Sunday, December 22, 2013

Do Not Fear

Holy Cross cancelled services this morning, so this sermon was never actually preached.  If not for the snowstorm, this is what you would have heard.

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 22, 2013 (Fourth Sunday in Advent)

“Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Usually when we hear an angel saying, “Do not fear,” it’s because whomever he’s talking to is afraid of him.  Just within this part of the church year, there are several times when an angel shows up and the first thing he says is, “Do not fear.”  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is serving in the temple and Gabriel shows up and has to tell him not to be afraid.  Mary is so troubled at the Gabriel’s initial greeting, “Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you,” that the angel has to follow up immediately with “Don’t be afraid.”  And of course, as we will celebrate only a few days from now, the shepherds had to be told, “Fear not.”  The sudden appearance of one of God’s supernatural messengers normally provokes fear in human hearts.

But this time, the angel’s assurance not to fear isn’t because of the angel’s own appearance.  This angel (most likely Gabriel as well, though St. Matthew doesn’t tell us) asks Joseph not to fear for a completely different reason.  Joseph had recently found out that his betrothed wife had, as far as anyone could tell up to this point, been unfaithful to him.  Now, he would have been within his rights to denounce her publicly and have her stoned, in accordance with the Law of Moses.  But instead, because he does still love her and wants to protect her, he decides to divorce her quietly.  It hurts him and troubles him that this has become necessary, but despite her apparent sin he still wishes to do things in a way that protects her from the harsh judgment of the law.  Joseph had a stake in this, too.  After all, if he went ahead with the marriage and then Mary had one of those “miracle pregnancies” that take a lot less than nine months, if you know what I mean, Joseph’s own standing in the community, not to mention Mary’s, would be severely reduced.  (By the way, I suspect this was part of the reason God sent them to Egypt: not just to flee Herod, but also so that the timing of Jesus’ birth would not become a subject for conversation and gossip among their neighbors in Nazareth.)

Which is why when the angel tells him not to be afraid to go ahead with the original plans for the marriage.  Joseph’s fear was not of the angel but of what he thought he was going to have to do.  Instead, the angel tells him not to fear what may happen if he went ahead.  This was no ordinary pregnancy.  This was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself, who was developing in Mary’s womb.  Mary had not been unfaithful to Joseph, but instead had been chosen to be the mother of God.  Joseph had been chosen to be the adoptive father of none other than the singular Angel of the Lord who had been appearing to His people in the tabernacle and temple throughout the Old Testament.  The baby in Mary’s womb was Himself the one who had given Moses the law regarding adultery that Joseph, out of mercy toward his bride, had here decided not to follow.

But this is the point, isn’t it?  God the Son went through all this in order to have mercy on His wayward creation.  What we have deserved by our sins is far worse than death by stoning; it is eternity separated from God’s love and grace, experiencing only His wrath.  Mary was innocent of the sin of which she was accused, but we are guilty every day of sins more than we can possibly number, let alone atone for.  We who, as the Church, are supposed to be His bride, follow the temptations and enticements of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh far more often than we would like to admit.  And yet, He takes us under His protection.  The Church’s Bridegroom does not fear to take His bride under His care despite how unfaithful she has been to Him.

Even His coming into this world as a helpless infant shows us what kind of bridegroom He is.  It is precisely because He loves us and wants us as His own that He is born in this humble way, of a young Jewish girl from a backwater town called Nazareth.  It is precisely because He is willing to bear the punishment for our unfaithfulness that He takes upon Himself our weakness, including the death we deserved.  It’s precisely because He wants us as His pure and holy bride that He allows His birth to happen in such a way that even His own mother is put in what seems to be a questionable position with regard to her pregnancy.  It’s precisely because He wants us to be born again in Him that He is born among us.

But, that’s how He works.  He purifies from the inside out.  He joined us in our humanity not by descending from the clouds with power and glory, but by becoming a baby within his mother’s body.  He comes to us now by allowing us to eat and drink of His body and blood.  It is not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, it’s what is already inside of him and comes out in the form of hurtful words and deeds that shows that he is unclean.  And so Jesus’ cleansing of us has to start from within.  Baptism puts to death and resurrects the heart before we can see the effects on the human body at the grave and in the final resurrection.  It is precisely within our minds and hearts that His Word takes root before it produces the fruit of good works.  And it is precisely in our bodies that His body, crucified and shed for the forgiveness of our sins, takes up residence and will bring forth the fruit of eternal life.  Do not fear to receive Him into your very selves, for what is conceived in you is of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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