Star Light, Star Bright

“Star Light, Star Bright”

Matt 2-11 Epiphany star, Magi, angel, 12th century carving, Autun Cathedral

Matthew 2:1-12 (2:9) – January 5, 2020

When I was little, we always kept our Christmas tree up in our living room until Epiphany, January 6th. We did not always have this particular decoration, but sometimes, there would be a small star ornament my mother would place at the top of the tree. And, I can remember sitting in a darkened living room with my mom, filled with wonder. The only lights lit in the room would be the colored lights on the Christmas tree. What wondrous lights!

I wonder, were Christmas lights a big part of your Christmas celebration? They certainly were, where I grew up, on the northwest side of the Chicago. Christmas lights in the front yards of houses, and in the windows, as well as on the Christmas tree inside. And, I can remember hearing from a very young age that these bright, shiny Christmas lights all over were shining to remind everyone about the Christmas star, the Star of Bethlehem.

But, what about the original Star? Somehow, I suspect only a few people at the time of the birth of Jesus really understood the reason for the bright shining Star. That is, until it was shining over Bethlehem for a number of weeks.

Let’s look at what Matthew tells us, again: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 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.” What do we know about these Magi, these scholars from the east?

Biblical commentators and historians tell us that these scholars were astronomers who spent their lives studying the stars and planetary movements, among other natural events. They were probably well-to-do, if not members of royal houses themselves. They most probably came from the general area of Persia—that is, in the area of modern-day Iraq, Syria and parts of Iran.  In their studies, consulting contemporary books and writings, these Magi had discovered that the appearance of a wondrous star meant that an important king—or ruler—had just been born. That Star—that Light—beckoned to these scholars. So, what did they decide to do? Go and visit that newborn king, of course!

While on their way, they needed directions. What to do? It only made sense for some well-born VIPs from another country to ask directions at the local palace.

We do know what happened when the Magi got to Jerusalem after following this Star for some weeks; Matthew tells us so. “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied.”

Do we see what a traumatic reaction these scholars had on many people in the area of Jerusalem? Lots of people were upset, especially King Herod! However, I do not know whether these scholars understood that Herod was a particularly nasty guy. At least, not at first.

Today, when you and I talk about Advent or Christmas services at our church, I wonder how people react to us when we talk about the Baby in Bethlehem? Have you recently invited people to our church for the holidays? Perhaps our acquaintances are just as cautious or bothered by our invitation as these people were, so long ago?

And, all this was happening because the Magi followed a Star. They had deciphered passages from books and manuscripts about something (or Someone) promised, whose birth was foretold in the skies. The Star was inviting them to follow, to journey into the unknown. These Magi must have been really excited at the prospect of seeing a prophecy come true.

After Herod directed the scholars to Bethlehem, down the road from Jerusalem, the Star moved again. As Matthew mentioned, “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

The Star—the Light from on high led them directly to the young King, where they bowed and worshiped. Can it lead us to draw near to our Lord Jesus? Is this Star, this Light a beacon of hope and joy for us, too?

All that was two thousand years ago, but Epiphany is still with us today. The word Epiphany means manifestation, or appearance. Epiphany is when Christ appears among us, offering hope and joy to all who might need it.

This brilliant Star encourages us to leave the darkness and despair behind and to come into the Light. God does, indeed put directional signals where we can see them. Sure, the sign of the Star of Bethlehem pointed the way to the Holy Child in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. But, doesn’t God use directional signals or signs to point to Jesus now, today? We can count on God’s love and presence with us, in Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Yes, Jesus appears when you or I need Him most. May He appear to each of us during this season of Epiphany, in spirit and in truth.

Alleluia, amen.

 

“During these weeks of Epiphany, dare to ask that Star some questions.

  • Where are we being led in this New Year?  Is the Star offering some course correction? Should we be like the magi and experiment with a “different road” that will lead us to new experiences?
  • What might we need to leave behind in order to start on this journey? What burdens or expectations can you and I set aside to lighten the load?
  • As the Light shines into our lives, what might we discover about ourselves? What do you and I value? What new parts of myself do I want to explore?
  • What does the Star—the Light reveal in our world? What needs or injustices are calling out for compassion and kindness?” [1]

(I would like to thank the Rev. Sue Foster for her Epiphany post “Into the Light!” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. Thanks so much!)

https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany

[1] https://fosteringyourfaith.com/2019/12/30/into-the-light/ On December 30, 2019 By fosteringyourfaith In Epiphany 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Happy Birthday, Jesus!

