First Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122 (UMH 845)
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

The scripture readings today speak with hope of the second coming of Christ. They say be prepared. Isaiah looks ahead to a time when all nations will turn to the Lord and they will learn war no more. When we will change our weapons that destroy life and turn them into things that will produce and sustain life. They tell us to learn about the Lord and walk in His light. They speak of who Jesus is and tell us to be like Him. 

The people of the time were expecting Jesus to return any minute and when that didn’t happen, they started to lose hope and they got caught up in the day to day living. Even today, for us Christmas can be a joyful time and yet, there can be sadness. We have experienced loss. We are so busy. We sometimes spend money on gifts that we can’t afford and spend the rest of the year paying for them. For some – there is no money for gifts and so Christmas becomes a time of looking in a store window at something that we can never have. Hopeless. We cling to memories of Christmas past. Change is an ever present part of this life. Reading about the second coming of Christ seems odd when our calendar tells us He hasn’t even arrived the first time and yet…We don’t usually go on a trip without having a destination in mind. 

Advent is a time of preparation and expectancy. We are beginning a journey. We know how the journey ends as far as the church calendar is concerned but a lot happens between the manger and the cross and resurrection. For Jesus, and for us. 

Beginning a journey can be exciting but it can also make us a little anxious. Did we pack the right clothing? Do we have good tires? Are our directions correct? 

All along this journey there are angels. Jesus conception was announced by an angel. Angels spoke to Mary, and to Joseph, and to the shepherds in the fields.

When I was little – in fact all of my growing up years, my grandmother had an angel tree topper. Not the beautiful ones you see in the stores now with the brocade robes and all of the gold and silver. Gorgeous and elaborate fancy angels. No, this angel was made out of a kind of cream colored hard plastic. She had a pretty face and this long soft white hair that always looked a little rough after being packed away for a year. She held a wand with a star at the end of it. When she was placed at the top of the tree there was always a blue light at the tree top so that it was inside the body of the angel and she had this soft blue glow. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Of course she probably looked a little more like Glenda the good witch in the Wizard of Oz than an angel. 

We all have special memories of our past Christmas journeys. I also always knew which gifts were from Grandma because she always wrote “From Santa Clause” on the tag. Claus being spelled c l a u s e…

Years after my grandmother passed, I found an angel exactly like the one from her tree at a garage sale, and I bought her.  For years she sat on top of our Christmas tree until my family let me know they thought she was tired and tacky looking and when I downsized the tree after the kids were grown, she went away.

We see angels depicted in pictures as sweet little chubby cherubs or terrifying warriors, but always with wings. I have often wondered about that. I mean, if you are an angel and God wants you to go somewhere do you really need wings? But that’s not really the point..just one of those questions that distract me. When a family goes on a journey there is always that one annoying kid that is constantly asking questions like “Are we there yet?” That would be me. 

Often when an angel appears to humans in the bible, the first thing they say is don’t be scared. I always thought this meant that angels were probably more the scary warrior type than the cute cherub. I mean, if a cute pudgy little baby with wings appeared to you, they probably wouldn’t need to tell you not to be afraid. 

Have you ever actually stopped being afraid because you were told NOT to be scared?? What a suggestion! I wish I had thought of that! Just stop! It’s kind of like telling me to calm down when I’m upset about something. Not only will it not work but I probably will be MORE upset. 

The world can be such a scary place and with twitter and Facebook and all of the internet – we get the news (especially the bad news) almost instantly. We are bombarded with bad news and we get anxious. We now lock our church doors once the service starts and we are just more aware of our surroundings. 

I know we sometimes tend to think of the Bible as an instruction manual on how to be more righteous and we are told not to fear in the bible – a lot. Not exactly 365 times as some would have you think. That was a thing shared repeatedly on Facebook and because I always wonder about that kind of thing I did some research. nope. Not a thing. But still – the bible says “do not fear” a lot of times. And it made me wonder why. When the bible tells you something repeatedly it usually means it is pretty important, right? 

Journeys can be scary. I think about Paul. Paul said in Acts 20 that everywhere he went people wanted to kill him or hardship awaits. That would kind of change your perspective on travel wouldn’t it? But he didn’t stop. In fact in 2nd Corinthians 12:10 He says that for Christ’s sake, he delights in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 

So maybe when the angel said to a person “Do not fear” it was not a command or instruction but instead some kind of angelic power like using the force in the Star Wars movies “These are not the droids you are looking for” (If any of you have not seen the Star Wars movies I apologize.) But when a Jedi used the force – poof – the bad people would walk right past those droids like they weren’t even there. So maybe when the angel said don’t fear – poof, whoever they were speaking to was not afraid. Okay that’s a little weird but you get my point.

