Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
Text: Matthew 1:20
Old Testament: Isaiah 7:10-16
New Testament: Matthew 1:18-25
One of our Christian misconceptions is faith in Jesus Christ does not involve fear. Many, if not most of us, want a comfortable faith that makes little or no demand on us. We want to believe God’s love never requires us to do the impossible. We want God to conform to our plans for our future.
When God’s plan doesn’t conform to what’s comfortable for us, fear emerges. Our faith in God is tested when God’s plan isn’t predictable, expected, or reasonable.
God’s tests are frightening, friends. Don’t think they aren’t. I’ve heard people blithely say to other people facing adversity, “God doesn’t test us beyond what you can endure.” Yet there are many faithful people who feel pushed beyond their limit. They don’t want to attribute their discomfort to God. But He does test the limit of our endurance.
Anger comes when you reach your breaking point. When you know you’re being pushed to the limit, your natural instinct to survive erupts in anger. We look for someone or something to blame. We look outside ourselves as the cause of our anger. Yet, rarely do we blame God.
Fear emerges when you realize you can’t control your discomfort. Fear is your reaction to another power not letting up pushing us where we’re afraid to go. The relentless pressure, the relentless tension that has no end in sight generates fear. Yet, rarely do we say our fears are generated by God.
We don’t want to believe God can be the cause of our fears. Many times God isn’t the direct cause. Evil does exist. Evil does push us to the breaking point.
Sin does exist. People disobey God. Sinfulness in other people can push us to the breaking point. Sometimes the darkness of sin lies inside us. We make bad decisions that push us or someone else to the limits of their endurance.
But God is still sovereign. Whatever we, evil, or others do, it lies within God’s plan for salvation.
When we’re afraid, we’re being pushed to examine any one of these considerations. Faithful, moral, God-loving people try to understand how the fears they have at their breaking point is part of God’s plan for salvation.
Joseph of the Nativity story was one such person. He’s no different than anyone who struggles with their fears and being faithful. He tried to be a faithful, God-loving person. He believed in his fiancée, Mary. He withheld personal contact with Mary before marriage. For her part, Mary was chaste. They were practicing the purity code God expects of His covenant people in Leviticus 17.
Yet Mary was pregnant. The woman Joseph loved was pregnant and he knew he wasn’t the father.
Joseph’s faithfulness was being tested. He and Mary were being pushed to their limits. You can hear Joseph thinking.
“Is Mary really faithful to me? Is Mary really faithful to God? How can this be? It doesn’t make sense? Who shall I blame for this? I don’t want to blame Mary. But who else is there to blame? She says she hasn’t been with anyone else. How can this be? What do I need to do to be faithful to God?”
Joseph’s blood pressure is rising. Mary’s continued pregnancy places more pressure on Joseph. Marry her or leave her. He’s afraid of either choice.
You notice that in the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph isn’t given the information he needed to overcome his fears before Mary becomes pregnant. God didn’t help Joseph and Mary by telling them the salvation plan before Mary’s pregnancy forced Joseph to face the panic button. God left them to their fears.
God delayed communicating with Joseph and Mary until her pregnancy was beyond their control. Only after they had struggled, perhaps even fought over their plight, blaming one another for being insensitive, unloving, unfaithful, God sent an angel to say, “Don’t be afraid.”
Yet what do words mean?
How many times do people try to help you by saying, “Don’t be afraid?” Did you accept their counsel? Did their advice lower your anger or dissipate your fears? Or, did you say to them or yourself, “It’s easy for you to say, you’re not in my situation.” And the anxiety builds inside you.
Perhaps the problem you’re facing in such occasions isn’t the actual situation, but your unwillingness to accept that God has a salvation plan beyond what’s comfortable for you. God is pushing you to expand the limits of your faith so that you will trust God in a new way.
Mary’s conception violated the boundaries of God’s Holiness Code. God didn’t care. He wrote the code. God can override even His own code if that’s what it takes to save the world.
Mary’s conception violated Messianic prophecy. Joseph wasn’t the natural father. So Jesus, technically, wasn’t from the house of David – except by adoption. God didn’t care. He can define His prophecy of the Messiah however He wants.
If the people of Judah want to discredit Jesus’ birth as being illegitimate, does God care? His plan for salvation doesn’t have to fit into the neat little box that faithful people create so God is understandable, reliable, and comfortable, satisfying their wants and needs. God can’t be domesticated by us.
Jesus’ birth is a prime example that God can and will work outside the limits of your comfortable faith so you can be saved. After all, we’re continually challenging God’s limits. We put our own spin on how we’re not sinning to convince ourselves that God isn’t really upset with us. So why can’t God save you in ways that defy your own expectations of God?
