What would you most like to change about yourself? Does something come to mind? Last week, I asked that question at a Bible Study I lead. Do you know how I answered? I said that I would like to be less afraid. I’d like to think that most folks would not find me a fearful person. But I know. Deep inside fear can grip me. I fear something won’t get done or won’t get done the way I want, and when I do, it drives the people around me crazy. Or I fear that someone else is upset at me. Or I fear that not enough kids will show up for Christmas Eve, and I’ll be embarrassed and feel like a failure. I usually move past those fears, but boy, they still feel miserable. They still hold me back, stress me out, fill me with anxiety.
Do you get that? My fears may not be your fears. But do you know what I’m talking about? Are there places where your fears hold you, limit you, even paralyze you? Have there been times when your fears drove you into hurtful words or foolish actions? Have there been times when your fears kept you in a bad relationship or a bad job or a bad habit? Fears can so limit your life. They can lead you in the wrong direction or keep you away from the right one. But how do you free yourselves from them? How do you wake up instead to trust, to peace, to a freedom from fear or at least fear’s power? In this story of someone who literally woke up to such trust, God gives you an answer. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
In this story, God makes it clear. You can’t let fear dictate your life. When you do, your fears will prevent you from living the very life, God has created you to live. But probably, you already know that. That’s not the question. No, the question is, how do you get out from under the fear? How do you reduce fear’s power in your life? How does that happen? In this story, God tells you. Freedom from fear’s power comes as you realize what’s not only real but true.
Fears feel real, but they are rarely true. But because they feel real, you give power to them, to your insecurities, your doubts, to the wounds from your past, the expectations of others and the list could go on. And when you give that power, it doesn’t just limit your life. It leads you to ignore what not only has real power but is also actually true. And in this story, God shows you what that is, what has the power to free you from fear’s shadow. Here God tells you. Instead of listening to the fear, God says, trust in the love. For, in that trust you will find the freedom to live for what truly matters, and the courage to walk away from what doesn’t.
It’s that trust that frees Joseph from the fear. As the story begins, Joseph is doing the “right thing.” It may not be what he wants to do. We don’t really know. But it is what he feels he has to do. It’s the religious thing to do. And Joseph is a righteous guy. He can’t be associated with a fallen woman.
But Joseph doesn’t want to make a big scene. He wants to do it quietly. That way, he’s not embarrassed, and hopefully, Mary lives. You see. Custom prescribes that Mary bestoned to death for what she’s done. But if he doesn’t make it a big deal, then likely no one else will. She’ll be shunned and mocked, almost certainly cast out from the synagogue, but at least she’ll live. But then God gives Joseph that dream. And what does God say? God says to Joseph. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Why does God say don’t be afraid?
Because Joseph had fears. He was afraid that if he and Mary wed, she wouldn’t be faithful, that she would break his heart. That’s a valid fear, if it’s based on something true. But here God tells Joseph. It’s not true. No, this baby does not come from Mary’s faithlessness. This baby comes from God’s faithfulness. In this child, God is doing a wondrous new thing.
But still, it doesn’t look that way. Virgin births don’t just happen. If Joseph stands by Mary, he’ll be tarred with the same brush. People will think that he dishonored Mary. Or they’ll think he’s being played for a fool.
Joseph had to face the fear of other people’s opinions, what they would think, how they would react if he took Mary as his wife. He had to overcome his fear of going against his culture, even his religion in standing by Mary. Yet when Joseph woke up, even in the face of all those fears, he did what God had told him to do.
How did Joseph do that? How did Joseph overcome his fears? How did Joseph become free of their power? Joseph became free, when he realized how false his fears were. That’s what God did. God showed Joseph the truth. God showed him that his fears, as real as they seemed, had no real power at all. His fears were lying to him. They weren’t giving him the truth. They were taking him away from it. Often, the very things that terrify you, they aren’t even true. Do you know that old saying about what fear stands for? It stands for “False expectations appearing real.”
And how did God show those fears for the false things they were? God showed Joseph his love, a love that was now literally coming to earth as a human being. And as Joseph trusted in the love, more crucially as Joseph experienced the love, he saw those fears for the false things they were.
You see, that’s the stunning thing about most every fear. They’re lies. And if you let them dictate your life, they’ll prevent you from living the true life God created you to live. Fears might tell you they’re saving your life, but in reality, they’re only limiting it. And sometimes those fears might even end it.
Years ago, I heard a story about a man who was exploring a huge cave. As he climbed a cliff face in the cave, his foot slipped. He found himself hurtling through the air. At the very last moment, his safety line held. He didn’t hit the ground. But his light had gone out. It was pitch black. He had no idea how far down he would drop if he unhooked from the safety line. So, he decided to simply wait, to stay hooked to that rope for dear life. And he hung on, even as he felt his strength failing, even as he grew weaker from no food or water. Two days later when a rescue party finally discovered him, they found a puzzling sight. They found a dead man dangling from a rope only a foot off the ground. This man died, in the end, not because he fell. He died because he let his life literally be dictated by a fear that wasn’t even true.
