Sunday, December 29, 2013

Fear Not!

A Sermon on Luke 2:8-20

Shortly before Christmas, a few members of my congregation gathered in the church basement to watch and discuss A Charlie Brown Christmas. If you haven’t seen it before, you should – it’s well worth your twenty-six minutes. The classic television special which has been broadcast every year since 1965 focuses on Charlie Brown’s holiday blues and his search for meaning and joy in the midst of the season’s commericialism, competitiveness, and distractions. In one scene, the glum little boy sits down at Lucy’s five-cent psychiatric help stand. Charlie Brown explains his feelings of depression, and Lucy begins to reel off a list of possible diagnoses, until finally she suggests that Charlie Brown may have “pantophobia, the fear of everything,” and Charlie responds with a cry of “That’s it!” so loud it knocks Lucy over.

But, contrary to Lucy’s claim, this five-cent diagnosis doesn’t solve Charlie Brown’s problems; neither does trying to direct the Christmas pageant; neither does buying a little Christmas tree that all the other children find sorely lacking. Finally, an exasperated Charlie Brown exclaims, “Can’t anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?” “Sure, Charlie Brown,” replies little Linus, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” and in one of the loveliest moments ever animated, he stands in the center of the pageant stage, and recites from the King James Version the same passage we heard during today’s Gospel reading:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.' 
Throughout the entire Christmas story, every dialogue between angels and humans opens with the same words: fear not. The angels who appear to the shepherds, like the angel who appears to Mary, and the angel who appears to Zechariah, and even the angel who appears to Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, all greet people with the words “Do not be afraid,” or as in the King James Version that Linus quotes, “Fear not.” I’ve always assumed that it must be terrifying to see an angel – after all, the only description of angels that appears in the Bible describes them as fiery six-winged beings.

But listening to Linus tell the story of the angels appearing to the shepherds with the words “fear not,” I couldn’t help but remember Charlie Brown’s earlier diagnosis of “pantophobia – the fear of everything.” Perhaps the reason for the angelic greeting, “fear not,” is not that angels are fearsome creatures, but rather that humans are fearful creatures. Perhaps the words “fear not” are not intended only for the shepherds, quaking in fear at the awe-inducing sight of God’s messengers, but also for all of us.

We humans often live in a state of fear. We live with all kinds of fears. Some of us fear losing a job, or that we will never find a job, or that we will be stuck forever in a job we hate. Some fear that there won’t be enough money to meet our needs. Some fear the end of a relationship, or that we will never find the right relationship. Many of us fear illness, injury, and death – our own, or that of a loved one. In one way, these fears are legitimate – the things we fear are real and painful. But it is also true that fear can run rampant in our lives, sapping our energy, driving our decision-making, and undermining our joy.

I’m a new mom – my baby boy was born in May. And as I’ve become a new parent, I’ve noticed the new part that fear plays in my life. Sometimes fear keeps my baby safe – I cross the street more cautiously, lock up the cleaning chemicals, and keep an eye out for choking hazards. Other times, fear plays a more insidious role. New moms are constantly bombarded with advice and warnings: don’t overdress him! Don’t underdress him! Make sure he gets plenty of sleep or his brain won’t develop correctly! Don’t let him sleep on his tummy or he might stop breathing! Keep him away from cell phones! And anything that might have germs on it (which is everything)! And plastics! And non-organic foods! As soon as he was born, people started warning me about all of the things I should be afraid of, and companies started trying to sell me products to protect my helpless little baby from dangers real and imagined. Disaster seemed to lurk around every corner.

Fear can be an all-consuming emotion, multiplying and amplifying itself. It can crowd out everything else: joy, satisfaction, contentment, trust. It can shout down the trustworthy voices of loved ones and parental instincts and the still, small voice that whispers the love of God. When my son was a newborn, I would gaze at that tiny, fragile little boy in my arms and hold my breath and worry, and worry, and worry about all of the things I needed to do to protect him from harm, and all the harm that might come to him despite my best efforts.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school last year, President Obama shared a quote by Elizabeth Stone, who said that to have a child is “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” As a new mom, I felt that keenly; I was freshly and intensely aware that there is much to fear in this world, for each of us.

But the angels come, over and over again, saying those words: fear not. Not because the things we fear are not real, but because the good news of God’s love is greater than all that we fear. Because, in Jesus Christ, God has come into the world to share in all of human life: our fears, and our hurts, and our joys. In Jesus Christ, God knows what it is endure pain and sorrow. In Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to share bread and wine and laughter. In Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to be scorned and rejected. And through Jesus Christ, God knows what it is to send a little baby into a world that is sometimes dark and dangerous and hurtful and hateful, but is also brimming with beauty and sweetness and goodness.

God knows that there is much to fear, and God comes to us anyway, and God sends us messengers who tell us, “fear not.” Because in Jesus Christ, God enters into every dark and dangerous place of human life, bringing light and truth and love.

God’s love took on flesh, and God held her breath and gazed at that tiny, fragile little baby, born in a barn, hunted by a powerful king, bringing light and love into a world that would reject him and harm him and crucify him. And although there was much to fear, God’s light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

So fear not, brothers and sisters. Fear not.