O little town of Bethlehem How still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by Yet in the dark street shineth The everlasting Light The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.
One major reason I love this time of the year is the proximity to two important occasions –Christmas and the New Year. Both speak profoundly to the deep needs and possibilities of the human spirit if we would only listen. Our experience of the New Year can be enhanced by our understanding of the Christmas event.
Overlooked in many Christmas sermons is interpretation or at least serious exploration of the text Luke 2: 8-15. It reads:
8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.
Clarence Jordan’s translation of a portion of this scripture states:
And a messenger from the Lord appeared to them, and evidence of the Lord was shining all about them. It nearly scared the life out of them. And the messenger said to them, "Don't be afraid; for listen, I'm bringing you good news of a great joy in which all people will share. Today your deliverer was born in the city of David's family. He is the Leader…. And all of a sudden there was with the messenger a crowd of angels singing God's praises and saying, “Glory in the highest to God, And on Earth, peace to [humanity], The object of his favor.”
These shepherds were doing what they had often done. The routine was clearly established, the care and well-being of the sheep under their charge. The stars and moon were guides, friendly companions of the darkness which comforted them and gave them a sense of place.
Intruding into this comforting community was a messenger, an angel, something bizarre to them, that frightened them. It was unusual in appearance and character. Shepherds were not insensitive to life or life's challenges, its ups, and downs, its pain, and problems. Moses was a shepherd when he encountered the burning bush. The great King David was a shepherd boy when he was anointed to be king. He has been credited with writing the powerful 23 Psalm about leading sheep to green pastures and still water, providing for their physical and psychological needs. The sheep trust the shepherd. These are people who have often journeyed to troublesome terrain to recover lost sheep. Utmost was their concern for the welfare of the flock. Dependable and dedicated, they were not easily frightened even by predatory animals in quest of lamb chops for dinner.
But this appearance frightened them. The scriptures never say that the shepherds stated that they were afraid. Non-verbal communication was operative. Clearly, something in their countenance signaled their discomfort and alarmed the messenger.
I find it interesting that people are often afraid of the “not before experienced.” I recall as a child that whenever I watched a movie about spaceships landing, most of the people in the film were afraid of the “strange” visitors. Is there something within us that recoils in the face of something different that breaks through the normative way of living, or violates our routine ways of existing?
The messenger had to immediately set the shepherds at ease as they experienced the most extraordinary event of their lifetimes.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; …”
The shepherd’s reaction is not surprising, not only because they were startled by this unanticipated encounter with someone or something they had not met before; but, also because of the nature of the messenger, an angel, seemingly human and divine at the same time, like the object of the praise, the babe, human and divine. That is one of the things that the deliverer would demonstrate in their presence as he grew in wisdom, understanding, and in favor with God and the people. The messenger knew that it was critical to tweak this fear thing in order for the shepherds to experience this breakthrough event that would eventually change the course of history and God's dwelling with and within the earth community.
Fear had stalked the lives of the shepherds. The messenger was brilliant in stating that good news was being brought to all people. That included them, the shepherds themselves. It included their own marginalized communities, living under foreign rule. They were not in control of their own economy, the politics that governed their lives, or even their religion that for centuries had held them together as a people. They were people who lived in fear – one of the hounds of hell that dogs the footsteps of the oppressed as Dr. Howard Thurman would say. This fear resulted in routine and compromised living. And fearful people cannot fully participate in the new year, the new order that was/is at hand. The birth of this child would initiate “the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor.” It argued for the shepherd and their communities of relationship and accountability to move forward. Fear cannot lead us forward. It cannot build institutions, systems, and values that are worthy of the life that we have been given.
Going forward in new life requires trust, trusting life with all its mystery to give your soul wings and heart fulfillment. It means gambling with life, engaging it, trusting that what you need will be provided as you leave the strangulation of the past and present and seek a liberating future. Life beckons us to an unseeable and uncertain future. Regardless of how comfortable the present may have become, the future asks for adventure, bold living, and courage in the face of the unpredictable. Life itself is a risk, with all types of detours and byways, obstacles, disappointments, and joys.
Dr. Thurman has written that Life is alive and seeks to be fulfilled. He has also said: Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
But we cannot come alive if we are afraid of the future. We cannot come alive if we are unwilling to try something new, something that speaks to our souls even if we don't quite know where it will lead us. That is part of life's excitement. Would we really want to know what will occur in the new year, what may happen in our families, and the world? How boring that would be! It would deprive us of our free will and the engagement that helps us to grow and contribute to the world. We have benefitted from other lives that have encouraged, inspired, and given us new direction at times when we needed such support. Now, it is our turn.
It was a gamble for this place to come into being – a church without denominational affiliation that violated the social norms of the time by including and celebrating people from all national, cultural, creedal, racial, and gender identities.
It was a gamble for Abraham to journey forth from Ur to a land unknown based only on a message he heard from God. It was a gamble for Jesus to take his message and his life to the disinherited of his day as well as those in power. That is what life must be about, trusting that the God of Life speaks to each of us within the sacredness of our own souls and time and ask something of us. And, that something is always about trusting life, going forward, and singing new songs for new demands.
It's time for us to gamble. I don’t mean the lottery, slot machines, blackjack, or roulette. No. I mean gambling that life is important, that it matters, that we matter. I mean believing that we can infuse our communities with love, hope, and trust in ways to totally transform them so that everyone may live 'neath their vine and fig tree and not be afraid of life, of each other, of themselves. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his first inaugural speech: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
What would happen to scientific discovery if scientists were afraid to explore and experiment with life? Where would the world be if scientists had only been interested in documenting the past? How far back would medicine be if there had not been many who risked, sometimes even persecution by the church, if there had not been those curious enough, imaginative enough, resourceful enough, patient, and adventuresome enough to pursue messengers calling them to an uncharted yet glorious universe and future? Where would you be if you have never explored what is now your profession, your calling? Where would you be if you never risked loneliness for love? How different are you now than you were 5, 10, 20, or 50 years ago because you were fascinated and open to life?
And, have you not ideas, ideals, and values that you know would benefit the world? How shall the world benefit if you are sore afraid you refuse to be vulnerable and cling to what is comfortable, accommodating to a world that places false security before you?
We cannot be neutral. To be neutral is to be complicit with the oppression, greed, the violence that attends our days usurping the joyful sound that should emanate from our souls, souls unimpeded by fear, souls set on freedom, souls rejoicing that a new day has come, a new era is upon us, and new deliverers are being called into action.
We are the new deliverers. Fear not because the messenger of Life, the Creator of Life, the one who sustains us each and every day, who gives us talent, and insights, who supplies our needs, breathes into us renewed strength and courage. Emmanuel dwells with us, now, in this place in our daily living and we raise our own doxology, whether it's Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men, or O Little Town of Bethlehem where the hopes and fears of all the years are met tonight, today, in our time. Maybe the song is It Came upon the Midnight Clear where we confront two thousand years of wrong. Maybe we sing of a thrill of hope the weary world rejoices because we embrace the slave as our sister and/or brother. Maybe, it is a new song borne of new opportunities.
When you recognize the messenger within, may you not be afraid to incarnate the good tidings of immense joy that shall be to all the people. For unto us this Christmas Day, 2022, this Holy Night, potential saviors of the people. We are all candidates for this extraordinary casting of our lives upon and into the life of the universe that will not fail us. May we all be reborn. Behold the frontier that lies before us, compassing our path, illuminating one more step.