look where it got me. My wife is in labour pains, and I can’t find a room. We have been to 10 hotels, and they are all have a “No Vacancy” sign. Don’t be afraid, yeah, right God… But God provided the stable. Not fancy but functional. The birth went well. And Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
People, if you follow God’s word when he says, fear not, do not be afraid, it doesn’t mean that you have clear sailing. You will still end up in some situations that are more than a little challenging. We seem to have this idea that if we trust God, then everything will be easy. But all the way through the Old Testament, when God said, don’t be afraid, it was often just before a war. If you take God at his word and do not fear, it doesn’t get you out of the battle. It does something entirely different. It takes God into the battle.
Think back to that night. If he had lived out of his fear, he would have missed the shepherds who had seen a choir of angels. He would have missed the wise men with their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. He would have missed the baby Jesus. And he would have missed being remembered by kids who dress up in bathrobes and go before audiences every year.
So, you want to live well. When God speaks – listen. It is not about the challenges – it is about – where is God in those challenges?
But let’s carry on in the story. When the magi come in search of the baby Jesus, they stop in at King Herod’s and ask,
Matthew 2:1–2 (NIV)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
It was a logical move. One would think that a king would be born where kings live, in a palace. As it turns out, Herod had no knowledge of the Christ child’s birth and the message these wise men had freaked him out (vs 3 – he was greatly disturbed)
So, the chief priests were summoned and asked where the baby is to be born. They answer, “in Bethlehem.” So, Herod finds out what time the star appears and then sends the magi on their way, asking that they come back and report so that he can go and worship the Christ child too. Except, what he really wants to do is exterminate the competition.
The magi find the baby Jesus and worship him and are warned in a dream to not go back to Herod. They went back another way.
Matthew 2:13–15 (NIV)
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife – Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Uh Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, Oh and by the way, the child she is carrying is going to be searched for by this blood thirsty king named Herod. He wants to kill him. But don’t be afraid.
God doesn’t tell us everything that is going to happen in our future. It is a good thing. None of us could handle it. But the reason he can say to Joseph, don’t be afraid, is because he walks with Joseph.
At the appropriate time, the angel showed up and said you need to leave for Egypt now. Joseph obeyed, and the Christ child was spared. But that is what you would expect. Go back to chapter 1 vs 23
Matthew 1:23 (NIV)
23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
It doesn’t matter if it’s the calm before the storm. It doesn’t matter that we find ourselves in situations that could be more than just a little scary. The story of Christmas, the story of the Gospel, the message of God to you is Don’t be afraid. Why? Because Immanuel is here. God is with us.
The reason why you can heed the voice of the one who calls to you and says, “fear not,” is that he walks with you all the way. There may be hair-raising moments. There may be Herod’s, but that doesn’t matter. Because the God of the universe is walking with you. He says, “Behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Listen to Roman 8
Romans 8:31–39 (NIV)
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There are a lot of things mentioned in this passage that we could be afraid of. But God’s message to you is do not fear. He is with you. He is on your side.
There are some of you here today who know what it means to live in fear. There are some Herods in your lives. There are some things that are not coming together. You have knocked on a dozen hotel rooms and found that there is no room in the inn. You have been told by God to do something that is out of your comfort zone. You are waiting for news from the doctor. You are waiting for a news update about someone you care about. You are not sure how your finances are going to play out.
Hear the voice of God to you today, “Do not be afraid, I am with you” Do not be afraid. I am on your side. Do not be afraid and live.
If you take God at his word and do not fear, it doesn’t get you out of the battle. It does something entirely different. It takes God into the battle.
Life will have its challenges. Following God does not exempt you from those challenges. But should you take God at his word, you will find him faithful.