Advent 4, December 22, 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Do not be afraid. Last Sunday we heard part of Mary’s story from the gospel of Luke. Mary is visited by an angel who startles her with these words: “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid”. Today we hear Joseph’s side of the story in Matthew’s narrative. He too encounters an angel of the Lord. And how does the conversation start? “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…” Angels in the bible always seem to say that. Why?
Maybe angels are a bit scary. Although sometimes they are portrayed as cute children in nighties with wings, especially at Christmas, we don’t have a lot of descriptions. What we have are records of their words and the reactions of those to whom they come. They are messengers from the presence of God- shining heavenly beings that demand our awe and attention because we glimpse the power and mystery of the divine with our mortal eyes. Angels are holy, alien in their beauty. Even if they have been sent with comfort or counsel, it is understandable to fear what we do not understand.
But there is also the fact that angels appear in times of fearfulness. In the Bible and in tradition, angels come to people in crisis, in grief, in transition, those who are struggling with decisions and change. Those who are self-satisfied and secure seldom see them, but there are many who have said that they have felt the presence of angels. Since fear is so much a part of the human condition, it would seem that there is lots of opportunity for them to enter into our lives.
The feeling of fear in itself is neither good nor bad. Our awareness is heightened so we can react to the world around us when we sense something might be dangerous. But uncertainty and distrust over time can put our bodies into a chronically anxious state. Traumas- physical, emotional, or sexual- can do the same thing. So can biology or illness. Those who perceive that the world is a dangerous place that they cannot change live in fearfulness. And that can stop us from hearing anything different is possible. After all, if you cannot trust and you cannot change anything by what you do, it is very difficult to give or receive love. Which is frustrating, because love is the antidote to fearfulness.
Angels help to break through the barrier by proclaiming God’s love. Joseph was living in fearfulness. When he became engaged to Mary, their community would have celebrated with them. It may have been an arranged marriage. Certainly the families would have agreed on the union, promises and goods exchanged, a date set for the wedding. This was public knowledge. But now Mary comes to Joseph and tells him she is pregnant. He has figured out he is not the biological father and doesn’t believe her story of being found with child by the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t trust her, and he doesn’t trust God is in this either. So does he shame her by calling off the engagement now? He may be afraid for his reputation (he is known as a righteous man), but he is more afraid for what might happen to Mary. She could be stoned to death. His solution is to go ahead with the wedding and then have legal grounds to divorce her afterward. You would think that having reached this conclusion, his anxiety would go down. But he goes to bed that night and he dreams of an angel.
The angel pinpoints Joseph’s fear of going ahead with a sham ceremony and his fear of the child who is in her womb. However, God’s love is behind all this, the messenger tells him. Not only is this boy from the Holy Spirit, as Mary had tried to tell him. Joseph is to name him Jesus- Yeshua- which means “GOD saves”. For this child really will be “GOD-with-us”. If Joseph can open his heart to accept Mary and this child as his family, the act of loving will draw out fear.
Imagine Joseph taking the risk of becoming step-father. To somehow find the courage inside to move into a role that will be full of unknowns, challenges, even heartbreak. To learn to love a child that is not his, yet has been given into his care to raise and protect. To do this without understanding what God has in mind, or what his or Mary’s part will be in the future. I don’t think that the angel was telling Joseph that he shouldn’t be afraid, or that he wouldn’t be fearful for the future. Rather, that fear couldn’t paralyse him from trusting in God’s loving purpose. It is not the angel itself that is important- it is the embodiment of the message that there is a way forward in love.
I have my own angel story. At least, it’s my experience of an encounter with a being who helped draw out my fear. I was helping with a pilgrimage tour in England. Sixty-two of us were making a day trip from Oxford to Salisbury, but that day, everything went wrong. One of my co-facilitators had a stroke and was rushed to the hospital at Oxford. We soldiered on to our destination by coach. During the course of the hot muggy afternoon, one of the other participants had a heart attack. A third person tripped on the way into (not out of!) a pub and broke her elbow. By the time I had got all the others safely back to our night’s lodgings, I had had it. I went for a walk in the botanical garden to calm down.
Now in that garden there is a walled portion, which encloses a little bower of roses and flowerbeds. In the corner was a bench, near to a woman painting a watercolour. I sat down and she began a conversation with me. I felt all of the weariness, the stress, and the fear leave me. Looking at my watch, I realized it was time to get back to the group, so I got up and walked out of that walled garden. Then I turned back to thank her for her gift of peace. But she was gone. And the only way in or out of that garden was the stone archway I stood in. The angel must have flown away. What else would you call her?
In the midst of crisis and change, it is good to look out and listen for the angels around us. They take many forms, some we may not recognize until we think back. Each of us is not alone. There are many in this world who are living in fearfulness. Whether it is a mother awake with worry at 3 in the morning, or a street person holding a needle that may contain fentanyl, or a patient waiting for the results of the next medical test; fear can overwhelm and isolate a person from others. We have all known times of despair and helplessness and anxiety: for self or for others. But God finds ways to bring the message of hope into our lives. Love draws out fear. May the love of the one who is God-with-us, Emmanuel, draw out your fears and heal your soul. Amen.