“Happy Birthday, Jesus!“

 

Shepherds adore the Christ child, Jan de Bisschop

Luke 2:4-15 – August 4, 2019

What events are particularly meaningful to children? Birthdays, of course. The birthday is not only a marking of the day the child was born, but is often (in this society, at least) a day for parties, presents and special things like ice cream and cake. And, children naturally love to go to birthday parties, too. No wonder many people celebrate birthdays as something really special.

Our two Scripture readings this morning both tell about the birthday of a really special Someone: the Baby born in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus. Except—I do not think it was common to celebrate birthdays with a birthday cake in those days.

When Isaiah wrote his prophecies six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, he was writing to a contemporary situation, it is true. But there is another situation, another prophetic announcement that people have marked from that point on. But, more about that birth announcement in a few minutes.

Yes, it is common for small children to concentrate on the baby Jesus and his birthday on Christmas Day. But, why did Jesus get born to a teenage girl in Bethlehem, anyhow? Why was this birth announcement made by the prophet six hundred years before the event?

For some of the answer to that question we need to go all the way back to the beginning, in the book of Genesis.

We know that God created the world, and God made plants and animals and humans. God created time and the seasons and great beauty and complexity in this marvelous world, and called it all good. In fact, very good. But, we know what happened. Sin happened, and entered into this world. Sin has caused tons of evil, heartache, misery, hatred, and disaster. We all know how much sadness and badness there are in this world.

Yesterday, in a shopping mall in the city of El Paso, Texas, we saw a horrific example of evil. The young, white shooter took the lives of twenty people, and did horrible harm to the lives of countless more. Is there a more visible example of corrosive sin and evil that can be shown to us? Sadly, violent situations such as this happen all too often, with tragic repercussions.

Yet, God the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, saw this horrible, pervasive evil of sin and nastiness and hatred that entered into the world, and knew its sweeping, widespread effects. God the eternal Son emptied Himself of all Godhood, and became a tiny, helpless baby human.

As the Apostles Creed tells us, We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. Every time we say those words of that ancient—most ancient of creeds, we affirm those eternal truths. Are many Christians aware that in repeating this creed, we regularly proclaim the Good News of Christmas, the miracle of God the eternal Son breaking into human history and becoming a tiny baby?

As we examine that ancient birth announcement from Isaiah chapter 9, we reflect on those words that reverberate deep in the soul. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The music that George Frederick Handel used in his oratorio “Messiah” for this chorus ring in my mind whenever this Scripture passage is read.

Yes, God the eternal Son was born as a baby, just as this verse from Isaiah says. But not just a human child, but much, much more! Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This baby was sent into the world to change the world. This baby was sent into the world as the Prince of Peace, to bring peace to a troubled world and dispirited people. This baby was mighty to save.

It is sort of a challenge to communicate all of that difficult, mind-blowing stuff about sin and salvation to little children. I can well understand how the ease of having a birthday party for the Baby Jesus would appeal to them instead. Small children understand about birthdays and birthday parties. That is within their experience. And, we certainly tell them about the Baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem at Christmas.

As we move to the second chapter of Luke, this narrative of the Nativity is so familiar. Is there anything here we haven’t looked at before?

We see Mary and Joseph, check. Knocking on lots of doors in Bethlehem, check. Refusal at an inn, but welcomed to a stable, check. We examine this next important part of the story. “There were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Suddenly, an angel appeared to them and said, ‘Don’t be afraid! I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be known to all people.”

While Mary and Joseph were busy with the birth of their firstborn Son, our scene shifts to the shepherds on the hills surrounding Bethlehem. We are familiar with this next part of the story: shepherds guarding their sheep at night, and the heavenly angel breaking onto the scene.

