There is a message that rings out through the Christmas story like a clear bell. Do not be afraid.
When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary with shocking, life-altering news of her wondrous, impossible pregnancy, the angel looks into Mary’s troubled face and says: Do not be afraid.
When Joseph is devastated, angry, emotionally undone upon finding out that Mary will give birth to a child he knows is not his, as he tosses and turns in bed and decides to choose divorce over stoning, an angel appears and counsels him: Do not be afraid.
When the shepherds are out in the cold, night fields, shepherds who are not even considered worthy of being counted in the empire’s census, the undocumented people of the first century, when these no-count shepherds suddenly see the sky break open in otherworldly song and they are terrified, the angel speaks to them: Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid. Looking over the past year, fear has led our nation and world in many negative directions. Fear has led to divisiveness and seemingly unfixable divisions and millions pouring into a gofundme campaign to build one more wall. Fear has led to misplaced blame and mounting anger. Fear has led to an increase in hate crimes and violence, like the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. The demonization of immigrants. The ongoing dehumanization of African Americans. Because white supremacy is fueled by fear.
And fear incites anxiety: What if there are terrorists hiding among the refugees?What if they are coming to take my job? To rob me or shoot me? Such fears are fanned by lies, and yet, many of our fears have a basis in a well-founded anxiety.
What if it’s too late to get global warming under control?
What if it’s not too late, but the will is just not there?
What if the stock market tanks and doesn’t rebound?
What if I’m never able to get out of my own economic depression?
What if my loved one loses their sobriety? Or never achieves it?
What if I’m going to be basically alone forever?
What if my cancer comes back? What if? What if?
We all have what ifs that stir up anxiety and fear.
When I was a new parent, I remember being filled with excitement and joy but I have to admit that I couldn’t let go of the worrying what ifs? And now it’s no different with our darling grandchild- looking at her sweet, smiling innocent face. What if something awful happens? What if an incurable disease, an accident, a monster steals her joy? Oh, I know I shouldn’t think like that and I don’t spend tons of time thinking like that, but still, what if?
Did Mary ask “what if?” while gazing at her baby and marveling at the wonder of his perfect, sweet little toes? Already born into an unwelcoming world, unwilling to make room for him. Already, born under the threat of a crushing empire who cared nothing for a poor Palestinian, Jewish family.
And when she proudly wrapped him up and brought him to the temple for the first time, there’s the old priest Simeon taking the baby in his arms and telling her: This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Well, that’s not what a new mother wants to hear.
So Mary had real reasons to be afraid. So did the shepherds who were discredited and denied any right to defend themselves in court. What if they were falsely accused of stealing sheep, as often occurred. What would happen then? There was not even an overworked public defendant to take up their case.
After the shepherds ran off to bear joyful witness to Christmas. Joseph was visited by another angel, one who brought fearful news. “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him. And so with Jesus still in his swaddling clothes, he and Mary and Joseph became refugees in Egypt to escape Herod’s violence, the story of many refugees today at our borders and around the world. Because among all the footprints in the desert sand, the footprints of the holy family are there as well. Which is why we see the baby Jesus in the cage removed from his parents because as Thomas Merton said His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”
Do not be afraid, say the Christmas angels, when there were, and are, so many reasons to be afraid. Whatever can they mean?
Let’s imagine some different what ifs? What if the message of the angels and shepherds and stars of Christmas is to offer us real hope in the face of real fears?What if the presence of a vulnerable baby come into a harsh corner of our unkind world promises love that chooses to settle in beside us and see us through whatever comes? Love that comes to gently cradle our fevered globe, love that comes to tenderly cradle us, even when we falter and fail, love that enters the moments of our lives that are prickly and uncomfortable as manger straw. So that in our weakness, we will find strength. In the shadows, we will find light. In the cold, we will find love. And what if this love will triumph over everything, even death?
What if those before whom others have slammed the door are able to find a safe place in a warm church basement and be showered with affection and gifts? In the words of one resident: I don't feel like I live in a shelter -- I live in a home... I just happen to have 9 other roommates. What makes Trinity special is the sense of community and the feeling that people care... Staff remember significant things about you and your life. They are giving and caring and they give us really thoughtful gifts -- this year I got a great winter coat, and of course socks... we always need socks! Christmas celebrates what is called the incarnation, in Spanish, encarnacion, carne means flesh, the incarnation is God becoming flesh and blood. God with a body who understands about coats and socks.
What if Jews from the synagogue down the street and other neighbors and church members come together on Christmas morning to prepare and serve breakfast to the homeless, the hungry, the lonely and anyone in need of some holiday cheer as will happen tomorrow? What if we are able to defy all the fear and hate that might keep us apart? Using our hands and arms to reach out because Christmas is about a God with arms.
Some of us like to call our humble church basement the manger because of all the love that is born incarnate there. Did you know that Bethlehem means house of bread? A place of sharing food and community? Because here, as in the manger of Bethlehem, the what if possibility of hope and love and joy become flesh and blood, realities. Like the bread and cup we share in communion, at this altar, tonight.
And so on this night, I invite you to join me in looking forward to a DO-NOT-BE-AFRIAD new year. ..a year filled with defiant love that knows no borders, no walls, no slatted steel fences. Defiant love that brings unexpected joy to those who need it most. Do not be afraid, dear people for unto us a child is born-a Savior to save us in whatever ways we need saving What if we live and love in the time before us as if his coming changes everything? I wish each one of you a joyous Christmas and a DO NOT BE AFRAID new year!