Christmas Eve 2015

Luke 2:1-20

 

“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were filled with fear.”

I like the way that the King James Version says of the shepherds: “they were sore afraid.”

Sore afraid. The words mean very afraid, but to our ears it sounds as though they were so fearful that it hurt.

The shepherds are not the only ones, are they?

We are entering what seems to me to be a very new and unfamiliar time in our nation and in the world. The way ahead is not clear and many voices say fear is the proper response.  If you don’t know that kind of fear, be assured that there are people who want you to. They want you to be sore afraid.

But the Christmas story does not leave the shepherds—or us—in fear. And what comes next is astonishing.  The angel says to them: “Behold!”

We don’t use the word much anymore. But I love that wonderful word from the Bible, a word that almost picks you up and shakes you till you notice: "Behold!"

“Behold!” Look! Look until you really see.

Listen! Listen until you really hear.

“Behold! I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”

Angels confront us every step of the way on the journey toward Bethlehem.

An angel comes to Joseph in a dream.

An angel—he says his name is Gabriel—an angel appears to old Zechariah—the husband of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, the father of John the Baptist, while he is at work.

An angel—Gabriel again—shows up in Nazareth to talk with Mary.

And finally, as we heard again this evening, a multitude of them appear near Bethlehem, startling the shepherds and singing like there was no tomorrow—or better, like God's eternal future had broken into our dreary and weary today.

Angel. You know, because I’ve said it often enough, that the word simply means “messenger.” If you listen when the angels speak, you begin to notice a theme in their messages. The situations are different. The people are different. But there is a common thread running from heaven to earth. Throughout the Christmas story, the angels give the events the same interpretation.

“Do not be afraid.”

Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.

Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer is heard.

Mary, do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.

Shepherds, do not be afraid, for to you this day is born a Savior.

Two thousand years later, contemporary ears seem deaf to this message. Wiser, more sophisticated, many would say fear is the best response to contemporary times.

Two thousand years later, there is so much that scares people. Gun violence, illness, an uncertain, changing world. We work on home security and homeland security—still we feel insecure.

Yet the message of those Christmas angels still comes to us today.

“Do not be afraid.”

Sometimes it comes to us in surprising ways.

If you were here a couple Sundays ago you saw an amazing scene at the end of the Christmas pageant. The front of the sanctuary was filled with children. Some were disguised as angels. And, I don’t know, perhaps some angels were there disguised as children. Their message was an angel message: “Do not be afraid.” The joy of life can still be found. Mystery and wonder will not be extinguished even by all the sadness and trials we know.

“Do not be afraid.”

Sometime we speak that message in new ways.

This fall we started an adult literacy program here at the church. Each Thursday evening down in Rockwood Hal, adults come to work on their reading and math skills. We started with just a small group, but recently we learned that there are many others who need this new and important ministry that no other church is providing. And, let’s face it, that growing need could be disheartening. But there is an energy downstairs. The well-off and the struggling meet. The message that comes across—it’s an angel message, really—is “Do not be afraid.” You can handle this. God has given you the resources to get through difficult times, let’s gather them together and work with them.

“Do not be afraid.”

Sometimes we speak this message publicly, boldly. Two days ago Congregational UCC joined with the rest of The Consultation of Religious Communities , the interfaith network in Johnson County, to call on all people of faith and good will to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters during this time of fear and unrest.  It is up to all of us to ensure that our Muslim neighbors feel welcome, respected, and safe in our community. We want to learn from one another, to act in ways that promote mutual respect, to protect our common religious liberty, and to work together for the well-being of all people.

The message was “Do not be afraid.”

Sometimes the message comes to us powerfully and in unexpected ways.

In Kenya on Monday Islamist militants sprayed a bus with bullets, but a passenger said he and fellow Muslims defied demands from the attackers to help identify Christians traveling with them. Abdi Mohamud Abdi, a Muslim who was among the passengers, said that more than 10 militants boarded the bus and ordered the Muslim passengers to split away from the Christians, but they refused. "We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily," Abdi said. "We stuck together tightly."

“Do not be afraid.”

The message still comes when you would least expect it—in the dark night of the soul, in the day of trial. It is spoken by surprising voices in astonishing places. The message is still the same: “Do not be afraid.” At the center of all things is a love that will not fail, a goodness that will stand.

This is the love of a God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, shares our life and suffering, who knows our fears and sorrows, and is with us at all times. This is the love of a God who desires our good, who will be our strength as we seek the good of others.

Behold!

This is good news of great joy for you and for all people.

Do not be afraid.