Too often you and I can be like that cave climber. You can have your life dictated, limited, even destroyed by fears that aren’t even real. Now they can seem real. They can feel real. But they’re not. And if you live as if they are, you will miss out on the very life God created you to live.
Still, those fears can feel real, because at one point in your life, they were. Somebody really did wound you in a certain way. Something did happen that wrecked your life.
This past week, I was listening to someone talk about a colleague of his who adopted a young child. And this colleague mentioned a challenge they faced. Each day, they’d tell their newly adopted son, we’ll pick you up from school at 3:30. And every day, the kid didn’t believe it. Every day, he got filled with more and more anxiety as that time approached. And it took a while for this guy to get what was going on. The boy got filled with fear because again and again adults in his life had made those same promises. Don’t worry, I’ll pick you up. I’ll be there. But they hadn’t. Instead, again and again, they had let their child down. This kid was scared because he had reason to be. For that little boy what was real is everybody fails me and doesn't fulfill a promise. And so, until a new truth became real, that old reality of abandonment and loss would still be true.
Nothing they said would change that fear, because it wasn’t yet real. The only thing that would change that fear is that child seeing day after day these commitments kept. He had to know this love was not only true, it was real, that it could be counted on no matter what. Only then would their new child find the shadows of his fears falling away. No words of love could change that, but the experience of the love, the reality of that love would.
You see. In Joseph’s life, he didn’t just know the truth of God’s love, he had experienced its reality. He had experienced this love in worship at the synagogue, in praying the Torah. He had experienced this love showing up again and again in his life. So, when that night, he heard in this dream God’s promise that this son was God’s deliverance come to earth, he trusted its truth because he had experienced its reality. And the power of that reality freed him to move past the fear, to not give it power it didn’t have. And the reality of that same love will free you.
This past week, I heard an interview with a Christian leader, Terry Wardle, who grew up in a painfully broken family in the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania. By the time he was five, he had seen death happen five feet away from him. By the time he was 7 or 8, he had seen his uncle shoot his aunt next door. All through his childhood, he was repeatedly abused and abandoned. And even after he became a Christian, he still carried all those wounds with him. After great success as a Christian leader, because of those wounds he ended up in a psychiatric hospital, depressed, anxiety-ridden, paralyzed by fear. People would quote scriptures like the one that says “perfect love casts out fear.” And it would drive him nuts. Those words never helped. Then he got it. It’s not those words “perfect love” that cast out the fear. It’s the experience of that perfect love. He realized. He knew in his head that God’s love was real. But he hadn’t experienced it as real, especially in those wounded memories of his past. So, Wardle literally in his imagination took Jesus there into those memories. He experienced that perfect love of God grieving with him, comforting him, assuring him that God’s love was the truth not the abuse of his past that had wounded him and filled him with fear.
As Wardle put it himself. You live in a home like I did, in an environment with violence and crime and abuse, I had reasons to be afraid. It was real. Someone says, fear not. It might've been true but it wasn't real. What was true for me was what was real. But then he said. The love of God started coming in, even into those wounded memories. And God made what I knew to be true, real even there. And that reality freed him. And now he lives his life sharing that same freeing power with others.
That is the reality that frees everyone. Because everyone has those wounds, maybe not as deep as Terry Wardle’s. But everyone has them, and from those wounds the fear comes. But as you let God’s love come in, then that love shows you not only what is true, but what is truly real. That is what Jesus brings. You can’t outthink the fear. But you can let the reality of Jesus’ love free you from it. You can hear God say to you. I accept you. I don’t judge you. You are precious to me, infinitely loved, infinitely respected. You will find no condemnation here, ever. And, as you let that love touch you, then what is already true, becomes real. And in that reality, that ultimate reality, the fears start to fade away.
That’s why we’ve made our vision at the church I serve come down to three simple words, invited, welcomed and loved. Why? Those words are true, but too often, for too many they’re not real. And God has called our church to make them real not only for us, but for everyone who encounters this church. Wardle tells a story of a young pastor he met. And the pastor said, “When I was a young pastor, I had so many wounds from people. I kept everybody at an arm's length. But there were two elderly women in that church that made up their mind that every time they saw me, they were hugging me I didn't like it, but I put up with it. I put up with it until I started liking it and then it changed me." It changed him because what was true, God’s love, became real.
Is what is true real to you today? Is there a place where Jesus needs to make it real? Then in those next few moments, I invite you to let Jesus do you just that. Just imagine God's love entering into that place of fear. Maybe you imagine God touching you or embracing you or speaking words to you or simply be present with you. In those moments, let what is already true become real, and as you do that love will heal you. That love will free you from fear. That love will invite you and welcome you into a life and a love more wondrous, more amazing than you could ever have imagined or dreamed.