Advent 2014: Do Not Be Afraid

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There are times I think I shouldn’t be writing this blog.

I love doing it, and it’s a way of stumbling towards God. But I’m aware of my limitations – I’ve never been to seminary, and I’m not going to pretend I suffer from hypocrisy more than I should. Does the world need another imperfect voice adding to all the noise?

But it’s still Advent, we’re still finding our way to the stable. And I noticed something today that I’ve not picked up on before.

Joseph was a righteous man, we’re told by Matthew’s gospel, and we expect that to have certain connotations. He should hold true to the tenets of his faith, right?

So when he discovers his wife-to-be is pregnant, knowing he’s not the father, there are rules to be followed. And while the rules would end very badly for Mary, at least the moral standing, the religious integrity of the community would be maintain. Joseph was a righteous man, the Bible tells us, so surely he followed the rules.

Well, no. He decides to quietly end his relationship with Mary so she’s not disgraced (or, you know, stoned to death). He doesn’t follow the rules, and yet he’s not called righteous in spite of this; he’s called righteous because of this. Don’t forget, this is before he knows the truth of the situation, which he learns in a vision in which he’s told not to be afraid.

When the angels appear over the hills of Bethlehem, they don’t proclaim the arrival of the Messiah to the respectable and the reputable. They home in on the despised and mistrusted, one of the professions that wasn’t even allowed to give testimony in court. The shepherds are sent straight to the baby – no ritual, no rites, just go.

“Do not be afraid,” they’re told.

There’s a moment, thirty years after the stable, when Peter is confronted with a miracle and he falls to his knees and begs Jesus to leave, because Peter’s a sinful man and Jesus is divine.

And how does Jesus respond?

“Don’t be afraid,” he says, and Peter becomes a disciple.

There’s a danger in making faith all about managing sinfulness, even more so when it’s about managing the apparent sinfulness of everyone else. Christmas is about something bigger and more compelling than that; it’s about drawing people towards God, not because of their own personal righteousness but because of God’s boundless love and grace. We sometimes want God to be a judge, a disciplinarian, an agent of wrath and vengeance, but Christmas doesn’t play by those rules. We’re constantly told not to be afraid, and that’s not just of the circumstances but also of the God behind them. The stable is inclusive; don’t drive people away; bring them in instead.

“Do not be afraid.” The barriers between God and humanity are breaking down; Bethlehem leads to the cross as God reaches out to us, not because of our goodness but because of his. Go to the stable; you’re still invited.

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