Don't be afraid to do this

December 13, 2010

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In the Bible, God--or sometimes God's
messenger--often implores freaked-out men and women not to be afraid. It's a
standard divine greeting, a nicety to allay the pulse-quickening shock of
receiving a message from heaven. Frequently the commandment stands alone: Fear not, period. Sometimes it's
stitched to an object or person: Do not
be afraid of

Only twice is the would-be
scaredy-cat encouraged not to be afraid to do some specific action. Following his family's near
ruination by famine, Jacob sets out for Egypt to be reunited with his long-lost
son, Joseph. God speaks to Jacob in a nighttime vision: "Do not be afraid to go
down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there." The New Testament Joseph's
message also comes by night, in the brume of a dream. "Do not be afraid to take
Mary as your wife," the angel enjoins, and discloses the controversial mystery
of the child's conception.

An aside: It's easy to get wrapped up in the whole
virgin/young woman debate. But like Easter sermons that deliberate on whether
the resurrection actually happened, Advent and Christmas sermons that obsess
over Mary's sexual status are painfully boring. The only two places I've heard
people gossip about someone's virginity are the pulpit and the high school
girls' bathroom.

Back to Jacob and Joseph: Though the Genesis story is
hardly an Advent text, it's astounding how distinctly it parallels the Matthew
story; reading the two in tandem, if only in preparatory study, defines and
magnifies Joseph's dream. Jacob shouldn't fear the journey to Egypt because God
will make of him a great nation there, while Joseph shouldn't fear the shame of
marrying a pregnant woman because the child is of the Holy Spirit. Both are
assurances of divinely inspired fruitfulness. Babies from God!

Jacob is also promised the favor of God's presence.
"I myself will go down with you to Egypt," God whispers into the night air.
Meanwhile, the angel explains that the holy child in Mary's womb fulfills the
prophecy of Isaiah; this child is the Emmanuel, God with us. And there is truly
no better reason than this to sacrifice our anxieties at the altar of faith. We are not alone.

The last parallel is slightly obscured. The vow God
makes to Jacob employs language familiar to Christians: "I will go down with
you, and I will also bring you up again." It's a movement echoed in the life,
death and resurrection of Jesus. Joseph's angel speaks of the salvation the
Christ child will bring. It is in lowering himself--first to the realm of
humanity, and ultimately to the grave--that this salvation is accomplished. And
it is in his resurrection that all people are raised to a place where fear
cannot afflict.

So many of the folks who shuffle into the pews on
Sunday are afraid. Many do not recognize their fear, let alone know what it is
they dread.

A lot of clergy think that the "Footprints
in the Sand" poem is pretty schlocky, but there's a reason so many people
prefer it to our most learned exegesis. People yearn to know that God is with
them. The heart of Joseph's dream is the promise of divine presence: in Mary's
womb, in Jesus's bloodstream, in a good man's shame. Fear and death and sin are
trounced by love and life and salvation, all on account of the Emmanuel.

The text says that Joseph awoke and did as the angel
told him. In time-management parlance, that's called "eating your frog"--taking
on your hardest task first thing in the morning. I hope that as he quietly
married his scandalous, sacred bride, he did so without an iota of fear--perhaps
even with a tender heart. I hope, too, that we can encourage our parishioners
to be so bold as they plumb their own dreams and confront their own trials,
always and ever in the saving grasp of Christ.