Does anyone remember what we just looked at from the book of Isaiah? The Lord God had a wonderful birth announcement, given a few hundred years beforehand. But, this is the time! This is when the prophet was talking about. The angel told the shepherds that a newborn Savior had arrived. He is not only a Savior, He is Messiah, too, with everything that that means to an oppressed, downtrodden people in an occupied country. Believe me, Rome was not exactly a gentle group of overlords. No, the Roman empire was an oppressive regime. I can just imagine how welcome this heavenly announcement was! God-sent, indeed.

Plus, the name given to this special Baby by the angel Gabriel had great meaning. Mary and Joseph did not go to a bookstore and pour over the selection of names in a baby book to help them name their son.  If we go back a chapter to Luke 1, the angel who tells the teenager Mary she is going to bear the Messiah also tells her what His name will be: “You will have a son, and you will call His name Jesus.” In Hebrew, the name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” That is just what the angel tells the shepherds—”Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.

What a build-up for this heavenly event! Imagine, repeated birth announcements for this wondrous Child born in Bethlehem. Is it any wonder that this was the biggest, best birthday ever? If we go back to our first example, with the children having a party celebrating someone’s birthday, we could have a humdinger of a huge birthday bash, indeed.

Happy birthday, Jesus! We can celebrate, because Jesus came into the world on that Christmas Day. We can celebrate, because there is no other name given among people that can save us from our sins. Praise God, we have a Savior, indeed!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

“Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”

Shepherds, Annunciation, Oxford Bodlean Library

Luke 2:8-20 (2:8) – December 23, 2018

Birth announcements are often greeted with great excitement and joy. In the United States, they can be detailed and specific, with details like the time of delivery, the sex and the weight of the baby, and of course, the name of the new child. The new parents are so proud of their new bundle of joy, and the new grandparents often show everyone the latest photos of their new grandchild, sometimes before the baby is one hour old.

Nothing is new about babies being born. As long as humans have been on earth, babies have been born. As the old saying goes, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should continue.” One particular, super-special birth announcement happened one night, two thousand years ago. Not with fancy paper, balloons, or glitter, but with something a lot more special.

We need to back up a bit. We all are familiar with the basic details of the Christmas story. Since the Roman Empire wanted to discover exactly how many people they had living in all the provinces and regions of their vast empire, a law was passed that said every adult male needed to go to their ancestral town to register, or report. So, Joseph, descendent of King David, needed to go to David’s home town, Bethlehem, to report in.

Except, Joseph and Mary find themselves on the road at an awkward time. Not only were there lots of other people traveling to their ancestral towns, but added to that, Mary was greatly pregnant. So pregnant, in fact, that soon after she arrived in Bethlehem she went into labor. Mary delivered a newborn boy, as Dr. Luke tells us in the verses previous to our reading.

There was something quite different about this birth. Several somethings, in fact.

In most birth announcements, one of the main things people want to know is the baby’s name. This newborn baby had a great name: Jesus, Yeshua, or Joshua, meaning “he saves.” We know—because one of the prophecies from the book of Isaiah told us so—that this Baby, this Child is also known as the Prince of Peace. Plus, the newborn baby is also of the house and lineage of King David. Added to which, the birth of this particular Baby was prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Impressive bloodline and backstory, indeed.

After all this build-up, many people would expect a grand birth announcement, sent to the very best people. People like nobility, royalty, other V.I.P.s. But who is it who receives this birth announcement? Shepherds. Common, ordinary, lowly shepherds. As Dr. Luke records in his Gospel, “shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” For the shepherds, it was an ordinary night. Nothing special, they were just minding their own business. And, if you have worked on a farm or with farm animals, you might know what herding animals smells like. Not very appealing, to modern minds—or noses.

Shepherds were not considered well-to-do, upright citizens. Quite the opposite! Dr. David Lose tells us “And the shepherds? These were the undesirables of the first century, the folks on the lowest of the low rungs of the socio-economic ladder.” [1] Today, we might look on people like these shepherds as street sweepers, or rag-pickers, people who emptied latrines, menial workers of the lowest variety. One step above indigent, homeless people.

