Do Not Be Afraid (Christmas Eve, 7pm)
Christmas is a scary time. A Christmas Carol is frightening story of an old man terrorized by ghosts on Christmas Eve, which we somehow decided is a beloved classic. But Christmas isn’t scary only for Ebenezer Scrooge. Songs flood the radio about a jolly fat man named Santa Claus who breaks into homes at night, allegedly to bring toys for nice children. Allegedly. And if it’s not that, then it’s tunes about a pile of snow named Frosty, who comes to life and rampages through town… or a movie about a kid left home all alone fighting off robbers… or a whole ballet about giant rats waging war against a nutcracker in some poor girl’s living room. Yet most frightening of all at Christmas… are the meals with extended relatives you only see once a year, meals that remind why you see them only once a year.
Joking aside, as I studied the old familiar Christmas story from the Bible once more this year… I was struck by how genuinely terrifying this story is when you step back and think about it. As Matthew’s gospel frames the birth of Jesus, it’s not that Mary learned she was pregnant: “while she was engaged but before she was wed to Joseph… Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew portrays it almost like Mary’s been caught. It’s not a cute discovery: she’s been discovered pregnant by a fiancé who knows the child isn’t his, which in ancient times could be a death sentence. I’m sure it was a frightening time for young Mary. Joseph, too, must have been afraid, as the angel implies. And it’s no wonder why, given he’d face scorn in public over the child unwed Mary was found to be with. King Herod—whom the wise men bearing gifts ask for directions—was even more terrified by the Christmas story, for he was an unpopular puppet-king hated by his subjects… who famously executed several of his own sons whom he feared plotted against him. And with King Herod afraid of a newborn king who might overthrow him, the citizens of Jerusalem were likewise afraid, afraid of some new atrocity done against them by a mad king. This fear of Herod’s paranoia infects the wise men too, who cautiously detour to avoid Herod en route home, and even Mary and Joseph, who are told to run away into exile in Egypt to escape the tyrant’s wrath.
So for those keeping score at home, we have an unwed mother fearful of a possible stoning to death, her fiancé afraid of public shame, a tyrant afraid of a newborn rival king, Jerusalem afraid of what the tyrant will do to kill that child, and finally wise men and holy parents alike scattering in all directions to escape that ruler’s murderous jealousy. At first glance, the birth of Jesus looks like a quiet, peaceful nativity set you might buy at Bronner’s. But at second glance, it’s as if someone took that beautiful nativity set… and put a sledgehammer to it, with shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and all scattering every which way for their very lives. Not that I’m suggesting a new family holdiay tradition. From heaven’s point of view, Christmas is like a well-oiled machine, as at last history finds its fulfillment in the birth of the messiah. But from an earthly point of view? That machine is a rickety jalopy scattering gears, wheels, and oil down icy streets as it careens into a stop sign and pedestrians flee from the terrible wreck.
Sisters and brothers, we live in a fearful age, I’m afraid. There are times, like the citizens Jerusalem quaking over King Herod’s paranoia… we lose sleep over things far beyond us in scale and scope. It’s things you see in the news but can’t truly wrap your head around… things like that fact that since the 50’s nations have held weapons that could end human civilization as we know it… or the fires currently ravaging places like Australia and California that only get worse year after year. We all fear the King Herods of this world, the things that affect everyone but are so big as to be impersonal, like terrible forces of nature. I’m sure if I polled the congregation, plenty more big fears could be tossed on the pile: violence in schools, addiction epidemics, a changing world moving too fast for some or too slow for others. Those are big fears: things we see in the news daily but are hard to grasp mentally, things that affect us all but are so huge they’re hard for us to ‘get’ from our tiny point of views. Faced by big fears, we are Jerusalem, worried over what King Herod might do but so small as to feel powerless against it.
