But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."
December 16, 2022, Words By: Ron Ruthruff, Image By: Unknown
In today’s text, we are given the perspective of Joseph. Matthew, the author, seems to be interested in telling the story in a way that clearly reflects the Old Testament: he either quotes or alludes to it almost 100 times!
One OT reference is the phrase, Do not be afraid, found in v. 20. It looks back on Isaiah 7:4, where the prophet challenges King Ahaz not to make alliances with the empires of the north, but to trust in the coming Immanuel.
Matthew is taking the ancient story of Isaiah and wrapping it into his version of the birth narrative. I find it interesting that this little phrase, Do not be afraid, connects these two stories. Just as Isaiah said to King Ahaz, the Angel in the birth narrative tells Joseph not to fear, but to have faith in the story unfolding before him.
My mother was a strong woman, who was terrified that something would happen to her only son, the living memory of her husband, my father, who died too early and left his wife to protect her little boy. My mother worked a lot, and fear became a guiding force that babysat me in her absence.
When I was five or six, my mother’s sister Erma and her husband Frank visited us from Michigan. My Aunt Erma was beautiful, in a 1940s Midwestern sort of way, and Uncle Frank was big, strong and kind, like you would expect a man from Iowa to be. We took a few day trips, one to Diablo Dam. It was a beautiful Washington spring day. I remember what I wore because it was what I always wore: a gray felt cowboy hat, blue jean jacket and jeans, a two-gun toy belt, and suede cowboy boots. I wore those boots until I wore a hole in the sole the size of a 50-cent piece.
I was being pretty squirrely. The two-hour drive in the back of my mother’s 1968 Dodge Dart had almost paralyzed me, and the minute I stepped out of the car I needed to get the wiggles out. With a burst of energy, I ran toward the lake that lay below the dam overshadowing the parking lot. As I galloped to the edge of the overhang, my big uncle Frank reached out and grabbed my jacket with a kind but cautious “be-careful-Tex” grab. I don’t know if I was in imminent danger. I don’t know how far the drop or how deep the water, and I don’t know how many times my mother told the story afterward, but it was enough that I soon lost count.
According to her, the drop was deadly and the water tumultuous, and as the gravel kicked away from my boot, it tumbled over the edge like feathers being dumped from a pillow. My life had been miraculously spared that day, and my mother was spared the horror of losing both men in her life. She never mentioned my uncle Frank, the strong hand that caught me regardless of how rambunctious I happened to be, as she retold me the story. My mother felt it was her job to keep me safe and on the straight and narrow, by any means necessary. Lesson learned. Fear would keep me from the edge. For my mom, this was the principle directing her life and her experience of faith: getting it right, and as far away from the world as possible. (A version of this story can be found in Closer To The Edge: Walking With Jesus For The World’s Sake)
Many of us have grown up in religious systems where fear is the thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow. Systems of sacrifice that keep us in good standing with angry gods. Fear that might paralyze but gives us the illusion of being in control and on the right path, away from any dangerous edge. The problem is that most of the communities we serve sit on those edges fear has taught us to avoid.
Richard Rohr claims Fear Not is mentioned 365 times in the Bible. Here in our text we find one of these daily reminders. This begs the question, if fear does not hold the boundary that keeps moving us in the right direction, then what? What centers us in community and forms our faith? What keeps us and holds us? My answer is love. Love is the message of Immanuel. Love is the story of God with us. Love is the (divine) hand of Uncle Frank coming close enough to grab a squirrely, rambunctious humanity.
Dwelling Among Us
How do we lead and build communities that are not boundaried by fear but are centered in love? What does that love look like?