Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Have you ever felt fear? Like, true fear? I’m not talking just about the fear that comes from not being able to find your keys, or leaving your house too late for an appointment, or driving too fast past a parked police car (all of which happened to me this past week, by the way). But I mean a fear that completely grips you, holds you in place, immobilizing you to the point where you have no idea what to do next and you quite possibly have been questioning all your decisions up to that point. I’m talking about the kind of fear that actually makes you wonder if you even want to continue living. Have you felt that kind of fear?
I know I did when I was 27 years old, and I was moving away from the city that I was born and raised and spent basically my entire life in and just going a couple provinces over for seminary. In fact, I was so scared to do this that I put it off for 4 years, which doesn’t sound that bad until I tell you that my waiting and procrastination nullified a scholarship worth a couple thousand dollars that I’ll never get back. And it wasn’t the moving that scared me, although I haven’t moved very much in my life, just 3 addresses total. Nor was it the travelling that scared me, although I haven’t done that much either at that point, I’ve only been out of BC maybe 3-4 times by then. And I wasn’t really all that scared to lose my friends, as they weren’t that great to begin with. No, what I was scared of, what was really worrying me, what I couldn’t stand the thought of, was failure.
And not just failing classes, I mean I’ve done that before and it wasn’t a big deal. Pretty easy, actually. I was scared that after I spend all this time and money and moving a few provinces over to go through school, that at the end of it all they’ll be like, “uh no, not you” like I’m not good enough or never will be good enough. Now, before any of you make jokes about how you’re surprised they didn’t say that, I tell you that was a huge legit fear of mine. That much of what I’ve worked for in my life would amount to nothing. That my goal in answering this call that I thought I felt would be a mistake. That who I thought I am and what I thought I will be was totally and completely wrong. I mean to me, nothing screams failure more than that, and nothing screams fear as much as failure.
You know, I sometimes imagine what it was like for Joseph to hear that his betrothed was expecting a child that apparently wasn’t his. How that must feel now that his plans for the future have crumbled into nothing. How he can cope with his utter failure of being a husband as his wife-to-be has already seemingly betrayed him, their future together, and their identity as God-fearing Jews bound by custom, tradition, and morality.
Not good, I’d imagine. I’d imagine he felt the same way men would feel now if they learned that their partner is pregnant by someone else. I’d imagine he felt the same as any of us would feel in the face of betrayal. I’d imagine he felt exactly as we’d think: angry, hurt, and afraid.
But those feelings that Joseph have don’t last for very long as he has made a plan to dismiss Mary quietly, and go on his life with none the wiser of his failed marriage before it even started. He made his decision and went to sleep and in that sleep he gets a message from God through an angel telling him not to leave Mary but instead to marry Mary… merrily. And that her child is actually the Son of God.
Huh. So if Joseph wasn’t afraid before, he probably is now. The Son of God? In his wife’s womb? And that is supposed to make him feel better? Now he doesn’t have to be afraid of failing in his marriage, but he just has to be darned sure that he doesn’t fail as a parent? Yowza.
And this is what Jesus was born into. It wasn’t all pretty and nice like we often think when we look at these pretty and nice Nativity sets. It wasn’t a clean and tidy package as we often romanticize it to be. It wasn’t exactly a perfect scenario in our standards with an underaged unwed mother and a deadbeat dad whose first thought was to bail.
But I don’t think God would have had it any other way, or else it would have been another way. I mean, it’s God we’re talking about.
No, I think it was intentional that God chose these common folk to welcome the Son of God into the world. I think it was intentional that these common folk would be so common that they were subject to the same issues, problems, and fears that you and I and all people have like all the time. I think it was intentional that this child of God be given a common name such as he did, to show all people of all time that this Messiah, this Saviour, this Jesus was, is, and always will be truly one of us, as we, too, are common ordinary children of God.
See the promise that Christ brings isn’t that we will be free of problems, but that our problems won’t go unnoticed and we’ll be cared for in the midst of them. The promise that God gives to us through this miraculous birth isn’t that we’ll be free of fear, but that we aren’t alone in our fears, rather we are held, protected, and saved from within those fears. The promise of God’s love shown to us through God’s Son brought into the world through such common means isn’t that we’ll be perfect and without blemish, but that we will be loved in spite of the imperfections and blemishes, and we will all, along with the Christ child, be called beloved children of God.
You know, after those 4 not-very-long years I allowed my fear to keep me from going to seminary, I ended up facing my fears and answering that call to train to be a pastor. The journey did have its fair share of ups and downs, and life wasn’t the same after I came back. But I realised that in my fear, I didn’t need to fear because even if I did end up failing, even if I did make a huge mistake, even if I didn’t become this great and wonderful pastor you see before you, I know that God would still love me, that God will still regard me as God’s child, that God will still cherish me and lift up my value and worth, even when I don’t see it myself.
This is God’s love for us. God’s most gracious and merciful love, that washes away our insecurities, our doubts, and our fears. God’s vast, far-reaching love, that brings us back into community with God and all the saints of all times and places, joining us together as the body of Christ and regarding us all as God’s own beloved children.
As we move into the Christmas season, may we always see God’s unending and steadfast love for us, calling us in spite of our fears, doubts, and ordinary lives to be God’s strong, bold, and extraordinary children. Thanks be to God. Amen.