Christmas Eve: Do Not Be Afraid!
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012.
The Lord is With You. Do Not be Afraid.
I can’t think of anything more difficult or challenging than the invitation we are given by the Christmas story: to trust the words that the angel spoke to Mary when he first announced that she was with child. He said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid.”
To us, and at first to Mary, such a greeting sounds absurd. Mary was a poor girl of eleven or twelve years old. Her people had been violently conquered by the Romans, who now ruled over not only their rural homeland of Galilee but over the neighboring provinces of Judea and Perea as well. What once had been a prosperous Jewish nation under King David, remained under the thumb of the Roman Emperor, despite frequent uprisings and revolts by her people.
Favored one? How could she be favored? Her people were vulnerable. Favored one? How could she be favored? True, she has been betrothed in marriage as was the custom but if she is found pregnant, this man could, according to the law, have her stoned. Favored one? How could she be favored? Her family survived on next to nothing; eeking out a meager subsistence living. Yet the angel said this vulnerable girl living among vulnerable people was favored. And that she should not be afraid.
A second echo of this message comes as the angels praise God above that sheep covered hillside singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors.” This was a song sung to shepherds, vulnerable, hardworking people. The good news was not announced first to the Emperor or to the King or to local governors. The good news was not announced to soldiers or to wealthy landowning families. It was announced to poor shepherds. Yes, this good news is a message of good news for all the people, but it is announced to those whom God favors – to those made vulnerable by this world. And that good news to all comes to and through the lives and voices of people who are vulnerable.
The Christmas story is a story of vulnerability meeting vulnerability, which runs completely counter to our culture’s story of security. The story is about God coming, vulnerable as a child, to bring hope to people who had been made vulnerable by the greed and violence of nations and their leaders and by the uncertainties of life that effect everyone.
At first this message sounds absurd. Vulnerability is healed by vulnerability, not strength? This is some sort of equation we neither understand nor find it easy to trust. We should protect ourselves. We should seek out and eliminate any point of weakness. Strength, not vulnerability, is what is needed.
After all, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a people “who walk in darkness”. Sure, he says that they have seen a great light, but we know the darkness all too well – so well, in fact, it’s hard to believe that any light that comes is more than a passing distraction.
We know the grief of loved ones lost, the struggle to find a job, the suffering from chronic health problems, the anxiety and uncertainty of how to meet all the bills that are coming due. We know the darkness, of our own self-hatred, of our retreat to alcohol or drugs, of our capacity to lash out at even the ones we love. We know the darkness of politicians and media saying our country is headed over a cliff while taking benefits from the poor, the hungry and the sick. We know the darkness of violence – old memories resurfaced during violence in the Middle East or Syria or the Congo; we know the searing scars on civilians and soldiers, and this week our thoughts have returned frequently to the children and families of Newtown, CT and to our own families. And we also know, but find it hard to fathom that, according to UNICEF, every day, every day 19,000 children under five die due to poverty. That’s 6.9 million children a year worldwide; dying from poverty.
The darkness is real. But, insists Isaiah, so is the light.
And into this world of darkness, God comes as a child; vulnerable as all children are, materially poor as more than 1 billion children are. And God, whose good news is for all people, comes first to those who have been made vulnerable by this world.
Let’s think for a moment about that coming again. The coming of Christ is not simply a private family moment. It’s a message to all who are vulnerable and, through them, to a wider world as well. And the message is this: fear not. Fear not! God understands. Fear not! God is neither not distant nor unconcerned. Fear not! God is neither forgetful nor powerless. God is here. Not simply here as a chair or a tree. Here WITH you. Here as one of you. God is here among all who are vulnerable, hurting, oppressed. God is here, looking death and violence and poverty and grief and anxiety and anger and despair straight in the eye and remaining faithful to us. Particularly vulnerable in his birth and death, God reminds us that we cannot escape our vulnerability. To be human means to be vulnerable. But it also means that our vulnerability can turn us toward life-giving human community, to seek our well-being together with one another as God intends and as Jesus showed us.
For God is here with us, creating community which helps us bear the unbearable and make possible that which would be impossible on our own. God’s good news is good news for you and for me, but most importantly, it’s good news for us. It’s good news that breaks our isolation, good news which helps us see our own woundedness as well as the hurt of others around us, good news which invites us to trust – not simply in the divine but in our neighbor as well. In a world that bids us to hold on to what is ours, get what we can take, and protect ourselves from all threats, the Christmas story invites us all to loosen our grips and come to terms with our own vulnerability and dependence on others; to acknowledge all those deepest needs the Christ child comes to meet. [Luke 1:39-45].
Tonight we have the opportunity and invitation to recognize that God-is-with-us, among us, and between us, ushering us into a new way of life together that we call “the reign of God.” Let us not be afraid. Let us live together as the vulnerable people we are, toward a world where every person’s dignity and vulnerability are recognized. And let us share this good news with all people.