Sermon (or at least the rough draft paper version) preached at Johnstown United Methodist Church
Do not be afraid.
The words of the angel call out to Joseph, and to all of us, who live in fear.
Do not be afraid.
As a child, I was gripped by fear. There were many things I was afraid of.
I was afraid of the water and it took me a long time to learn how to swim.
I was afraid of the drive-thru car wash; the combination of that water and those big machines was too much for me.
I was afraid of the barber; I would through fits in the chair that would clear the barber shop.
I was afraid of the doctor. My parents would argue among themselves about whose turn it was to take me and then they would have to trick me and tell me we were going somewhere else.
As a child, I was very afraid.
It is hard to understand where all this fear came from. I am told that when I was a baby I was put in a bath of water that was too hot, so maybe my initial fear of water came from that. I was sick a lot as a child, so maybe my fear of the doctor came from that.
I don’t know the reasons why, but I was a very fearful kid.
Today, I don’t have any of those fears.
I love being in the water.
I don’t mind getting a haircut or driving through a car wash or going to the doctor.
In fact, from the outside, you might describe me as a somewhat fearless person.
I spent 20 years in the Air Force and got rides in the backseat of fighter jets.
I have gone skydiving and zip-lining and repelling.
I have run marathons.
From the outside, I am not a risk averse person. In fact, just the opposite, you could describe me as a bit of an adrenaline junky.
But if I am honest with you, I still have some fears. They are a little less obvious. I am not afraid of the dark or of public speaking or of things that go bump in the night. However, I am afraid of things like rejection, failure, or not being accepted.
Perhaps these were some of the same kinds of fears that Joseph had.
Our scripture describes Joseph as a righteous man.
It is easy to imagine how a righteous man would live his life. He was a man of faith who followed his Jewish customs and beliefs, a carpenter who worked hard and ran his business well, and a person who was kind and cared for others.
But while Joseph was righteous, he was also human.
He had met a girl named Mary… and there was something about Mary.
It is easy to imagine his excitement as he began to think about what his life would be like with Mary: a wife, a family, a place in the world, all that comes with being a husband.
And then, Mary tells him to sit down and she has some news to share with him.
She is pregnant.
I wonder if he even heard the next words out of her mouth.
Pregnant? He knew he wasn’t the father so there could only be one thing this could mean.
You can imagine the initial thoughts and feelings of betrayal that would have gone through his mind and the pain of disappointment that would have accompanied that.
Mary would have assured him that she had not been unfaithful, that she had been visited by an angel and somehow this had something to do with the Holy Spirit.
But what did all of that mean?
And, what would other people say?
He was a man with a solid reputation, a good man, a righteous man. What would people say if they thought he got her pregnant before they were married? What would they say if they found out the child wasn’t his and he agreed to raise it anyway? And why would he?
As a righteous man, Joseph would have known the torah, the law. According to the book of Deuteronomy, a virgin who became pregnant by another man was to be put to death.
But Joseph didn’t want to do that. He was a kind man, a compassionate man.
He decided that he would settle the matter quietly. He would divorce her, let her go, not seeking retribution or vengeance. He went to bed having made up his mind that he would let the whole thing go.
But as soon as his head hit the pillow an angel appears saying, do not be afraid.
If an angel shows up saying not to be afraid, there is probably some reason to be afraid. For the angel tells Joseph to change his plans: take Mary as your wife, when she has the baby name him Jesus, for he will save the people from his sins.
Now all of those concerns Joseph would have had are still there: the lingering emotions of betrayal, this fear of what others will say, not sure what all of it means.
But Joseph does not allow his fears to control him; instead he walks in faith instead of fear. The scripture says, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, she had a son and he named him Jesus.”
Because Joseph was not limited by his fears, there he is in every nativity scene.
As an adopted father, he raises Jesus as his own.
He teaches him the hard work of a carpenter.
He models for him what it means to be a righteous man.
By his example, he shows him how to walk in faith and not in fear.
The Bible doesn’t tell us much about Joseph after this scripture, but if we want to know the kind of man Joseph was, we can see it in Jesus.
Jesus would have first learned his love and compassion and bravery from his father.
Not only did Jesus live a courageous life himself, but he preached it for others. Over and over again in the scriptures Jesus himself echoes the words fear not and do not be afraid. Whether it is in the midst of a storm on the Sea of Galilee or trusting that God will provide, Jesus tells his followers not to live in fear.
It is Joseph who courageously follows the voice of the angel and in doing so he teaches Jesus what it means to trust in God.
For me, it is the willingness to trust in God that has made all the difference.
After retiring from the Air Force, I had a nice civil service job lined up. I was going to make good money and wear nice clothes, but then God called me in to ministry and I became an ordained United Methodist pastor.
I expected to be a more traditional pastor, moving through the appointment system, but through the work I did as a pastor with the homeless community in Albuquerque I experienced a second calling to ministry and have dedicated my life to ministry with the poor. Today my wife and I both serve as church and community worker missionaries on the South Side of Columbus. I serve as the director of the healthy eating and living program at the Church for All People and she is a registered nurse who leads the faith community health connection out of Livingston United Methodist Church.
Serving as a missionary in Ohio might not take as much courage as a missionary in Asia or Africa. However, it meant change for our family. Leaving old friends and going to new schools for our boys. Coming to a place where we had no family and didn’t know anyone.
And yet, it has been in the willingness to follow God’s call that I have seen the Lord work in incredible ways.
Every day I have the blessing of sharing the good news of great joy with hundreds of people. In this last year I have had the blessing of sharing over 600,000 pounds of food with hungry people, we’ve taught hundreds of hours of health education and cooking classes, gotten hundreds of people moving and active through exercise programs.
I can tell you the stories of people who were once addicted to drugs now living clean, people who were homeless who now have shelter, people who felt abandoned that now know they are included in the circle of God’s love.
I am not the strongest, handiest, or most clever person in the world, but I am willing to take risks. I don’t live my life limited by fear, and that gives me the freedom to follow God’s call in my life, wherever it may lead. That willingness to follow has made all the difference.
My prayer for you is that you too will hear the voice of the angel who speaks to Joseph and the angels who called out to shepherds saying do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy for all people that unto you is born a savior, a Lord.
In Matthew, Jesus is described as Immanuel, God with us.
Because this is who Jesus is, we know that no matter what God calls us to do or who God calls us to be that we will never be alone.
I have been in Johnstown for about an hour and a half now. I can’t pretend to tell you what God’s call is for you or your church.
However, I would invite you to think about it, to pray about it, to consider what uncomfortable thing God might be calling you to do.
What is God’s call for you as a person, as a family, as a church?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but that is the invitation of the Christmas season.
Christmas is not just an anniversary celebration of a birth that happened 2,000 years ago, it is an invitation to recognize that in Christ, God is with us today. It is an opportunity to hear the invitation to be a part of God’s work in the world today. It is the chance to step out of our fear and in to our faith and follow God’s invitation. It is the willingness to follow that makes all the difference.
My prayer for you this Christmas will be that as you celebrate the birth of Christ you will hear God’s call for you anew and that you will be able to walk in faith with the promise of Emmanuel, God with us.