Yet, these demeaned shepherds were the super-special chosen ones, the ones God favored with a super-special, divine birth announcement. Complete with a light display that lit up the whole sky, an angelic spokesperson, and angel chorus, God wanted the shepherds to know first of all. Not the rich people in town, or the president of the synagogue, or the elders on the ruling board. Not the King of Judah in his palace in Jerusalem, or the nobility who lived in fine houses with fancy clothes, or the Pharisees or members of the Sanhedrin. No, God wanted the lowest of the low to find out, first.

Isn’t it strange—or odd—or funny that God wanted these shepherds to be the first to know? Actually, no. Since God could choose absolutely anyone on earth to hear about the divine birth first, God must have had a really good reason for choosing these despised shepherds. And, God wants all people to know of the birth of the newborn King, the Prince of Peace.

“In spite of their poor reputation as a class of people, these shepherds seem to have been godly men, men who were looking for the coming of Israel’s Messiah. All the others of those who were directly informed of the birth of Messiah in Matthew and Luke were described as godly people, and so it would seem to be true of the shepherds as well.” [2]

Believe it or not, these despised shepherds were sometimes compared to God, in the Bible. God being the shepherd, and the people of Israel the sheep. As uncomplimentary as it may be, people are often compared to sheep in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

As I have noticed before, the behavior of sheep and the behavior of human beings do have some similarities. Yet despite all of these negative attributes, the Jewish and Christian holy writings repeatedly talk about people being compared to sheep.

I found this lovely poem by William Blake (1757-1827). A poet and visionary, he was a committed Christian. He also was a creative writer and some called him even mystical.

As long as we are considering the shepherds coming to see the baby Jesus, I also wanted us to reflect upon the sheep—the flocks, shepherded by the workers on those cold, windswept hills around Bethlehem.

 

Meditation on the Lamb

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee,

gave thee life, and bid thee feed

by the stream and o’er the mead;

gave thee clothing of delight,

softest clothing, woolly, bright;

gave thee such a tender voice,

making all the vales rejoice?

 

Little Lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:

He is called by thy name,

for he calls himself a Lamb.

He is meek, and he is mild;

He became a little child.

I a child, and thou a lamb,

we are called by his name.

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

Little Lamb, God bless thee!

 

Jesus is called a Lamb. We are called sheep. Not very flattering, is it?  The lowest of the low, the shepherds, heard of the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Lamb of God. However, it matters nothing to God about our position, or honor, or wealth, or influence.

God does care about our hearts, and how we receive God’s Son.

“In Christ we have the promise that God will not stop until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in God’s tremendous love and have heard the good news [as proclaimed to the shepherds] that “unto you this day is born a savior, Christ the Lord.” [3]

Let us joyfully follow the shepherds’ example, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.” Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/4-birth-messiah-luke-21-20

Robert L. (Bob)Deffinbaugh graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with his Th.M. in 1971. Bob is a pastor/teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1612

“Something More,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

O Come, Emmanuel

“O Come, Emmanuel”

O come Emmanuel

Luke 1:26-38 (1:31) – December 2, 2018

Have you noticed when you saw or heard your first Christmas commercial this year? On television, or on the radio? Or, perhaps it’s the first piped-in Christmas music at the store or at the coffee shop. Do you remember where you were? This expectation we go through every year; we pause, we watch the commercials, we hear in the music, we see in the displays of holiday lights and lighted figures outside of our neighbors’ houses.

These four weeks of Advent are weeks of preparation, of anticipation, of expectation. All these things are announcements of an impending arrival. Little reminders of the anticipation of the narrative from the first chapter in Luke. Ours is a fraction of the expectation that Mary had, beginning with the announcement from the angel. The teenage Mary had the angel Gabriel burst in on her, unannounced, giving her the very first Christmas commercial.

The anticipation we feel today is only a shadow of that we find in the Bible. I suspect, the teenage Mary was surprised out of her sandals by this unexpected visitor. Mary is told to expect the birth of the Son of the Most High.

If we go back several centuries, to the time of the prophet Isaiah, we notice the prophet writing about a young woman bearing a child, too.  In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 7:14 reads “a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son.” The Gospel of Luke shows this prophecy being fulfilled. But—not quite yet. Mary needs to go through a nine-month waiting period, a period of anticipation, expectation, and preparation.

