This Christmas it is the message of the angels to the shepherds that grabs my attention the most… “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…”
Of course, being the age that I am… I cannot help but to hear the voice of Linus reciting the angel’s message from the stage in the school auditorium… “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” Every year my tongue stumbles in my reading of the angel’s message in Luke and I know it’s because I’m reading a different translation than what was used in a “Charlie Brown Christmas”. Linus giving the gospel message using the King James is just so imprinted upon my brain.
The story of Christmas is filled with the message that we are not to be afraid. On Sunday, when we read the Christmas story from Matthew’s gospel the angel in Joseph’s dream tells him not to be afraid… “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Although Joseph was trying to do the righteous thing… the good and decent thing by Mary by resolving to quietly dismiss her when she was found to be with child… underneath his resolve was still fear. Joseph was afraid upon hearing the news. Surely nothing good could come from this situation in which he found himself. It was best to manage the problem and try to keep the negative at a minimum. Best to keep your head down and create as few ripples as possible. That’s the fearful answer of many a good people when faced with the challenge of the darkness… preserve my light… play it safe to keep the darkness at a distance from myself… if it touches other people, that’s not my problem… I will do what I can to minimize my own contribution to the darkness… but I will not shine my light… whatever light that might be… I will not shine my light into the darkness out of the fear that my small light will be overwhelmed. Only by letting go of his fear does Joseph do what needs to be done to bring the light of God into the world. Knowing of Emmanuel… of God with us… Joseph finds courage to be the man God is calling him to be. The darkness in Matthew’s Christmas story will cause many to suffer… will cause many to be afraid. Joseph’s courage in the light will keep hope alive despite the violence to come.
In Luke’s gospel… which we’ve heard tonight… the angel Gabriel appears to Mary. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And Mary questions how she could be of any value. How could she have enough worth to be a part of God’s will for us all? She is a young woman in a culture that gives little power and authority to young women. Who will value her light? Yet, by the end of the visit she has found her courage… courage to shine her light into the darkness… “let it be with me according to your word.” She finds courage knowing God will be with her. And that word of assurance and trust is expressed in the Magnificat. Mercy is the way of God. Mercy dispels fear. The proud who generate so much fear for others… fear that gives them a power through manipulating our nagging self-doubts… the light of God’s mercy dispels the proud… dispels those who would sit on various thrones lording over others through the tools and the way of fear… fear of retribution… fear of the avalanche of bullying… fear of the supportive loyal unmerciful mob of followers… the light of God’s mercy dispels the fear of want and appetite for the things that do not matter… the light of God’s mercy revalues material things and those who possess them… those who would define self-worth by our possessions… the light of God’s mercy shows us the humility that is needed… humility that comes knowing that God is with us. Mary in her obedience… through her courage to shine her light… Mary is set free from the fears that seek to define her value to God.
God’s grace makes no room for fear because grace is not built on merit or some sense of worthiness… grace is not contingent on us reaching some defined level of virtuous value… usually defined through fear. On Christmas, we look at all these different manger scenes and it is easy to ask… Why Mary? Why Joseph? But those are the wrong questions. Why me? Why you? Why these shepherds… nobodies out in the fields… why waste such an angelic spectacle upon them? What’s their worth? What’s their value in the larger scope of things? That’s a question that opens the door to fear. I mean let’s be truthful with one another. Aren’t you tired of judging people by their worth? Aren’t you tired of others judging you by what they value and want to get out of you? Aren’t you tired of stripping people of their humanity because this group or that group has declared that the only way I am going to be of any worth is if they are devalued? Aren’t you tired of the constant messages of fear telling you whose fault it is… or who is to blame for all your problems? Fear this. Fear that. Build higher walls… cast them out beyond the gates… punish them for being wrong about this false foundation and that fake idol. Be afraid… or else you might realize they are just like you. But not with eyes shut tight and ears closed to hearing anything else than that which we know to be true already. Not even the heavenly host can get past our defenses. Or so we would like to believe.
The joy of Christmas is a gift given that sets us free from fear… that sets us free so that we may shine this wonderfully gracious light into a world still so in need of hearing good news… good news without strings attached… good news that isn’t built on the backs of others being winners and losers… good news of God’s pure love and grace to guide our feet out of the darkness and the shadow of death… and into the way of peace. To be surrounded by peace and not anxiety. What a beautiful thought.
Linus stands on the cartoon stage and it takes this master theologian less than a minute to shine God’s light into the silliness and futility that has come to surround Christmas. Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace… goodwill toward men. That’s it. That’s the light that shines into the darkness. Peace and goodwill. The products of grace. Peace and goodwill. Tonight… tomorrow… the next day… soon you will have an experience of darkness. Soon fear will try to grab hold of you with its lies of revaluation. Peace and goodwill will be the answer. This is the light you must bring to bear. This is the light you can bring to bear. You have been set free from sin by grace alone… why choose to embrace sin again? Why choose to undo the message of the angels at Christmas? You have been set free to choose the light that will shine throughout the story of the child born this night. This is the light that shines through this table where instead of giving into fear… this child chooses to give glory to God. We will come forward to partake in that glory… we will find all the spiritual nourishment we need here. The light comes into the world not to blind the world, but so that the world might truly see the darkness for what it is… with eyes wide open to the truth of grace.
Saints, believe the good news of God. And know that the old carol is correct… God is not dead, nor does God sleep! The wrong shall fail, the right prevail… with peace on earth, goodwill to men. Amen.