Tonight, we encounter an unbelievable story, a story that was frightening and surreal and incredible to everyone involved: a story about true love. It’s a story that we’ve heard many times before, year after year, but maybe we see and feel it differently this year. Until this crazy and harrowing year, I, for one, didn’t see all of the fear in this Christmas story. I used to sing all of the Christmas carols passionately and wholeheartedly, without reservation. Even when I sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with the words, “hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” I only felt peace and joy. You see, in previous years, I chose to set aside the fear parts of “hopes and fears” and only focus on the hope parts. But by doing that, I was only able to see one side of the story, one piece of the truth. But in this scary year, I feel we might be seeing the Christmas story through the eyes of those who were afraid, rather than those who had unwavering hope.
In this Advent season we have explored the fears of Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary and Joseph and this evening we’re going to dive into the fears of the shepherds. There is a lot of fear wrapped up in this amazing, divine birth and a lot of things that make this story unbelievable. And I know that when everything feels out of control, it is definitely easier to see the fear and to doubt the good news. But, in the Christmas story, even in the fear, there is still great love and great hope. Even in the uncertainty of the birth of Jesus this story is about true love and it is something worth believing in.
But because of the year we’ve been through, the fear and uncertainty stand out to me. And the fear and uncertainty that I’m seeing this year makes the Christmas story feel more uncomfortable than usual. Maybe we are feeling more uncomfortable in our jobs, in our relationships, or even in our own skin. Maybe we’ve doubted more, been fearful more, been frustrated more. I don’t know about you but I’ve always come into the Christmas season with the joy of new birth on my heart, the flawless scene of a nativity with Mary, Joseph, a sleeping baby Jesus, quiet animals, three magi, and calm shepherds. I never really stopped to notice all of the fear and uncertainty that swirled around these characters leading up to Jesus’s birth and the picture-perfect nativity. Mary was scared, Zechariah doubted, Joseph was unsure, the shepherds were petrified… it’s more like “the FEARS and fears of all the years were met in thee tonight.”
So, maybe, it’s ok to feel this way. Maybe it’s ok to feel the anxiety and confusion this year. Because that is, indeed, part of the story. And even in the anxiety and confusion, we know how the story ends. We know that God chose to enter into humanity, into the hopes AND fears and take all of those hopes and fears to the cross. It is those things in the world that are most uncomfortable that change our lives for the better. It is the pain of birth. It is the fatigue of chemo. It is the loneliness of social distancing. It is the four-month hospital stay. It is the nails of crucifixion. These things have shaped us and scarred us and, may I dare say, made us stronger so that fears can no longer rule us and our hopes can win the day. It is through our fears that we can know God’s love story for us and realize that God’s love story is worth believing in.
I might be bold in saying that I hope this Advent season HASN’T been too comfortable for you. I know it hasn’t been for me as we’ve explored the many fears that we all have had this past year and are likely to bring with us into the new year to come. And one of those fears is the fear of change. Things haven’t gone as we’ve planned this year and it’s been incredibly difficult to adapt and change, hasn’t it? We’ve been separated from loved ones during the holidays. We’ve only been able to worship virtually. Many of us have been sick and had to change our habits. Others of us have had to change jobs. It’s been so very hard to deal with all of this change.
And we see that, too, in the story of Jesus’ birth. We observe the shepherds being interrupted from their regular patterns and comfortable routines. They had to make a choice to not fear the heavenly beings illuminating the sky. They had to not fear the songs of triumph reverberating in the atmosphere. They had to not fear this change of plans, leaving their sheep behind, maybe even their livelihoods, to pursue a new purpose of God that had come to earth. They had to change their idea on what the birth of the Messiah would look like. They had to change so that they could be open to the miracle of the Christ Child. There was no more being afraid for these shepherds, God was changing them, and God is changing us, for the better. Every year, God, through the birth of Jesus Christ, proclaims to us from the heavens that change is coming and if we notice it and follow the bright star, we will find the kingdom come to earth.
There is a better story, an unbelievable story, singing out to us tonight, “Gloria! In excelsis Deo!” And it’s ok if fear is a part of your story. It’s ok if we don’t quite believe. It is time to be boldly prophetic and act anyway. Let us act in hope. Let us act as if we don’t need revision or reputation. Let us act as if the world doesn’t revolve around us. Let us act as if every person on this planet has creation in their molecules and the love of the divine running through their veins. Let us act, not out of fear, but out of belovedness, freedom, and hope. The change we need tonight and in the new year to come, is to awake and see heaven. Because heaven collided with earth in the baby Jesus and the shepherds, the magi, and everyone else had to push through their fears in order to see God among us.
And that’s our message of good news tonight. I pray that every morning you awake to immense hope and unbelievable love. I pray you walk through each day seeing the divine spark in every face. Because, if we choose to see heaven on earth, the kingdom of God here and now, the baby Jesus showing us the Way, then we will be changed and will truly do as the messengers said and not be afraid.