STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 18, 2019
Rev. Sabrina Ingram Longest Night
“DO NOT BE AFRAID”
Hebrews 13: 5. 6 & 8; Matthew 1: 18 – 25
A journalist from the city drives into a small town. He’s following up on a lead in the hope of winning a Pulitzer prize. He goes into the saloon where he sees some rough lookin’ scoundrels playing poker. Ignoring his anxiety, he asks if he can join them. The nastiest scoundrel scowls, then looks at the clock and says, “Nope. We’s leavin’. Wild Bill’s comin’ to town.” The visitor goes to the bar and orders for a beer, the bartender places a bottle on the counter and says, “It’s on the house, but drink it quick. Wild Bill’s comin’ to town.” Then all the locals leave the bar. The writer stays thinking this will be his lucky break. He waits in the empty bar, his fear increasing with every tick of the clock. At the stroke of noon, the clock chimes loudly. The earth shakes. There’s a sound like thunder splitting a mountain. Quivering, the journalist crawls across the floor to peer over a windowsill. In the distance and closing fast is a tornado. The terrified fellow dives behind the bar, peaking out he sees the tornado stop outside the saloon. The wind settles and there’s a giant of a man riding a grizzly bear. He steps off the bear, and instead of hitching it, he punches the great beast right in the face, knocking it out cold. The journalist is quivering. The giant kicks in the doors, the building shakes and some bottles rattle off the shelf. The man stomps to the bar, breaking every floorboard with each thundering step. He looks down at the journalist, slams his fist on the bar, cracking it down the middle and demands, “GIMME A DRINK!” With great trepidation the writer places a bottle on the counter. The man chugs it, then pulls out his pistol and shoots the bottle. The journalist whimpers, “W-w-w-would y-you like a-another drink?” The man stares at him with fire in his eyes, then glances at the clock and says, “Nope. I gotta go. Wild Bill’s comin’ to town.”
Everyone has hopes. As we meet the cast in the Christmas narratives of Matthew and Luke, we are shown their character and their hopes. Zechariah hoped to serve God with a clear conscience, honouring God by keeping the law. His dream of a son had long been extinguished, but, every now and then, he let the spark of a miracle flair up inside his heart. Is it possible for God to pull another Abraham and Sarah, and give him and Elizabeth a son? No, its too presumptuous to put himself in Abraham’s league. Joseph hoped to live a quiet, God-honouring life as a husband and carpenter. Perhaps he saw himself giving leadership in the synagogue or in his hometown of Nazareth. Mary dreamt of being a devoted wife and loving mother – a woman who would make her husband proud. The shepherds imagined a better life, a peaceful life, a life where they were welcomed as full members in society, instead of unclean outcasts. Then there was Herod who had, through his alliance with Rome, built a realm with magnificent monuments to his own greatness. He hoped for fame and glory. While the people of Jerusalem, longed for a Messiah, who would liberate them from Herod’s tyranny and the oppression of Rome.
The flip side of hope is fear. Without hope, there’s nothing to fear because there’s nothing to lose. Even our most primal fear – that of dying – is scary because we desire to live. We desire freedom and peace, prosperity and stability and so we fear whatever threatens it. Everyone has fears. Even the biggest, bad-est and bravest among us have fears. In the Bible, the word “fear” appears 515 times; the word “afraid” appears 186 times. Not to mention words like frightened and terrified. In the Christmas narratives we read six times of people being afraid. Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, Herod and all Jerusalem were fearful. In the most primal way, Zechariah and Mary were afraid because they had a supernatural experience – an angel appeared to each of them. Likewise, the shepherds were afraid because the night sky was lit up by angels and blazed with the glory of the Lord. No doubt angel visitations would create considerable trepidation. I don’t know if angels come in a whirlwind like a tornado, making the walls vibrate. They probably don’t ride a grizzly bear. Never-the-less, celestial beings showing up on official business would cause most of us to quake. If an angel showed up to chat with me, I’d assume the news wasn’t good, that judgement was on it’s way. Joseph was afraid to take Mary as his wife. After all, she had ruined her reputation and broken his heart. Herod was fearful that he’d end up like a king in a Shakespeare tragedy. He was paranoid about someone usurping his throne. So much so that he had one of his wives and three of his sons executed. With such a despot on the throne, no one in Jerusalem felt safe. If Herod felt threatened, no one knew what he might do. When Herod’s fears increased, all Jerusalem was frightened. As well, they all shared another fear. A fear that grew from God’s promise and the Angels’ message: The Messiah is coming to town. If you think angels are scary, or losing your place in society is scary, or usurpers to the throne are scary, or a rabid, paranoid king is scary, wait until the Messiah shows up. He will shake your foundation. He will turn your life inside out. He will overturn every moral and social structure which holds your worldview together. He will out-king you no matter what you do.
Christmas is often a time when our hopes and fears collide. We hope for a loving celebration of the birth of Christ with family and friends; we fear conflict. We hope to bring joy to others; we fear our limitations. We hope for the healing of relationships; we fear loneliness. We hope for peace in our soul; we fear the heightened, endless feelings of grief. Or perhaps our hope has all but died. We fear our prayers will never be answered, our reputation will never be restored; our hearts will never heal; that in a world lost in darkness there will never be peace; that those we trust will betray us; that we are powerless – this is our lot and it can never be different.
Whatever has brought us here tonight, is fueled by grief – the grief of loss, the grief of injustice, the grief of guilt, the grief of loneliness. And behind our grief is anger. And behind our anger is the deepest fear of all – the fear of abandonment. We long for love; we fear desertion.
Into our fears, the angels whisper, “Do not be afraid.” Now, we all know that telling someone who is afraid, not to be afraid, isn’t effective. Fear doesn’t come with a tap we can turn off and on. Yet God, who sees our hopes and fears, tells us not to be afraid. The reason he can send angels to bring us messages of consolation is that “the Messiah is coming to town.” And as menacing as that may be, it is also the source of hope, because when the Messiah comes, God is with us. He is “God with us”. He may shake us up, challenge the status quo, our sense of right and wrong and our security, but he will not abandon us. You see, the flip side of fear is hope. And in the birth of Jesus there is hope; there is the fulfillment of promises; there is light in the darkness, there is “God with us”.
Whatever brings you here this evening, whatever your struggles or trepidations, “Do not be afraid”. Let the miracle of Christmas renew you as it did Zechariah. Let the Spirit of Christmas fill you as it did Mary. Let the promise of Christmas strengthen you as it did Joseph. Let the hope of Christmas lift you as it did the shepherds. “Do not be afraid”, the Messiah is coming to town.