Advent 4A | December 19, 2004
Angels in the Bible often announce their arrival with the words, "Do not be afraid." This leads some of us to conclude that whatever angels look like, it must be frightful.
The angel in Joseph's dream also says to him, "Do not be afraid," but in this case, the problem is not the fearsome appearance of the angel. In Matthew 1, the angel is not allaying Joseph's fears about seeing an angel, but rather about marrying a pregnant woman. "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" (1:20).
As the gospel continues, Jesus will have more to say about fear and courage. The words, "Do not be afraid," are spoken at least five more times in the gospel of Matthew, and four of those times they are on the lips of Jesus. He speaks these words to the disciples during a storm (14:27), to Peter, James and John during the Transfiguration (17:7) and to the women outside the empty tomb (28:10). To the disciples he is about to send out to teach, preach and heal, he says, "Have no fear" of those who have called the master of the house Beelzebul and will surely also malign those of his household (10:25). "Do not be afraid," Jesus says, reminding those he is sending out of the One whose eye is on the sparrow. "You are of more value than many sparrows" (10:31).
Matthew 1:18-25 proclaims several gifts, any one of which could be the center of an Advent sermon filled with hope and joy: "she will bear a son...he will save his people from their sins... you will call him Emmanuel, God with us." Alongside all these—alongside the gift of a baby who bears the very presence of God to humanity is another gift, a gift that the one who is God with us will keep offering throughout his ministry: freedom from fear.
The people who will whisper behind your back cannot hurt you, Joseph. Do not be afraid.
The storm tossing your boat, O disciples, will be stilled by the one who walks toward you. Do not be afraid.
To those sent out in Jesus' name: the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is greater than your visions of being tongue-tied when you attempt to give an account of the hope that is within you. It is greater too than the experience of being ridiculed when you manage to offer such an account. Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid even of death, or of a world turned upside down by resurrection. The risen Lord keeps saying what he said before, "Do not be afraid." God is with us, and "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but rather that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). God is with us for good.