4th Sunday of Advent, Year A
Joseph Didn’t Let Fear Reign. Do You?
“Do not be afraid,” (v. 20) might be the four most difficult words in the English language. Fear keeps us out of trouble. But if fear is our default mode, opportunities for growth and better, more fulfilling lives can slip by. Even when it’s not optimal, the known can be more comforting than even a potentially positive unknown. That’s the position Joseph found himself in.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Joseph just before adding that he should upend his life, have people question his faithfulness to God, and possibly cause an unhealable rift in his family. In a way, the angel draws a line in the sand. Cross this, take Mary as your wife, and follow My will. Or, stay where you are, follow all your rules, and continue to live in the known.
There’s surprisingly little about Joseph in scripture, but he appears to have been a religious man, doing everything in the order required by religious law. But scripture also says Joseph was “righteous” (v. 19). However, he wasn’t “self-righteous,” as one blogger points out, not out for personal justice. Joseph had clearly spent time thinking about, and probably in prayer over, his and Mary’s situation. But, rather than attain justice for himself and shame Mary, Joseph opts to “divorce her quietly” (v. 19). Even that seemingly righteous decision dances between the known and unknown, and in it, Joseph probably disgraced himself and his family.
But that “right thing” Joseph chose? Even that wasn’t enough for God. And that’s where God sometimes loses me, where He scares me. Yes, I want to follow God’s will. Yes, I am mostly willing, after a lot of thought, to go against popular opinion and do my own thing. But what scares me is even that may not be enough for God. It certainly wasn’t in Joseph’s case. We don’t know what price Joseph had to pay personally for His devotion.
Fear itself isn’t a bad thing. Fear often makes us pause before action, which in the heat of a situation, is often a good thing. The problem comes if fear keeps us mired in a time or place that keeps us stagnant. In scripture, when God says some variation of “Do not be afraid,” He frequently follows it with a directive. For Joseph, “Do not be afraid” is followed with “take Mary your wife into your home” (v. 20). Joseph immediately knows what he has to do.
To Abraham, God says, “Fear not…Look up in the sky and count the stars” (Genesis 15:1,5). Through Elijah, God says, “Do not be afraid. Go home…” (1Kings 17:13). In Matthew, God says, “Do not worry…you will be given what to say” (Matthew 10:19). To the apostles at the empty grave, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. Go tell my brothers…” (Matthew 28:10).
The message God gives is that He won’t abandon us. When we’re afraid, He is with us. If we follow Him, things will be different, probably radically so. Our lives may be upended, which will almost certainly be uncomfortable. But what people regret on their death beds is inaction, the things they didn’t do, the chances they didn’t take, and the times they didn’t follow God. What are you afraid of?