John says that perfect love casts out fear. So maybe when God sent an angel to us with a message, they came in the form of this powerful love of God which made the fear disappear.

While we are asking questions, why would fear be the thing angels would tell us not to do. If the angel has the power to change something in us like removing fear, why wouldn’t they say something like don’t be selfish! Or don’t be mean! 

Maybe because God knew that the one thing that would totally close off our mind from hearing the message from Him would be fear.

So today as we set out on our Advent journey I want to talk a little about this fear thing. 

How can fear be the thing that keeps us from hearing and acting on God’s message? An example that might show us what fear can do is the difference between Joseph and Herod.

Herod was a Roman appointed king of Judea. He was good friends with Mark Anthony, the Mark Anthony who was in love with Cleopatra. He built fortresses and palaces and in general made the country more prosperous but he was mentally unstable and as he got older he became more unstable. He ended up murdering his wife, her sons and her brother. All together he had eight wives and 14 children. His physical and mental health had deteriorated by the time of Jesus birth. He had lost favor with Augustus and tried to commit suicide. When the wise men told him a prophecy about a king being born, he was afraid. 

He sent them to find out more and he said he wanted to know where this king was so he could worship him. When the wise men didn’t come back and tell him how to find the baby he arranged to kill all the babies in the land because underneath it all, he was afraid of losing his power. He was terrified of a little baby!

Joseph was a carpenter. A peasant. He had no power. The bible says he is a just man. When he found out Mary was expecting a baby, he didn’t pitch a public fit and he didn’t just dump her. He thought about the situation and he was planning to divorce her quietly. Even though he might have felt hurt and betrayal and according to the law of the time, he could have publicly shamed her, but he had compassion for her. While he was thinking about all this, an angel showed up and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, that the child was from the Holy Spirit. Later an angel would appear to him in a dream and tell him not to be afraid and to take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod. Both times, Joseph was able to act without fear and listen to what God wanted him to do. We know very little else about Joseph from the bible. 

Herod had power and was fearful. Joseph had no power but was fearless!

Every Christmas of my life, there have been nativity scenes. The town I grew up in was very small. It had one main street and packed dirt paths on the walk to what we called town, not sidewalks. Every year we would bundle up and walk to town to look at the Christmas lights and the last stop would be the nativity that was nearly life size. I have a ceramic one at home that a friend made for me years ago. I have seen beautiful wooden and porcelain nativity scenes and each one  has Joseph in it. Every church nativity program casts a boy to play Joseph, Mary’s husband. Because Joseph was not afraid to do what the angel told him to do, Jesus was born according to prophecy and also kept safe from the consequences of the fear that consumed a powerful old man. 

None of the nativity scenes we set up in our homes at Christmas and none of the Children’s Christmas programs we have watched or helped put on over the years have had Herod in them. Herod is a footnote in history.  Joseph has a permanent part in the story of the culmination of God’s plan for our salvation. 

There is a quote that says Herod’s fear caused death. Joseph’s fearlessness protected life.

Maybe you have some Herod’s in your life. Maybe today because of Jesus, you can look at those things or people or situations that seem to have power over you and your life and point your finger and say “footnote” because the powerful, fearful Herod’s of the world are forgotten, but stepping out in faith and saying yes to God changes the world (and you!) forever.

I believe in angels. They are all around us. Maybe they are sitting next to you in the pew this morning. They certainly are sitting next to you holding your hand and praying with you in the hospital. Maybe they come by to visit you and bring cookies when you are recovering. Maybe they cook a meal or give you a hug. They are messengers of love and they say over and over again – don’t be afraid. They speak louder than any footnote and they change our world every day in quiet little ways. 

As we start our advent journey, let’s pack light but don’t forget the angels that travel with us. Our Jesus family that makes this journey with us and strengthens our faith when the Herods of the world have bruised us.. 

Let’s not forget the inexperienced girl who said yes to what an angel told her and got to rock the one who would die for our sins in her arms. Don’t forget a poor carpenter who made the decision not to be afraid and built a family that would nurture the one who would save us all. 

Most important, remember the baby in the manger, the one who was planned for and promised from the first moment sin came into the world to restore us back to the garden. 

Do not fear. Get ready. There is hope! God has a plan!

Christmas is not the destination. Christmas is the starting place. 

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