As one commentator says, “Let’s be honest. Perplexity is exactly our response when the Lord shows up. To me? Why me? Why now? I think we underestimate the impact of what it means to know that God is actually around. Here. With us. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Bigger things to take care of? More major issues to maintain besides me?” [1]

Mary has a problem. She is not only a virgin (which the angel tells her not to worry about). However, she thinks she is merely a common, ordinary, every-day-type young woman. There is nothing special or extraordinary about her! It is “only after expressing her wonder and dismay, and then hearing again Gabriel’s affirmation and promise, does she manage to summon the courage to believe that God is indeed favoring Mary by working in her and through her for the health of the world.” [2]

This week is the first week of Advent, and we are going to focus on songs during these weeks. The Advent and Christmas seasons have marvelous carols, hymns and songs written during a number of centuries. This week, appropriately, we highlight the Advent carol “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” An excerpt from a fine article on this carol is found in your bulletin.

If you look at the article, notice several things. This is one of the oldest carols we have in our hymnals today. Christians have been singing it for over 1000 years. Originally written in Latin, it was translated into English by the scholar and priest John Mason Neale in the 1800’s. The translation of this hymn lets us know how much theology was written into the original lyrics. Each verse mentions a number of biblical and theological references.

You know what this ancient Latin hymn reminds me of? Young Mary. Eileen did not read Mary’s song from the first chapter of Luke, the Magnificat, but Mary does exactly that—after the angel leaves her, she breaks into song, and praises God. Not only that, she must have been biblically knowledgeable, because her song is chock full of biblical and theological references.

We know Mary was an introspective young woman, thoughtful and contemplative, since Dr. Luke tells us so in chapters 1 and 2. Does it surprise us that she knew a great deal about the Hebrew Scriptures, as we can tell from reading her song, her response to God?

Quoting from this wonderful song, the Magnificat:

“My soul glorifies the Lord  47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

A modern setting of this song of Mary is the Canticle of the Turning, by Rory Cooney. I keep reminding myself not to get political in my weekly sermons—except when the words of the Scripture we read from the Lectionary are clearly lifting up some direct calling from God. Through Mary’s words, we are called to stand up in this neighborhood, this country, this world, and stand with the humble, the hungry, with those who fear God. We are called to stand against the proud, the rich, and the rulers.

In the Canticle of the Turning, this new retelling of Mary’s song is, indeed, about the birth of a baby. It also talks about how this birth turns a family upside down. Yet, this whole event—the birth of the Son of the Most High—is about God turning the world around. It is through God’s Son, Jesus, God welcomes us all. Not just welcoming the rich and privileged, but everyone, male, female, rich, poor, slave, free, whatever difference one person has from another. All means Jesus welcomes everyone. No matter what, no matter who.

Perhaps God did an extraordinary thing through Mary—just as the angel said—to show the world that through God all things are possible. Just as it was for the prophets, so it was with Mary, and so it is with us. May we all respond like Mary—“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to Your word.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3462

Advent as a Way of Life, Karoline Lewis, Working Preacher, 2014

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1611

“Favored Ones,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Mary and Joseph, Unafraid

“Mary and Joseph, Unafraid”

angel with trumpet

Luke 1:26-31, Matthew 1:19-21 – August 5, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When a woman is pregnant and expecting a baby, it can be a marvelous experience. However, an unexpected pregnancy can be surprising, even worrisome. I know I have heard of several unplanned pregnancies over the years, and I suspect many of you have, too. An added complication can occur when the parents of the unexpected baby are not married.

That was exactly Mary and Joseph’s situation. Both were unmarried, only engaged. Both were very much involved with the birth of this unexpected baby. And, both had angels appear to them, telling them “Be not afraid!”

