This past Sunday our Gospel reading was Matthew 1:18-25, the story of Joseph in the midst of the birth narrative. While our Christmas pageants focus on the birth of Jesus, no room at the inn, shepherds, and angelic hosts, this particular Gospel reading focuses on the scandal and social problems that Joseph and Mary would face due to her pregnancy – not exactly a story that works well with kids in cute costumes.
The sermon at the early service (you can listen to it here) focused primarily on God coming into the real world, the world where real problems exist, the world in which we live. Understanding that our God chooses to come abide with us in the midst of the very real world is an important message, but within this Gospel text there are many other messages to be found and to take to heart.
In this fascinating piece by Erin Wathen on Patheos.com titled “Do Not Be Afraid: Call All Angels” she unpacks both the social issues faced by Mary and Joseph and also the message of the angelic visitor to Joseph and then she goes further and writes of how this message still calls out to each of us today.
“This is the world they lived in. This, in many ways, is the world that we still live in today–violent, misogynistic, unjust, and mistrustful of a miracle. So remind me again why in the world God would want to come down here and enter this mess?
Sometimes I wonder. And yet…
Into this impossible human situation, where the accepted norms of human culture would demand a human life in exchange for a perceived slight–into this moment of confusion and heartbreak –an angel appears, and speaks the magic words:
Do not be afraid.”
As she writes, Wathen moves from unpacking this story to asking the important question that many of us likely often ask, “where is our angel?”. It is a question we all face in the midst of an uncertain world, in the face of problems and fears, in the very real world in which we live. We can often long for an angelic voice to arrive on the scene and provide a sense of calm and peace, provide support, and cure all that ails us. For as much as we long for that bright shining figure it can often seem as though all we do is repeat our question and pleas for an angel to come to us. She continues and concludes with this:
“And maybe no angel is going to come down in a blaze of light and speak a perfect word of peace. But in that realization, there might a measure of empowerment; an urgency to give and mobilize aid. And in all that flurry of generosity and activity, we give voice to these ancient words again: Do not be afraid. We speak peace into the void, and find that angels are not the dazzling, glittery, gold and white stuff of children’s books after all; but our own impulse to move as ambassadors of God’s love and mercy and peace.
Parker Palmer calls this the work of bringing Christmas back down to earth. It is the discipline of recognizing our own responsibility to transform our reality–to be peacemakers, to fight for equality, and seek justice for the poor. Even in the midst of our own fear and uncertainty.
We can be a powerful presence in impossible places. We speak peace by giving money; we activate through prayer, and advocate by showing up; and sometimes our strength is in having the courage to not look away.
So I wonder– if we can do all that, then might we also have the power to answer our own fears and anxieties? I wonder if we can approach our own broken relationships and uncertain futures with that simple mantra– do not be afraid. Can we deliver that good news to our own weary souls? Can we share it with a friend who’s hurting– push back against the darkness, just by saying “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you”
We can spend this season waiting for the fiery sky show that we see in scripture. But the truth is, we’re it. We are the voices God has called to speak peace in our time–to call each other out of fear and into active compassion.
Some days, we think that maybe God has abandoned us…left a crumbling world to its own devices. But let this story of Joseph’s courage in an impossible moment, remind us that Jesus does not come to a world where all is well; Jesus comes to a broken world, in the cold of winter. And he is not born to those who are perfect and whole; he is born to the poor, the weary, and the broken-hearted. He comes to the world as it is–real life, messy and frayed. He comes as love incarnate, bringing peace to all who will receive it, and all who will speak its birth.”
As much as we often long for a simple solution to our problems, for an angelic messenger to come and make all things right for us and for our world, the fact is that we are the people of God who are called to speak a message of peace, hope, and grace to the world. We are called to do the work of God in this world, knowing that God is truly present with us in the world, broken as it may seem at times, strengthening us to live as the people of Christ.
Christmas is coming quickly and just as the Christmas Pageant story can pull our focus away from the story of Joseph and the very real concerns and problems that he and Mary faced and the very real world into which Jesus Christ was born, we too can lose our focus this season in the midst of lights and ornaments, trying to forget the real world and its problems and concerns that lurk right outside our doors. We may long for angelic visitors to solve all our problems but Wathen reminds us that we are called to be those angelic visitors in this world, we are called to be the angelic voice calling out to our neighbors, we are called to enter into this world as the people of God offering a voice of peace, hope, love, and grace knowing that our God has come into this world, is in this world, and will always be with us in this world.