Do Not Be Afraid

Sermon for December 24th, 2015 ||  Christmas Eve ||  Isaiah 9: 2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-20 ||  The Rev. Margot D Critchfield

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth! And welcome to St. Stephen’s Church—a place to wonder, on a night of wonder! I am so glad you’re all here…and so grateful that it’s Christmas! It feels like this year we’re somehow more aware  than ever of our need for Christmas…of our need to be reminded that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there is good news of great joy for all people, and that it’s real…to be reminded, as Christina Rossetti wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, that “Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine”… to be reminded, as we’ll hear from John’s gospel later in our service, that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it, and will never overcome it.

We need to be reminded this year more than ever because as the polls keep confirming and the newscasters keep reporting, we are afraid.

This is why we need to read Luke’s nativity story, the one we all grew up with, in all its idealized innocence.   We need to let this beautiful story remind us of the security of simpler times…the proverbial days gone by when life didn’t feel quite so out of control or quite so scary, and when the words, “Do not be afraid” may not have resonated for us as much as they do now.

“Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people:  To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

“Do not be afraid, for see: the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all!

“Do not be afraid, for see: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…

Do not be afraid, for see: a child has been born for us… he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

“Do not be afraid.”

We hear these words repeatedly in Luke’s gospel—they are his constant refrain, the central message, for Luke, of Christ’s coming. We hear them every year on this night, spoken by one of God’s angelic messengers to a group of shepherds tending their flock by starlight. They echo the same words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary nine months earlier, and to Zechariah shortly before that.

“Do not be afraid.”

These words foreshadow the tiny Christ-child’s entire purpose for being. They are words he will echo himself throughout his life as he grows into his mission and identity as Savior and Messiah: Do not be afraid, Simon Peter. Do not be afraid, little flock. My beloved, do not be afraid.

Yet in all of our human frailty, even in the best of times we can’t help but be fearful–and few would argue that these are the best of times. So now we harbor not only the usual personal fears that we pray no one else can see in us, but also a host of communal fears about terrorism, violence, political polarization, and the state of our nation.

As William Falk, the editor-in-chief of The Week recently asked rhetorically:

“Which frightens you more: Islamic terrorism, or anti-Islamic bigotry? Too much surveillance, or too little? Climate change, or intrusive government regulation? Angry white men with weapons, or government confiscation of all guns? Racist cops, or lawlessness? The hijacking of the democratic process by corporations and billionaires, or a creeping socialism that promises nearly everyone a lifetime of government benefits? If you believe what you read on the internet or hear in presidential debates, you’re likely to conclude that The End Is Near. “

But what we are here to remember and to celebrate tonight is that it’s not the End that is near, it’s God. God Is Near. God is here. Emmanuel, which means, “God With Us,” loves us so much that he chose to give up his Divine Freedom for the confines of human life. And he did it precisely so that we would be free from the confines of fear…because fear gets in the way of love.

C.S. Lewis said that God became like us so we might become more like him. More able to give and to receive His love…the love embodied and made incarnate in the baby Jesus and announced to the shepherds that night with the words, “Do not be afraid”… the love that casts out all darkness and vanquishes all fear…the love that heralds the beginning of a new age of hope and possibility and change.

Of course,  the cynics among us might think it’s naïve to be hopeful in times of darkness. But there is nothing remotely naïve about Christian hope. Christian hope is born into homelessness, lives as a refugee, and is formed by the beam of a cross. This is strong, stubborn, defiant hope that looks even death in the face and does not back down. This is hope that dares to dream… births new life, new possibilities, new visions for the future. This hope is powerful, and most important of all, this hope is contagious.

It takes tremendous courage to embrace this hope. It takes tremendous courage to risk being disappointed, discouraged, or derided. But Mary wasn’t afraid to hope. Joseph wasn’t afraid to hope. And neither were the shepherds. They weren’t afraid of being naïve or overly optimistic, of being misled or of looking foolish. Instead, because they dared to hope they saw their hopes, their vision for the future, realized. Then overwhelmed with joy and thanksgiving, they spread the good news about it to all who had ears to listen.

That’s why we need Christmas so much, especially now. Christmas inspires us to reclaim the gift of life-giving hope that God gives us in Christ; to share our vision for a better future with those around us who desperately need it; and, to spread the Good News joyfully, with thanksgiving. As a famous missionary once said, “The early Christians did not say in despair, ‘Look what the world’s coming to.’ In delight they pointed to Jesus Christ and said, ‘Look what has come into the world!’”

Look what has come into the world! In the midst of fear, hope is reborn! Stubborn, persistent, death-defying hope. Powerful, radiant, life-giving hope. Hope that arrives as both the medium and the message in a story full of wonder and awe, with starry skies and angels singing, and history being changed forever by the bearer of hope himself, Jesus Christ.

May this Christmas fill each of us, as it did the shepherds, with the awe and wonder of a living hope far too powerful to be quenched by fear; and may it propel us forward courageously through the darkness, until we re-discover the incarnation of God’s love in Christ.

So do not be afraid, my beloved. For see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Fear not, for a light has been born in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. It is the light of Divine Love, and we will call his name Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth! Amen.

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