Monday, December 24, 2012

The Night Fear Began to Fade

Nativity by Brian Kershisnik

A sermon for Christmas Eve 2012.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 9:2-7 , Titus 2:11-14 , Luke 2:1-20) , and Psalm 96.

There’s a strong tendency to be sentimental at Christmas.  Trees and lights, and good-smelling things in the kitchen.  Memories fill our minds in such a way that even when they’re bittersweet, they’re still beautiful, and precious.  And so in a haze of warmth, with a whiff of incense in the air, we hear the words of an angel, “Do not be afraid.” 

They sound soft, like a prayer.  Had just one sheep made a sound, the angel’s words might have been lost to the shepherds. “Do not fear” can fall like a mist or a snow, nice, but not really accomplishing much. Such words can be like much of the spirituality of our day—harmless, but hollow and not really very helpful.

“Fear not.  Do not be afraid.” These words of the angel are not new ones, of course.  That angel, or another, has used those same words again and again, ever since God breathed life into the world.

Do not fear, God says to Moses. Do not fear, an angel says to Gideon. Do not fear, Boaz says to Ruth.  David says “do not fear.”  Isaiah says, “Do not fear.”  The angels pick up the song again in the Gospels and say to Elizabeth and Zechariah, “Do not fear.”  And famously to Mary, the angel says, “Do not fear.” 

But what do these words mean?  Do they mean anything?  Almost as soon as the birth of a savior is celebrated, King Herod issues a decree that all of the male babies in the area of Bethlehem should be killed.  Angels come and go, but warfare, disease, famine, violence and the other all-too-real aspects of life and death go on, in saecula saeculorum.

“Do not fear…..” [But] there is something for us to hear in those words, I think. The fact that “Do not fear” is repeated again and again tells us that fear is never quite dispelled. It doesn’t go away easily.  Faith doesn’t make it vanish.  Good works can’t work it away.  It’s not the stuff of disposition or personality.  Each new generation, each new person, faces fear that seems custom-tailored, personal, unique, and as though no one has ever faced it before. 

The angel is usually the messenger.  Angels are pictured to be above it all, literally and spiritually.  Artists  show them as powerful and strong.  They are majestic and look evil in the face.  Angels are fearless, or fearsome.  But at least one writer, Frederick Buchner, allows for another view, and to me it seems a more realistic view.  He writes,
Gabriel told Mary what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her.  [And then,]  “You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,” he said.  But “As he [Gabriel said those words] he only hoped [Mary] wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear… [trembling with fear] to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.” [Peculiar Treasures, p. 39]

Gabriel is like a parent who tries to comfort a child, but whose primary prayer is that the child won’t see the parent’s own fear.  Gabriel is like our president a few weeks ago, like our leaders at press conferences.  Gabriel is like us when we try to be brave, when we tell ourselves there’s nothing to fear, and yet, the world around us, and in some cases the world within us, gives us plenty of reason, in fact, to be afraid.

But faith gives us a way forward, and it is anything BUT sentimental.  Faith gives us a way to move with fear, to use fear as an energy that draws us out of isolation, out of ourselves and into the care and trust of a living and loving God.

I have a theory about fear, a “feary,” if you will.  It’s a simple observation really, but I’ve found it true in my own life.  Whenever I am afraid, if I share my fear with someone, my fear begins to diminish.  You might imagine lots of reasons why that’s not a good practice, and sometimes I’m held back by all the various considerations that rattle around in our heads: Can I risk showing my fear?  What happens if I show people that I don’t have it all together?  What right do I have to burden others with my fears?  Won’t it just raise their anxiety, as well? 

And yet—the thing of it is—what I’ve seen anyway in my own life-- is that just the opposite happens.  When I share my fear, mine and the other person’s begins to diminish.   

Though Gabriel’s wings might be shaking, they shake less after he goes to Mary. 

Mary had her own fears and she could have turned in the other direction and run.  She could have made other decisions.  But instead she takes her fear with her and goes to her cousin Elizabeth.  And there, some of the fear begins to fall away.

Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his, but he takes that fear with him and goes to Mary’s side.  Fear is turned into prayer, which is turned into action, which leads them into the will and way of God.

The shepherds are terrified at their vision. But they take their fear with them and go to Bethlehem. 

That’s the invitation for us, to take our fear with us, join up with others, and take it to God, to go to Bethlehem.  There at the cradle, fear isn’t wiped away by angels’ wings, but by facing it together, we can allow fear to become prayer, that becomes action, that carries us into God’s future.

Fear can change us for the worse.  We see plenty of that all around us. Fear of reputation or losing an argument can keep us from talking to those who disagree with us, it can ruin relationships, and it can shut down a government. Fear of rejection can poison an emerging love.  Fear of failure can prevent risk or change or growth. 

But fear can also change us for the better, and change the whole world.  When I think of fear that motivates and wakes up and changes, I think especially these days of Malala Yousufzai.  Malala is the Pakistani teenager who won’t let fear stop her.  Since she was 11 she’s been demanding that she and other girls in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan be allowed an education.  Even when the Taliban took over the valley in 2009, she kept on blogging.  When they raided homes to confiscate books, she hid hers under her bed. She says she was scared, but she kept on blogging and kept motivating.  “Don’t be afraid,” she said, even as her fingers must have been shaking as she typed. In October of this year, the Taliban got her, and they shot her in the head.  She’s now recovering in England, there appears to be no brain damage, and she keeps on speaking out.  The Taliban’s fear-based plan is backfiring, as Malala shares her fears with others, their fear fades, and they get stronger.    

This is the point of Christmas.  Christ is born into a world of fear.  This little baby who is born in a manger is the life and light of God come into a dark world.  And yes, sometimes it seems to be growing even darker.  But Christ is born. God has become incarnate to show us that the way to love and life eternal happens not through angels, not in clouds, not even in music or prayers or  comforting words, but through the hard work of relationship, of humanity, of meeting Christ in one another and proclaiming Christ born, died, and raised again.

This Christmas and in the New Year, may God give us the faith to share our fears—with God and one another, so love might continue to be born in our world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen. 

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