This week’s post begins with an angel coming to Joseph in a dream. The angel told him:
“Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
I find it interesting that, after calling Joseph’s name, the first words the angel speaks to Joseph are “Don’t be afraid.” Imagine that as a conversation starter!
I think about the times when I’m talking with my wife, LaVon, and the first thing I tell her is, “Don’t be mad, but. . . .” It’s a cue that whatever I tell her next will give her good reason to be mad.
Joseph probably got that same feeling of apprehension when the angel began with “Don’t be afraid.” When God calls you to do something and the opening words are “Don’t be afraid,” you likely should be afraid! Whatever follows is sure to be outside your comfort zone. It may be a call filled with challenge and risk. In fact, sometimes God will call us to do the thing we absolutely do not want to do.
I’ve never seen an angel in a dream, but other kinds of angels have occasionally called me to do things I really didn’t want to do.
Nancy Brown is one of those angels. She is a dynamo of a woman, twenty-three years my senior, who nearly broke my arm twisting it. Nancy told me that I needed to go with her to Africa to see what God was doing through the Methodist churches there. She hoped that if I saw it with my own eyes, I’d be as moved as she was and would come back to the States willing to do all I could to support God’s work in Malawi, Zambia, and South Africa.
I’m not sure I was afraid, but I certainly dreaded the twenty-two hours of airplane rides and four hours of bus rides to reach a place I’d never been before, meeting people I’d never met and eating food I’d never eaten. But by the time we had finished, after seeing what could be done in partnership and hearing an invitation to serve with our new friends, I came back to the United States deeply inspired. I’ve had the satisfaction of returning to Africa several times since. The angels that call me to do things I don’t want to do, things that I may dread, things that I end up doing joyfully—those angels usually look a lot like Nancy Brown and others in the congregation I serve.
Why did the angel tell Joseph not to be afraid? It wasn’t that Joseph might fear the angel itself. The message really was this: “Don’t be afraid of this mission to take Mary as your wife and to raise this child as your own.” The challenge of doing so must have made this humble carpenter anxious or fearful. He was being given a mission to wed Mary and to trust that the child was of God and not of another man. But more than that, Joseph was being presented with a mission of raising this child who “will save his people from their sins.” Don’t be afraid, Joseph. God’s saving plans for the world are being entrusted to your care!
“Don’t be afraid” is one of the most often recorded statements by God in the Bible. That God so frequently has to tell us not to be afraid is, once again, a reminder that God’s calling is not for the faint of heart.
God called Moses back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand that he release the Israelite slaves. You may recall the reaction of Moses, who was eighty years old at the time. He said, basically, “Are you kidding me?” (His actual words were “Please send someone else!”)
We are a bit like Moses. It’s our nature to make excuses and raise objections when called to do something we don’t want to do. But what God called Moses to wasn’t just any task; it was saving an entire nation.
Likewise, what God asked of Joseph was no ordinary or small thing: he was to raise, protect, and nurture God’s son, so that the Messiah could grow up and save his people. It was as if the entirety of Moses’ life, and Joseph’s, had been preparing them for this moment, when God would call them to play a key part in God’s saving story. Yes, it was scary. It was downright terrifying. And yet it was a mission that would change the world.
Have you ever felt God calling you to do something that scared you just a little bit? If not, perhaps you haven’t been paying attention. If you have heard God’s call and responded with a leap of faith that took you beyond your comfort zone, then you’ve probably discovered something important: Trusting God despite our fears, saying yes to God’s call even when we feel like saying no, ultimately brings us joy. It’s the kind of joy we celebrate on Joy Sunday in Advent.
I know a woman whose initial reaction to anything uncomfortable or unnerving is to say no. It’s a kind of default response that comes from fear. She tends to see all the things that could go wrong, or all the ways she isn’t equipped or the right person for the job. One thing I admire about her, though, is that her initial response is usually not her final response. The Holy Spirit continues to work on her, and eventually her fear gives way to faith, her no becomes a yes, and God uses her to do amazing things.
We all have a thousand excellent excuses to avoid what God is calling us to do, but it’s in saying yes that life’s adventures are found!