One day late this past summer a young child who is a member of this congregation was entertaining his grandparents for a visit. The three of them were playing Wii together in the living room. At a seemingly random point in the middle of the game, this child looked up at his grandmother and asked, completely out of the blue, “Meemaw, remember on Christmas Eve when we were in church? You and Paw Paw were there, and so were Grandma and Grandpa from Lynchburg?”
“Yes,” she answered, pausing with the Wii controller in her hand.
“And my parents and my brother were there too?” he continued. “We were all of us there, sitting together in one pew? Do you remember that?” he asked.
“Yes, I remember that.” his grandmother answered again.
“I felt so safe,” he said, and looked back at the game on the television screen.
Bam! Just like that! Out of the blue on one summer afternoon, months after the fact—it was still with him. His two grandparents traded meaningful glances with each other, realizing immediately the significance of such an arbitrary statement from a child who had been adopted just a few years earlier out of relatively precarious circumstances in a foreign country. He had been left on the street at the age of ten weeks. But this night had made a lasting impression. He had felt safe. Here. With these people. Maybe that child is here again, tonight, nestled in a pew with his Meemaw and Pop-pop and the rest of his loved ones and feeling safe all over again.
That’s really the crux of all this, isn’t it? Feeling safe. Knowing security. Behind all the poinsettias, underneath all the candlelight, that’s the real essence of our gathering here, and singing these hymns, hearing these words: safety. Feeling somehow taken care of. Otherwise our circumstances may be precarious—maybe it’s been a rough year, or you expect a rough year to come, maybe we have no one with whom to share our pew or there’s someone missing from it for the first time this year—but tonight the message is safety. Tonight it is “Peace on earth.” Tonight it is “Do not be afraid.”
In fact, some biblical scholars count that as the most common commandment in the entire Bible: Do not fear. We might think it would be “Love God” or “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Follow me.” But, in fact, God says “Do not be afraid. You’re safe…” more than anything else. On the first Christmas, years ago, God used angels to communicate the commandment, and tonight we repeat the sounding joy again. Things may be in turmoil all around, but tonight we trust the message once more: “Do not be afraid.” Christ is born. We feel safe.
|Gaddi Taddeo (14th century)|
It’s all a little ironic, because that first night began in fear. Maybe Bethlehem really was still and calm, as the hymns suggest, but I’m sure there was fear in the streets about the Emperor’s big census and what that meant for the occupied Jewish population. Maybe Mary and Joseph were as cool as two cucumbers as she went into labor, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some concern about their baby’s safety when the inn turned out to be full and they had birth him in something like a stable.
For sure the shepherds were afraid. We know that. That’s one thing Scripture is certain to point out. Yet they, of all people, were unlikely to experience much fear, if you think about it—watching over their flocks by night, guarding against thieves or wolves or any number of fearsome things—but this night they did. Most likely chosen for their profession for their hardiness, the shepherds were terrified when it all started to go down, “sore afraid” as the old King James Version puts it. First, the solo angel and the glory of the Lord surrounding them, and then a whole company of heavenly messengers, bending down to ensure they understood: this message is about safety. This news is good. In fact, it involves peace and great joy for all people. And the sign for them, since they’re likely going to need one? Something completely non-threatening: a baby in a manger. And so they go…they go and gather, cozying right up to the others in the stable’s pew. Do not be afraid. Christ is born. You are safe.
We would be “sore” mistaken, however, to think that the message of the angels means safety for everyone. In fact, safety will really not be feature of this baby’s life at all. Precariousness is all he will really know: born in a feedbox only to become a refugee, according to Matthew’s gospel, to flee King Herod’s wrath. As he grows up, he frequents the shifty towns along the shoreline of Lake Galilee, never really finding a place to call his own. He is a houseguest of Pharisees and tax-collectors alike, running into constant trouble with the Temple authorities, escaping angry mobs by the skin of his teeth. Eventually his life will come to a gruesome end, hung on a rough-hewn cross like any common criminal. Few people really stand up or speak up for him, and when it’s all said and done, his dead body is placed in a borrowed tomb.
n fact, when we stop and
look back at how it all plays out, this whole peculiar story of suffering and
healing, of his dying and rising, we can see that this good news of great joy isn’t
going to be all that good for the main person involved. Yet God has intended
whatever he does to be great for us. The angels are still on message. There is
no need to be sore afraid: the length and depth of Jesus’ life is lived for you
and me. The only reason why we can be safe tonight—and any night—is because
Jesus comes to experience human danger. The only real foundation underneath any
of our security is the news that God comes to dwell as one of us. The only
basis we have for not being afraid in our lives is that the Almighty comes to
be born in a very precarious situation and live a very vulnerable life and die
a very humiliating death. Jesus comes to make himself remarkably unsafe beginning
this very day in order that we may be saved through the length of ours.
|"The Adoration of the Shepherds" Guido Reni (1600s)|
Apparently things are still a little precarious for Jesus. I came across an article this week about congregations across the country who have gotten tired of people making off with their outdoor nativity scene characters. It’s even somewhat of a contest in some locations: teenagers compete to see how many baby Jesuses they can swipe in one night. In response, a security firm has begun providing free GPS trackers for churches to install in their baby Jesus figurines so they can track them down, like some new-aged Star of Bethlehem that magnetically draws him back to these miniature manger scenes all over the place. By the way, we may or may not have installed on in ours…in case anyone has any ideas.
The story caught my eye, however, not because of its novelty, but because, in some ways, I think that Jesus is supposed to be carried off into the world. Maybe not as stolen goods, per se, but that’s really why he came. Jesus is now supposed to be wandering about, getting his hands a little dirty, venturing into the scary corners of this earth, and it’s you and I who are to help get him there. It’s you and I who are supposed to go forth from here and spread the news of what we’ve heard and seen.
Let us fight the tendency, then, to keep this message of his safety and security to ourselves, to do nothing but crowd into our cozy pews and love up on each other for a night or two and then wait for another year to roll around. Let us resist the urge to draw the peace of Christ from wherever it goes back to within the walls of our churches or the confines of our hearts. Let us instead take a cue from the shepherds who begin the evening in fear and spend it in awe, but then end it in taking the news out there. Let’s try to carry the love of Jesus into so many places in this world that the Jesus-satellite tracking system gets downright overwhelmed and crashes to earth. “We bring good news of great joy for all the people.”
Because that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Good news. Great joy. Now. And on a random day late next summer. We who have seen and felt it are now free to steal Jesus away and announce his Word for all people: Don’t be afraid. Christ is born. You are safe.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.