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Advent Devotional for Sunday, December 25: The Nativity of Jesus Christ
• Matthew 1:18-25
It’s Christmas Day, and you’ve just read these elegant words from Matthew’s gospel: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” Chances are that the power of familiarity has obliterated the sharp edges of this text from view. For this story of the arrival of God-in-the-flesh is designed to address not just our childlike wonder, but also our very adult-like fear. It is fear that takes up most of the stage in this story.
It’s Joseph’s fear, for starters, for the wheels have just come off of his well-ordered life. He had it all figured out, and then that angel arrives with an explanation that creates more questions than answers. Mary, mysteriously, is about to have a baby! But don’t be afraid, the angel says, the child is from the Holy Spirit.
Don’t be afraid?! Before this story is sentimental or endearing, it is terrifying. There is always reason to be terrified when the purposes of Heaven surprise us and throw up in the air everything that we had all nicely nailed down. No wonder Joseph is afraid. And so are we, whenever this mystifying God crashes in on us.
“Do not be afraid, Joseph,” says the angel.
The angel says that a lot. Later in Matthew, at the empty tomb, to those women: “Do not be afraid … He is not here, for he has been raised.” In Luke’s gospel, to those shepherds: “Do not be afraid, for I am bringing you good news of great joy …” So often, on the wings of some new gospel moment, the words come: “Do not be afraid.” Such words acknowledge us in our most vulnerable spot, and then they promise that God is coming to stand with us just there. That’s what Incarnation means, and that’s what Christmas is all about: that God is coming to stand with us.
Is there any word that we need more in these days of so much bad news, than the Good News that God is coming to stand with us?
I love the tree displayed each year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Its centerpiece—the Holy Family bathed in light and attended by Neapolitan angels and cherubs and shepherds and wise men—can be seen from all angles. And then, all around the rest of its base, are hundreds of other figures acting out the drama of life: kings, queens, shopkeepers, children chasing their dogs, all of them leaning toward the light of the newborn baby. But, wayon the other side of the tree, at its darkest, sparest point, something else is going on—a moment earlier than the moment of Incarnation. People are discussing the affairs of the day—but now, they have paused and cocked their heads.
What have they heard? I think it’s an angel, addressing them in their meantime. A voice that brings hope and liberation, but a voice that starts—as the Gospel always starts—by meeting us in our darkness and addressing our fear.
It was enough for Joseph. Is it enough for us? For the angel comes here, too, to stand among us. “Do not be afraid,” says the angel. “I am with you, so, for God’s sake, do not be afraid.”
O Child of the manger and King of our hearts: dwell with us today, and we will not fear anything! Amen.
Theodore J. Wardlaw
For the glory of God and to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary is a seminary in the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition whose mission is to educate and equip individuals for the ordained Christian ministry and other forms of Christian service and leadership; to employ its resources in the service of the church; to promote and engage in critical theological thought and research; and to be a winsome and exemplary community of God's people.
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