In the tidy world you and I create of Christian faith, evil is identifiable, sin is malleable, and God’s grace is predictable. There’s little room for God to work outside the box.
Friends, God is God. He tests us, to see whether we get it. Faith in God is not real faith, until you trust Him beyond your fears. Heroes are made by trusting God. Men and women rise to the level of heroes not by their faith in God.
Joseph is one of the Bible’s heroes. So is Abraham, who’s called on by God to sacrifice His son, Isaac. Both men trusted God beyond their anger, beyond their fears. God’s plan for salvation required both men to have faith beyond fear.
You don’t know Bill Roup. His friends called him Deedie. I never met Deedie. He died long before I began serving the church where he worshipped his entire life. Deedie grew up outside of New Texas in Pittsburgh’s East Hills. As a teen, he hunted pheasant, rabbits, and deer in Plum Township’s fields.
He was an exceptionally strong man. He was remembered by his friends long after he died by being able to pick up a 1941 Ford at Nesbit’s Garage. He set it on blocks so it could be repaired.
He went to the Presbyterian Church at New Texas each Sunday. He married a church member there – a dear woman, Edna, who missed Deedie long after he died. They were married a month after Pearl Harbor.
Deedie and Edna were afraid of their world. Their comfortable Christianity at New Texas was being turned upside down by Hitler and Hirohito. It was a test of world war that God was allowing to plague the earth.
This was a test of Deedie’s soul. Would he live the Christian life in the middle of war. Or would he lose his soul for becoming like those who were dragging the world into war.
Yet for all the fear that tested his faith in God, Deedie looked beyond his faith’s limits. He still saw a goal for salvation. It lay beyond his fears. He was sent to Italy and wrote to his young wife from Rome before Christmas in 1944,
There is little glory in the part you take, Edna. You’re a hero of another kind. Your task is home. To work and wait for me to return, to keep the world we know a place for men to live in peace – to plan, to hope, to dream the future that is ours and yours in the freedom we will win. To see with faith and vision the righteousness of our cause – to look beyond the borders of your life and see the greatness of the goal we strive to reach.
Deedie’s 92nd Infantry Division was sent to the Serchio Valley, north of Pisa, in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy. It faced the Nazi’s Gothic Line. He arrived in his foxhole at midnight. The next morning he lifted his head above his foxhole and was greeted by German artillery from two miles away.
Years later, Deedie, told his son John, “In war, you’re so filled with fear that ordinary men do heroic things. It’s only fear that makes heroes.”
Day in and day out his position was shelled. When his regiment left the treeless ridge to attack the Germans, it was decimated. Within weeks, Deedie was one of only three men from his battalion of 300 men not to be wounded or killed. As his company attacked the town of Massa, he entered a destroyed building where he discovered four of his friends had been killed.
He was assigned to put down his machine gun and be a medic. He was stronger than most men and could carry a GI to safety under fire. He gave up his only defense against being killed to carry a litter to give men life. He was in danger of losing everything in a senseless war.
There, in Massa, he stumbled on a gravely wounded German soldier in the street. Here was where the boundary of his Christian faith was pushed to its limit. Germans had been destroying his unit for weeks. He had lost all of his friends. He carried in his heart the anger over their deaths, the fear of his own death, and the burden of wondering why he was untouched.
Deedie left behind the German he hated and feared. Let him die. He deserved it. But that night, as darkness descended, the message of Christmas that he had heard in the New Texas sanctuary for years came to him. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you glad tidings of a great joy. For unto you is born in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Deedie knew what he had to do. Trust in Christ pushes us beyond fear. It makes us heroes of faith. He would not lose his soul.
The next morning, Deedie went back out into the streets. With guns firing and shells exploding around him, he found the wounded German barely alive. He picked up his hated enemy from the previous day, and carried this child of God out of danger to a place for his salvation.
From trust in God came one act of mercy in a world of fear.
Friends, all of us are tested by God to see if we get the message of Christ’s birth. When Christ’s birth inhabits our hearts, there’s faith beyond our fears. From that trust in God we do heroic deeds that testify to the glory of God’s plan for salvation.
Your heroic deed may be as simple as giving food to a perfect stranger who’s begging for help. You heroic deed may be staying with a friend on Christmas Eve who’s alone for the first time in years. Your heroic deed may be standing up to an injustice that is harming people you don’t know. Your tested so others may have faith beyond their fears – faith in Jesus’ birth. Amen.