But there are also far more personal fears, like the private terror of Mary over how Joseph will react to her unmarried but pregnant self… like the personal fear of Joseph over how he’ll not only be a new husband but a new father to a child born of the Holy Spirit… like the inward worries the wise men had as they trekked over moor and mountain following yonder star, wondering if the journey would truly be worth it. For us, our private, smaller fears can be worries over broken relationships: that in-law you don’t talk to anymore, the grief you’ve never admitted, that apology you never sent lest it be rejected. It’s the personal anxieties over job security, over making ends meet, over making sense of and finding purpose in retirement. It’s small-to-the-world-but-big-to-you fears over chasing after dreams lest you fail, lest they disappoint, lest life lead you down yet another side path. Like our Biblical heroes in the story of Christ’s birth… we all have our worries, our troubles, our fears… whether they be giant and powerful troubles like King Herod… or personal, local ones like the worries of Mary and Joseph.
So it’s no wonder the first real words an angel says in Matthew’s gospel are: “Do not be afraid!” Because the truth is… we do live in a fearful age, with many causes for genuine concern… as did Mary and Joseph, as did the wise men and shepherds, as did Jesus Christ. But the birth of that Christmas child reveals why—despite all the fears in this world—we know fear does not win the day. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel says, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Mary will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Why should Joseph not fear? It’s not because his worries aren’t that big a deal. It’s not because he doesn’t matter. No. Joseph can “be not afraid” because of who the child is and because of the promise it carries. Do not be afraid, Joseph, for the Holy Spirit is with this child, and he will rescue you from sin and evil, from death and pain. Do not be afraid, Lapeer, for the Christmas child bears the title of Emmanuel, sealing forever the promise that “God is with us” in all things, whether good or bad or in-between… so you can rest secure in God’s loving embrace. Do not be afraid, sisters and brothers, for the child born on Christmas has come to shepherd his people, to lead them gently, to protect and nurture them when they are weak, to feed and provide for them like little lambs. Do not be afraid, Christians, for the babe lying in a manger is hailed by angels and wise men as king, and this child in the end shall throw down the King Herods of this world and enact justice and mercy, truth and love, for all peoples and nations.
The observant among you, however, will notice a problem. The birth of Jesus may secure those promises for us. But things still aren’t great down here on Earth. All those things we’re afraid of are still real and still affect us. And that’s true. But notice that’s true for Jesus Christ in this story as well. His own family must run away from King Herod’s rampage into exile in Egypt, living as foreigners in a foreign land. The birth of Jesus did not undo all fear nor remove all danger, not even for himself or his parents. But… the promise of Christmas… is that fear and pain do not get the final world. Even this Egyptian exile is flipped on its head by the Christmas child, morphed from a thing of pain into a fulfillment of divine providence that means all who wander or are lost have a friend and traveling companion in Jesus Christ. The birth of Jesus on Christmas does not remove fear overnight, does not instantly fix all suffering… but it secures the promise that one day death will be defeated, that joy in the end gets the final word, that we can be not afraid because God on Christmas reveals our human stories resolve in peace and love.
So yes, Christmas can be a frightening time, not just for Ebenezer Scrooge, Kevin McCallister, or those of us who will be cornered by unpleasant relatives tomorrow. There are genuine worries in this world, both big in scope affecting everyone… and small in scope hounding only our steps alone. But that is the whole reason we have Christmas! To remember that our fears may be founded, they may be real… but they will not win. That God in Jesus Christ has kindled the spark that will light up the world. Tonight is a night we celebrate the dawning of that light. Not every shadow of this life has been chased out yet, that is true. But tonight we celebrate the birth of the light… with eyes looking forward with eager joy towards the full bright of morning’s glory, when Christ comes again with love and power. Tonight we celebrate that Christmas drives out fears, not by denying our feelings, but by promising that God’s love is far stronger than anything else in all creation. For Jesus Christ bears the title of Emmanuel, “God is with us.” And so God will be with you always, so do not be afraid. Praise be to God. Amen.