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Do Not Be Afraid, I Am With You.

[To listen to this sermon on audio, click here]

A sermon on Luke 2:1-20

Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, know that you are most welcome here, to receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love. Amen.

Goodness, mercy, and love.

That’s my prayer every time I step into this pulpit. That – by God’s grace, through my words - you all would hear and receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love.

Those words feel especially relevant on Christmas Eve. That’s what we all want to feel tonight, right? Goodness and mercy. Love and peace. Joy and gratitude for the blessings of our lives and of this holy night. I want all of that for all of you… but I am also conscious that the emotional quilt that wraps around us on Christmas Eve, is not always made up of only beautiful patches.

There might be some longing, or even frustration stitched into the Christmas pattern – longing for all the ways that our lives or our Christmases are not everything we want them to be.

Or perhaps the love that traces through our quilt is now forever stitched to a matching line of sorrow, for the ones who are no longer here to share the Christmas warmth.

Or perhaps the stitches on our quilt are just feeling a bit frayed, by the rush and responsibility of the past weeks, or months, or life in general. And we can’t quite settle into the peace we think we are supposed to feel because we are so worn out.

Christmas emotions are complicated. And part of the good news that I have for us tonight, is that the Christmas story makes room for that.

I love the carol Silent Night, and I will tear up tonight as the dancers and choir usher us into the sacred awe that the music and the candlelight invite us to contemplate… but I also know that “all” is not really “calm and bright” in this story. In fact, the reason that this story holds hope and peace and joy for us is because it doesn’t start there.

Rather, it starts with another complicated emotion that feels like it doesn’t belong in Christmas: fear. It started with fear for Mary and for Joseph when they each received a visitation from an angel, announcing what was about to happen. And, in tonight’s reading, is starts with fear for the Shepherds.

Now, shepherds were not the kind of folks who would be easily scared. They were rough and tumble types. They slept in the wilderness and fought-off wild animals to protect their flocks. They were not the type to be easily intimidated.

But when an angel of the Lord stood before them in glory, they were terrified.

I like to think of this as evidence that the first people to whom God announced the birth of God’s son didn’t have it any more together than we do. They were confronted with direct evidence that God was taking an interest in their lives, and their automatic response was fear.

In response, of course, the angel offered the impossible advice that angels always give in scripture: “Do not be afraid.” You may have heard that “do not be afraid” is the most frequently repeated command in scripture. In some translations of the Bible it appears 365 times, once for each day of the year. But, have you ever considered that this frequency of command DOESN’T mean “there’s nothing to be afraid of.” In fact, quite the opposite. God’s messengers have to keep telling people not to be immobilized by fear, because they have good reason to be afraid.

Lutheran pastor Katie Hines-Shah wrote about this story “I used to think angels said ‘Do not be afraid’ because it was frightening to encounter a messenger of the Lord. Now I wonder if angels say this because they meet people in frightening situations.”[1]

At least as far as the shepherds in tonight’s reading, I think she’s on to something. These shepherds might be used to grappling with wild animals, but the angel’s message for them raises the prospect of an entirely different kind of beast.

The angel proclaims “good news” – “a Savior, who is the Messiah” has been born. And this IS good news, but it’s also dangerous news. The expectations for the coming Messiah in that time and place was for a military leader, who would defeat the Roman occupiers and free the Jewish people from oppression. Many of the people were longing for this freedom, but they also knew that it would probably take some chaos, disruption, and even death to get there. Roman rule was oppressive, but it offered a relative peace. The Pax Romana. The proclamation of the Messiah was, in and of itself, a reason to be afraid.

“Do not be afraid” was an awfully difficult command to follow.

Or rather, it IS an awfully difficult command to follow. The shepherds weren’t unusual. The realities of most human life are full of reasons to fear: Random acts of violence, the ravages of war, devastating accidents, financial collapse, natural and human-made disasters bringing famine and disease and loss. Most humans who have ever lived have experienced at least one of these things.

The sources of fear in our lives might not be on the level of massive cultural upheaval, but I imagine there are still some heavy fears in this room tonight: addiction, financial stress, health concerns, strained or broken relationships, depression, conflict, loneliness. There are almost unlimited circumstances that call us into fear. The command to “not be afraid” is a hard one to obey… at least on our own.

Maybe it could be possible with the help of the Savior the angel promises. Maybe we can let go of our fears if God sends a superhero who will take control, and overpower all the chaos, and conflict, and instability that give us such good reasons to be afraid….

But that’s NOT what the angel promises. The Savior isn’t going to be a superhero. He’s going to be a newborn baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

The angel tells the shepherds to not be afraid, and then follows that up with a description of profound vulnerability. A picture, not of one who can soothe away our fears, but of one who needs to be soothed.

That’s the purpose of swaddling clothes, you know – to soothe the baby. Newborns are used to being tightly held inside their mother’s womb. They are used to warmth, and closeness. The emptiness of air is frightening for them, and so we wrap them up in swaddling clothes. The pressure of the tightly bound cloth mimics the closeness of the womb; it gives them the illusion that the world isn’t really so big and scary.

It seems like an odd sign for the shepherds that they don’t need to be afraid: a Savior who needs the comfort of swaddling clothes. A baby who is completely dependent on others for security and care.

But I believe this vulnerability, this reality of the totality of the incarnation in which God actually became human with all the insecurity and need that this involves, is precisely the power of God’s response to the reality of our fears.

Because God’s response to our fears is NOT to stand aloof and say “there’s nothing to be afraid of.” God’s response is to say “I won’t leave you alone in your fear. I’ll join you. I want to understand what that feels like.”

In the story of Christmas, in the story of the newborn baby wrapped in swaddling clothes we learn that God understands our vulnerability from the inside. God doesn’t stand in untouchable glory to tell us “do not be afraid.” God gets into the middle of the fear with us.

Which might sound less than useful… How does it help us if God knows what it means to be afraid? To experience the big, cold world and long to be held close and warm. Wouldn’t it be better to have the superhero? Someone to just take away the causes of fear?

And maybe it would… but the reality we live in is one where the fears are still there. Along with the loneliness, and the frustration, and grief, and all the other painful emotions that wrap around us in the complicated quilt of Christmas expectations and emotions.

And it matters that Jesus knows what that feels like, because it means he knows one other thing as well.

He knows what it feels like to feel the comfort of being held in love.

Author Noelle Toscano put it this way: “It’s a profound thing to consider that the God who declared the universe into existence, and formed humanity with His own hands, has actual, firsthand knowledge of the intoxicating comfort of being nestled safely in His mother’s arms.”[2]

Understanding our vulnerability, knowing what it feels like to be afraid, and alone, and to need comfort also means that God knows what that comfort feels like. And that is what God offers us this Christmas.

My Christmas prayer for us tonight, and every night, is that we can know how securely Christ holds us. That we can know the passionate protectiveness, and comfort, and love with which Jesus can surround us, because he knows our need for that comfort from the inside. Because that is the love in which he was held in the arms of his mother – who also knew the challenge of fear, but faced it in order to also know what it is to give birth to Love.

So whatever emotions make up your metaphorical Christmas quilt tonight, know that you are most welcome here, to truly receive God’s goodness, mercy, and love.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Katie Hines-Shah, “Fear Not”, Gather Magazine, December 2018, p.24.

[2] Noelle Toscano, quote posted through Ezer Rising.

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