First off, it’s so great to have you all hear. You really do look beautiful!. It’s great to have this opportunity for us to be together to chat. That’s one of the things that I love about Christmas. It’s a time of coming together. A time of coming together with those who are nearest and dearest to us and maybe some who we are iffy about (You know what I’m talking about!). But you know what, I believe that good things happen when people get together whether it’s around the Christmas tree, the dinner table or the communion table. So again, I’m so glad you’re here.
But we have some important business to get to, so I’m just going to get right down to it. What the heck is going on out there? The whole world seems to have lost its mind. These are scary days indeed. He who shall not be named is wreaking havoc south of the border. There’s a renewed threat of global nuclear war. Europe is falling apart. The economy, and capitalism along with it, seem to be disintegrating before our very eyes. It’s open season for racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia. We can’t seem to talk to each other anymore without it descending into a black hole of insults and ugliness. Don’t get me started on climate change and our seeming unwillingness to collectively do something, anything, about it. It’s hard not to think that we are heading for a crisis. Yes it’s a scary world that we live in.
We live in an age of fear. Maybe we always did but it seems in our technological, mass communications, global civilization fear is a little more palpable. Fear of the other, the refugee, the unknown leads to hate, closing us off from each other. Fear of missing out, of changing our way of living to avert climate catastrophe leads us to continue down our path of consumerism and materialism. Fear of appearing weak leads to posturing and name calling, which is the path to conflict, violence and war. Fear is at the root of so much of what threatens us as the human family.
Fear is not just out there either. Fear is in here too. In this room, in our hearts. We all come here, gather here, haunted by fear. Fear of being alone. Fear of not making ends meet. Fear of starting over from scratch. Fear that all of this is pointless, meaningless. Fear that you are not enough, no matter how hard you try. Fear of the uncertainty of life. It’s all rather anxiety inducing. If our ancestors were consumed by a fear of death, perhaps we have evolved to now be consumed by a fear of living.
So I think it’s only natural that our ears perk up when we hear the Angels say to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.” Actually this is a recurring theme in Luke’s birth narrative. Angelic visitors repeat this phrase in their appearances to Zechariah and Mary. In Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus he too uses this phrase. The angel says to Joseph, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Matthew also tells us that King Herod is overtaken by fear at the news of the birth of Jesus, which causes him to react in violence toward the innocent children of Galilee. Jesus eight times in the Gospels admonishes hearers to not be afraid, which is just a fraction of the 365 total references to “Fear not.” The scripture writers get the power of fear.
What strikes me about these angelic visitations, though, is just how easily the hearers take to heart the admonishing to not be afraid. The angels say don’t be afraid and they seem to not be afraid anymore. Zechariah prophecies, Mary accepts the role of god-bearer and the shepherds head off into the night to find the baby messiah. What kind of beings are these angels that they hold such persuasive powers? Is it their radiant appearance? Is it their booming, commanding voices? Do they possess some hypnotic power that subdues their hearers, invoking robotic submission?
The answer might be found in another part of the New Testament written some thirty years later. The writer of the first letter of John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Along with Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, I believe that whatever these angelic beings are, whatever they look like, they are first and foremost beings of love with a message of love that drives out fear. Perhaps their words are less command or spell and more invitation. An invitation that there is more to the world than what we see and know. An invitation to a world where we are not paralyzed by fear but inspired by love. A world where God uses an old married couple, a teenaged mom, some smelly shepherds, and a carpenter step-dad to pave the way for salvation. A world where tyrants shake in their boots at the news of the birth of a baby and the upending of their long held oppressive regimes. A world where vulnerability not power, peace not violence, and forgiveness not retribution bring healing, salvation and liberation.
Come to think of it isn’t that the whole point of the Christmas story. Jesus, the word made flesh, the son of God, God in the flesh, coming among us in humility, vulnerability and humanity. Come to show us God, show us what God is like. Come to show us what true humanity looks like. And what God is and what humanity is called to is love. God is love and Jesus is the embodiment of that love. Jesus shows us an alternative way of living together as the human family. And that way is the way of love.
In love is our beginning and our end. In love we live and move and have our being. Love is the antidote to the fear that plagues our world, plagues our hearts. Not because it commands but because it invites, cajoles, coaxes and calls us to embrace the possibility of what seems impossible. That impossibility is that the world could ever be any different than it has always been. During the Advent Season we lit the candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Yes we do this as an act of preparation but I think we also do this as an act of participation. We light these candles to acknowledge our own role in dispelling the darkness of fear in our world. It is in our love, kindled in Jesus, that hope, peace and joy come into the world; that God’s kingdom comes into the world.
The great American theologian Bruce “the Boss” Springsteen in his song Cautious Man, tells a story of a man who has the word love tattooed on one hand and fear on the other. He sings that the man was never really sure of which one controlled his destiny. His life marked by a constant struggle between choosing fear and choosing love. As we leave this place may we choose love over fear. And may the words of the angels resonate in our hearts: “Don’t be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” May we live fearlessly, may we love fearlessly. May we not only imagine a better, more loving world, but may we love a new world into being. And may we do this together …
+In the name of God who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life. Amen
Rev. Robert Cooke is the Rector of St. Mark’s.