Just imagine: Mary and Joseph, considering the exact same unexpected situation, with two very different reactions and quite separate expectations. We are not told, but I cannot help but wonder whether Mary’s fear and Joseph’s fear of the unknown was compounded by fear for the other. How were their fears for the other encountered, and addressed? [1]

Both Mary and Joseph have angels suddenly come upon them. Both angels immediately say, “Be not afraid!” This occurrence is starting to become familiar to us by now, after two months of this summer sermon series. The sight of angels must be terrifying, since the first words out of their mouths is almost always, “Be not afraid!”

Mary must have been completely flabbergasted at the appearance of the angel. Even though she had heard about miraculous and angelic appearances in synagogue on the Sabbath for years, it’s a quite different thing to have it actually happen to her. Mary probably was interrupted while she went about her usual routine at home.

In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel—God’s special messenger angel—comes to Mary and reassures her with the words “Be not afraid!” In this longer narrative of the birth of Jesus, the angels come to several people (and one group of people). What is more, according to commentator Shively Smith, “the simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 24-25); miracles to those not looking for miracles, as in the case of Mary (Luke 1:26-27); and even disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds (Luke 2:8).” [2]

Matthew tells us that Joseph was interrupted by the angel of the Lord in a dream. From the short, spare account of Matthew—only a verse and a half!—we do find out that Joseph was called a righteous man. Joseph certainly was considering the unexpected news that Mary had brought to him. Both Joseph and Mary considering the same situation, but in different circumstances.

We all realize that today’s cultural references are different from those of first-century Palestine. The cultural marriage practices of the Jews of that time were patriarchal and highlighted the joining together of two families, not of two individuals, as marriage is seen today here in the United States. Nevertheless, we can see how God breaks apart first-century cultural practices and societal expectations through this miraculous birth narrative.

Joseph was, indeed, a righteous man. When his fiancée Mary first came to him with this unexpected news, he first thought she had been unfaithful. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that the first thing anyone would think of? Either that, or that Mary had been raped, which is even more unpleasant and shocking. (But, the Gospel doesn’t go there.) Joseph does not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. So, how to deal with this unexpected situation?  

I suspect the situation was looking pretty desperate to Joseph. That is where the angel of the Lord steps in—or, flies in—to the situation.  The angel reassures Joseph that the baby within Mary’s uterus is indeed holy, conceived of the Holy Spirit. What is more, that the baby will be the Messiah! The words of the angel: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is quite similar to other appearances of supernatural wonder in the Gospel of Luke. Commentator Shively Smith tells us “each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel (Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:32).” [3]

Let us come back to Mary and Joseph, two individuals going through a difficult, even traumatic time, in terms of society’s expectations as well as cultural norms. This is a different way of thinking about the birth of Jesus than that we are used to, every Christmas. Commentator David Lose tells us “let’s not forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced, or the fear and hurt that Mary would likely have also felt as they sorted out their divinely complex relationship.” [4]

On one hand, Mary has this assurance of supernatural power and presence within her from the angel. On the other, Joseph gets a reassurance of supernatural power and presence concerning Mary from the angel. We might presume from all this that there is some far greater plan that neither Mary nor Joseph has any clear idea about. The injunction “Be not afraid!” is a part of this greater plan.

A supernatural plan, a plan that overarches all time and space, whereby the Savior of the world is going to enter in to our everyday lives, and blow apart every cultural norm and societal expectation. It blows our minds, just thinking about the birth of Jesus, two thousand years later. The encouragement “Be not afraid?” Don’t be afraid to step forward with TRUST, as part of a larger plan that comes from above.

You think the situations we find ourselves in today are complex? God understands the complexity and the ins and outs of every situation, every predicament, every sadness and trauma and difficulty each of us might find ourselves in. As we take a closer look at Mary and Joseph, we see that they are not just figures from some stained glass window, but instead flesh and blood people with the same emotions and fears and family difficulties we might have today.

“And the more we can imagine them as people like us — with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance — the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them — that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, and yet whom God uses nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.” [5]

The angel’s words, “Be not afraid!” We can take them to heart, too, and be encouraged, reassured, that God is with us, today, just as much as God was with people in bible times, just as much as God was with Mary and Joseph, all the way through their wonderful and frightening and even shocking experiences. Even though we may go through all kinds of things, God will never leave us, nor forsake us. Be not afraid!

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 97.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)