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!)

In the Middle of Fear

“In the Middle of Fear”

Isa 43-2 redeemed

Isaiah 43:1-3, 10-13 (43:2) – July 15, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

If you were ever in the middle of a fearsome, hair-raising experience, you might be able to relate to my sermon today. Even if you have not been personally involved in a terrifying experience like being trapped in a dangerous house fire or caught in the middle of a raging storm in deep water while on a small boat, you probably know someone who has. Or, at least heard first-person accounts of those terrifying experiences.

What does the prophet say in this morning’s scripture reading? It is really difficult to hear what anyone is saying when you or I are in the middle of a fearful predicament. Even if the words are really important, or even if they come from a particularly significant person.

We might have the words coming at us, but we are still in the horrible situation of being in the middle of a devastating fire, or a terrifying flood, or other traumatic experience. We still have situations as if we are lost in deep water, or caught up in the middle of fear-inducing flames. What will we do? How will we cope? Will the wild flames overwhelm us? Will the raging waters close over our heads? Dear Lord, answer me! Gracious God, help!

Take the nation of Judah, who the prophet of God is talking to. The nation has been conquered. The best and brightest of the people of Judah have been captured and taken captive, far away in Babylon. “By outward circumstances, the people of Judah had [good] reason to be afraid of Babylon’s army and exile. God points them past the present circumstances to both this command and promise.” [1]

Did you hear? These verses have good news! They have within them both a command and a promise. These words are a proclamation, from the Lord, no less! “But now, this is what the Lord says—God who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.”
In the paragraphs just before our reading today, in Isaiah 42, God is called not only the creator of the heavens and the earth, but also creator of all the people on the earth. God is the “source of breath and life for humankind (42:5). Now God reveals the divine self strictly in relationship to God’s chosen ones. The God who speaks the new word of freedom, life, return, and redemption is “the creator-of-you, Jacob,” “the shaper-of-you, Israel” (verse 1). This is the transcendent God whose word created all that is good (Genesis 1).” [2]

So, God not only created the heavens and the earth, and is the creator of all that is vast and unending in this universe, but God is also the Lord of the small and the personal. The prophet proclaims God as the Lord of all, of that which is large and small, the creatures and people of this world, too.

Israel was—and is a country with desert regions and vast wilderness places. Israel was—and is also a country where sudden storms come up, and flash floods suddenly happen. That can be extremely scary, to be caught in a sudden flash flood where the water starts to rise all around you without any warning. We hear on the news today about flash floods that overwhelm people and stall out their vehicles. And sometimes, those individuals even die.

What fear! What anxiety! And, what threatening troubles!

What can we do, in the face of all of this difficulty and challenge? The prophet gives us the answer. God has redeemed us.

But—what does “redeemed” mean, anyway? Isn’t that a religious word? We certainly hear it in religious contexts. According to the dictionary, “redeem” means to buy back, to recover, as by a mortgage or pledge.

So, we are kept captive by our fear and anxiety. The nation of Israel is similarly kept captive by their fear and anxiety, too. Here in the United States, in the 21st century, we do not have debtors’ prisons any longer. However, centuries ago, when people became bankrupt and could not pay their debts, they were often either were thrown into prison or made slaves until the debt was paid.

God does not magically erase all difficulty. “God does not manipulate the created order and introduce entirely new categories: fireless existence. Rather, God redeems what God has made, and redemption involves an exchange within the created realm. A price is paid in order to set things back the way they were.” [3]
This act of redemption is not the end of things. No, the Lord does not stop there. As the prophet says in today’s reading, “I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” God speaks our name. That is what the prophet says!

In this act of speaking their name, God takes ownership. The Lord God claims Israel as God’s own and sets them free. “In these verses God speaks to God’s people not like a king on a throne pronouncing an edict, but like a lover whose heart is bursting, who has waited an eternity just to say their name. In this act of speaking their name, You are mine” means also “I have ransomed you” (43:1) [or, redeemed you]. Maker, lover, and redeemer, God will pay any price and overcome every obstacle to be reunited with God’s own. [4]

We can take heart. We can claim these precious verses as our own, as we go through fiery trials. God has called us by name, too. The Lord says “You are mine.”

Bible study teacher David Guzik states plainly “God twice owns His people. God has right of ownership both as Creator and Redeemer. God’s ownership is personal, because He says I have called you by your name. His ownership is certain, because He seals it by saying You are mine.” [5]

We have the Lord’s assurance that we are God’s creation, we are redeemed, and we have been called by God’s name. What is more, we have been bought with a price, with the precious blood of our Savior.

Knowing we belong to God is a wonderful response to fear and anxiety. So, “Be Not Afraid!” No matter the trial or difficulty, God will be with us. The Lord is right by our side. We have God’s word on it, from right here in Isaiah 43.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.blueletterbible.org/comm/guzik_david/studyguide2017-isa/isa-43.cfm

Study Guide for Isaiah 43 by David Guzik – Blue Letter Bible

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=494

Commentary, Isaiah 43:1-7  Anathea Portier-Young, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[3] Seitz, Christopher R., The Book of Isaiah 40-66, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 6 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001), 381.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=494

Commentary, Isaiah 43:1-7  Anathea Portier-Young, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2010.

[5] https://www.blueletterbible.org/comm/guzik_david/studyguide2017-isa/isa-43.cfm

Study Guide for Isaiah 43 by David Guzik – Blue Letter Bible

@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!)