The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 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 fulfill 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.”
This story is a lovely counterpoint to Luke’s annunciation. Luke has the angel announce Jesus’ coming to Mary, and Matthew has the angel speaking to Joseph. I am certain the canon of scripture was not settled with gender-balance in mind, but it is happy-making that the balance is there.
“Do not be afraid.” What a lovely greeting, and amazing to hear when the speaker clearly is not of this World. Angelic visitations among human beings usually begin with the angel setting the tone for the ensuing conversation by saying “...do not be afraid.” That phrase may simply address the human being’s startled and amazed reaction to the angel’s appearance before anything gets said. It may address fear of the content of the message itself. It may address both. Angels do not appear if God does not have something to say to human beings; de facto, God wanting to talk, and the appearance of an angel to facilitate that, is awe-inspiring if not utterly terrifying.
Per usual the angel sets the tone for the message. To Joseph he says “...do not be afraid.” And what is this angel’s particular message?
“...do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife...”
Fear is a powerful feeling, and it can bring unexpected thoughts and actions. Whatever the specifics of any given situation may be, all fear is rooted in loss...potential or actual loss. If there is no loss, there is no fear.
For example, you are scared by a charging rhino. Why? Because you can imagine being gored, and then stomped to death, by 2½ tons of angry, myopic pachyderm. Such painful injury and violent death would pretty much count as a loss, and fearing the rhino is sensible. OR, you fear being demoted or fired from your job. Why? Well, your self-esteem is one thing, the esteem of others is something else, and uncertainty about your family’s well-being is yet another. Your family needs an income to support life-as-lived, and being fired threatens the loss of that life-style. The losses in such cases are physical and emotional. However robust one’s self-esteem may be, how resiliently flexible one’s style of life may be, these things produce fear. In all my years of working with people, I have never observed fear that could not be traced to potential or actual loss... physical loss of life... unexpected, unwanted or angry modification in the conditions of anything treasured, valuable or important… all of these produce fear because each represents some kind of loss.
So what does Joseph stand to lose? Why is the angel’s greeting appropriate in addressing Joseph’s fear in this moment? At first glance Joseph has much to lose and therefore plenty of reasons to fear. Joseph is a faithful person with no known prior record of angelic visitations and it is safe to say that Joseph’s faith experience is radically re-scripted by the mere appearance of the angel, and even more so by what the angel has to say. God is getting ready to be much more observable, and whatever blindness Joseph may have had to God’s immediate presence is getting ready to disappear; such a change may be a loss he fears. Pregnancy before marriage is scandalous in many cultures (it’s potentially a stoning offense for Mary in this case); Joseph knows that Mary is pregnant and they both know it’s not his biological child. The shunning, the gossip, the ridicule, all count as loss of face, of social standing and of reputation. Imagine the gossip that judges Joseph and Mary when it’s assumed that they have made this baby together, and then imagine the redoubled tongue-wagging when it is known that Mary has made this baby with someone else...and were Joseph and Mary to assert that God is the baby’s father, it goes from ridicule to stoning (for blasphemy) for both of them! When God makes choices that one thinks are one’s own to make it is disconcerting, and having one’s personally developed schedule modified, even if by angelic utterance, is annoying. The loss of one’s ignorance- that moment when new knowledge commands accountability and commitment- almost always brings fear. There’s lots changing here, and lots to lose here, and so of course there’s lots to fear.
The angel encourages Joseph to be faithful to the message, and in so doing, keep faith with the God who sent it. The angel encourages Joseph to be faithful when he (Joseph) cannot see the whole picture that God sees. The angel encourages Joseph to do the right thing as God sees it (marry Mary) rather than the right thing as Joseph sees it (discreetly and quietly break the engagement). The angel encourages Joseph to trust God’s new information over what his own decency and common sense tell him.
It is often said that faith’s opposite is not doubt, but fear. Joseph’s predicament certainly supports that assertion. In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, Joseph trusts the message. In the face of all the good reasons not to do as the angel has said, Joseph believes the angel and steps past his fear into his faith.
Despite two millennia of being tamed and domesticated by secular culture and the Church, beneath all the triumphal and cute glosses we’ve put on the text, this story is just as scary now as it was when it happened. The real challenges posed for Joseph are the real challenges posed for us all right now. The angel has come to bring an encouraging message, and that message begins with “do not be afraid.” If this is just a quaint moment in a quaint story, if this angelic utterance is nothing more than a charming metaphor, the story remains leashed, controlled, tamed. God is none of those things, and neither is God’s messenger. This is grown-up, serious religion with consequences. Before the staggering love of the Incarnation can be fully embraced must come our answer to “What in the coming of Jesus makes me afraid?” Do we fear God coming among us for its own sake, or do we fear God coming among us because we feel incompetent to respond? Joseph’s response suggests that he heard an invitation, not an accusation. We are blessed if we can do the same.
Love you. See you in Church.
FBC3+, 18 December 2016, being The Fourth Sunday of Advent
 Matthew 1:20 NRSV
 Matthew 1:18-25 NRSV