Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Courage in the face of fear" (Matthew 1:18-25)

What do we fear? What things hit us for a six? What things become major disruptions?

What can we do about this?

When Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit (v.18).

For us now this is a marvellous statement. We might at times wonder about the nature of this birth, but in the cool light of day we realise that this was Creator God’s way of coming into the world in a personal way. This was the ultimate way for God to bring salvation to a lost people. Where rebellion from God’s ways had continued from generation to generation, this would be the way through which there could be real change. There would be a personal Saviour who would bring a permanent knowledge of God’s presence. The Son of God, conceived of the Holy Spirit, taking up residence in the world, would ultimately save God’s people from their sins (v.21). This Jesus would also be known as Emmanuel, because in Jesus, God is with us. So, we are happy to read that Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit (v.18).

However, without the background knowledge we have, this came as a shock to people of the time, and especially to Joseph. Put yourself in his shoes! Joseph was in a huge predicament! His world had been turned upside down. Mary, the woman he was going to marry was pregnant, and he Joseph was not the father! Joseph previously was no doubt envisaging a fairly normal marriage and family life with Mary. Mary was ‘betrothed’ to Joseph … a marriage-in-waiting, just the formalities to go through. He loved Mary so much – but now she was pregnant … and Joseph knew that he had had nothing to do with this baby’s conception. The sense of betrayal, the pain, the confusion!

What would Joseph do? This is a question we often face in the midst of fearful circumstances. What would Joseph do? The easy thing or the right thing? Joseph could publicly reject Mary and leave her to endure public disgrace or worse. That would have been perhaps what Joseph’s mates were advising him to do. Cut and run! Is this what Joseph would do? The easy thing … recommended by ‘common wisdom’? What a dilemma! If Joseph publically denounced Mary, then it would be assumed that she had committed adultery – bringing Mary untold suffering. But Joseph loved Mary! Yet, how could she have done this to him. Still, he loved Mary … but to take on the responsibility for this child as if it was his – this would open him up to a lifelong stigma … that he himself had acted in an immoral manner.

Joseph resolved to do the best he could for Mary in the circumstances (refer verse 19). This showed great character, and shows us why God had placed Joseph in this situation in the first place – he could handle it! Those of us who have shown that we can handle challenges like this, are likely to be the ones used by God in situations of great import. Are we able to respond appropriately when we are faced with persecution or opposition, or do we just strike back? Joseph would not seek revenge or even vindication … Joseph would just “dismiss Mary quietly”, seeking to spare her the worst of the public humiliation and shame. This is how Matthew’s Gospel can describe Joseph as a “righteous man” (v.19) – a man after God’s own heart … one who would do the right and generous thing. Despite the hurt and disappointment he felt, he wasn’t going to take Mary down for no good reason.

The fact that Joseph had good character, to the extent of being described as a “righteous man”, also meant that he was the type of person who was ready to listen to God! Joseph was prepared to listen to God … even when what he was going to hear would be almost impossible to deal with … almost impossible to even believe: Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit (v.20). And this is not a birth that would allow Joseph and Mary to fade into the background – this child would be God’s Salvation. Joseph was able to hear and process that this special child Jesus would save humankind from their sins (v.21). God speaks to those who are ready to hear and respond! Joseph was ready to respond to what must have seemed amazing, but what was truly and undoubtedly from God.

This still could not have been easy for Joseph, and would’ve taken a lot of courage. What Joseph undoubtedly feared the most, was exactly what God was going to ask him to do. In going ahead with his marriage to Mary, Joseph was as good as admitting to the general public (even though it wasn’t true) that he was the father of this child. As mentioned earlier, this would mean for Joseph – a lifelong stigma. Would his reputation ever recover? And then those that thought that Joseph could not really have been the father, would have called Joseph a complete idiot for taking the sort of extraordinary action he did. Yet Joseph rose above all of this, seeing it all as secondary, to the primary role of fulfilling God’s will.

Joseph rose above all his fears and doubts in the service of Jesus. Joseph would endure the criticism of the crowd, in the joy of knowing he was doing the right thing. Joseph’s courage began when he heard God say, Joseph, do not be afraid (v.20). It was as Joseph got on top of his fear, that God’s plans went forward. What a remarkable response … “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he [simply and faithfully] did as the angel of the Lord commanded him …” (v.24)! Given his character and availability, Joseph had been chosen for this role, and he didn’t let God down.

Courage can be shown in the face of fear, e.g. police and emergency service personnel in Sydney this week, and the hostages themselves; and in the “I’ll ride with you” response … people finding courage to support others to maintain their courage.

The fear that Joseph could have suffered from, was the fear of what others might think. Such a fear could have made Joseph withdraw from his calling and retreat from being involved. Such a fear could have made Joseph neglect Mary’s needs. Such a fear as worrying about what others think, could have completely diverted Joseph from being the person God had made him to be. “Fear” is when the anxieties and feelings of alarm within us stop us doing what we know we should be doing. Fear stops us taking adventurous risks; thus fear tends to disrupt the discovery of all God has for us in life. For example, if Joseph had let his fear control him, being too worried about what others would think, then Mary, at the very least, would have been left destitute and vulnerable. And, if Joseph was at risk of caving in to the potential sneers of his community, this would have lost Joseph his very important role in history.

When Joseph heard the “angel of the Lord” say to him, “do not be afraid”, he found the faith within him to comply completely with God’s will. Joseph went on to adopt and affirm his role as human father to Jesus by giving him his name … “he named him Jesus” (v.25). There was probably unbelieving whispers around Joseph for the rest of his life, but Joseph knew that he had done the right thing … the God thing! Often missed in this text is how courageously and heroically Joseph acted (given the circumstances of his day).

So, where did all this courage and faith come from? God spoke … and Joseph listened! Basic trust!! God is speaking to us today, especially when we suffer fear. God speaks to us through his Word. God speaks to us when we pray. God speaks to us daily of his reality in his creation, and in his acts of re-creation. God speaks to us through other people, in particular events, and various circumstances. Sometimes we become fearful – however are we listening to the words “do not be afraid”, just like Joseph was? This might relate to who we are prepared to say Jesus is this Christmas. My Saviour! God with me! Emmanuel!

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