Nativity of Our Lord I
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
It has been an interesting year, this 2015 CE. It’s always hard to look back at a year, a whole year, and attempt to distill it down to what made it unique. What made 2015 2015?
Maybe it’s the cynic in me, and this is probably true of more years than this, but when I look back on 2015, there’s one word that sticks out to me more than any other: fear.
In 2015, we were afraid. Depending on who you ask, people were afraid of different things. Nigerians were afraid of more massacres. Eastern Ukraine was afraid of more military incursion. Kenya was afraid of gunmen killing people at their university. Nepal was afraid of another earthquake. Saudi Arabia was afraid of another stampede. Everyone’s afraid of ISIL.
We were afraid of Iran’s nuclear program. Minorities were afraid of unjustified attack. Police were afraid of assassination. We were afraid of angry gunmen rampaging through churches and schools. Some were afraid that same-sex marriage would be a disaster. We were afraid of what our Civil War history still meant today. Syrians fled their country in fear of their lives, and we in turn were deathly afraid of them. We were afraid of terror attacks, committed by our own or by others. We were afraid that people with different political viewpoints would destroy us. In short: we were—no, we are afraid.
How does one even begin to celebrate Christmas in an environment so saturated with fear? Honestly, it seems like no matter how much holiday cheer we pump into the air, under it all, we instinctively think that the world is still just as fear-filled as it ever was.
Indeed, our ancestors in the faith know this fear well. Circumstances of fear are what prompted the writers of our readings tonight to put their feelings into words.
The historical circumstances surrounding our reading from Isaiah are actually an interesting time. Isaiah is speaking to King Ahab of Judah, who has a bit of quandry on his hands. His northern neighbor, the kingdom for Israel, has allied with their old enemy Syria and seeks to remove him from his throne and replace him with a puppet king. Ahab has a tough choice ahead of him: do I do nothing and hope for the best? Or do I ally with everyone’s enemy, the Assyrian Empire, and hope that decision won’t come back to bite me later on? Not a position I envy.
I think most of us are familiar with the circumstances surrounding our Gospel story. How Mary and Joseph, unwed pregnant parents, are forced to take a long journey to be registered in a census. Upon arrival in Joseph’s ancestral home, they find that no home has a spare room for them to sleep in. And so they end up sleeping in a cave or place for animals to rest, without any real idea what the next day will bring. And worse, Mary is going into labor. Not a position I envy.
I wouldn’t blame Isaiah for succumbing to the environment of fear that gripped his king and his kingdom. No matter how much we try to romanticize it, the prospect of war, of killing, of siege and death, is an ugly prospect. Nor would I blame any characters on the night Mary and Joseph spent outside with the animals for being worried sick about what was going to happen that night. I wouldn’t blame anyone who has experienced any number of the tragedies around the world in 2015 from living the rest of their lives in well-deserved fear.
But into that fear, that heart of darkness, there is another voice, another message. It’s hard to hear, amidst the cries of danger, especially those that call for overreactions to those things that scare us. It’s a small voice, easily buried and forgotten, but it’s there. And it’s the reason we are gathered here tonight.
Isaiah lived right in the heart of anxiety about a possible upcoming war, when things seemed at their lowest point. And his message is: do not be afraid. The darkness is ending, the anxiety will lift, the war will not devastate. You will be free of your fear. And how does Isaiah know this? A child is going to be born, a child right there, right then, in the kingdom of Judah. The voice of a little child in your midst, in the middle of this crisis, will be God’s sign that you are not alone in your fear and grief.
The stakes were raised considerably in the case of Mary and Joseph. This was not just a story about a single night for a pair of poor single parents. Because the Christmas story is not just about a one time a year celebration of a birth; it’s a reminder that no matter how dark and desperate the night appears, no matter how much fear is in the air, no matter what disasters befall us or we seek to befall others, we are not alone. We are not alone in our fear and grief.
More than anything, this is the message of the entire season of Christmas. We are not alone in our fear.
We huddle together tonight, holding our candles for warmth and for light, because we need each other. We can’t do this alone. We can’t face the world out there with all of its fear by ourselves. One candle doesn’t provide a lot of light, but 100? 150? All of a sudden, together, the light shines more brightly and the darkness doesn’t seem so dark after all. In these moments, together, with our lights and voices raised, we proclaim the truth: God is here, with us, ever present, ever bright, even and especially in the darkness.
You are not alone in your fear. You are not alone in your grief. We, gathered together on this cold night together, are not alone. Christmas is the time when we remember most of all that even in our loneliness and pain, God is here.