By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2021
2 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Oh Lord, uphold me that I might uplift thee. Amen.
In those days, Caesar had issued a decree that all the world be registered. I know first hand that when fear whispers in your ear, “you are losing control, things are out of hand,” anxiety always suggests making a wildly ambitious list. I think that is what was happening with Caesar.
In those days, the headlines did not care about religious minorities or pregnant women or really women at all. The headlines and anxious decrees did not care about Joseph’s carpentry business in Nazareth. His income would have to stop to travel to this registration. There was no such thing as tele-woodworking. And of course, travel was risky. Illness was rampant. Pregnancy could be deadly. Fears once global then got deeply personal. I know first-hand how fear works its way into the body and the mind. That is when it can override a human’s best qualities. Reason, generosity, justice, patience… fear can tackle them all if it is allowed in the body and the mind.
In those days, the local headlines in Nazareth would have been the scandal surrounding Joseph, an upstanding man in the community whose young fiancée was noticeably pregnant. I imagine the comment section would have been full of vitriol and snark: “Tell me again how this baby is somehow holy?” “He should be kicked out of the synagogue immediately!” “So embarrassing. That woman should be stoned.” Fear loves shame and rumors and blame. Fear has the pointiest of fingers.
In those days, shepherds were the hidden nameless labor force that sustained a hungry population. They did not own the assets under their care. They were merely a jingle or a bleat in the soundscape of a world that just expected them to be silent and work at night. They had none of the power but shouldered all of the risk. One wolf. One sheep that nibbled itself lost. They’d be let go. I suspect we all know how much fear loves silence and darkness and powerlessness and waiting.
In those days, fear was the headline and fear followed people home and fear divided families and fear made some people very loud and other people silent. Fear and its siblings paranoia and anxiety were the true governors and the Bible reminds us that everyone was expected to move according to their decrees.
But another plan was being hatched in the fearless heart of God. God had seen sparrows and lilies live joyfully on the earth. Dolphins and prairie dogs needed no intervention to find a playful existence. And yet, from the very beginning, God had seen fear on faces of Adam and Eve even in the garden of Eden, had seen fear cause Cain to kill his brother Abel, had seen fear pollute the family of Jacob and Esau, had seen fear prop up judges and kings and silence prophets, had seen fear divide nations and houses of worship based on fear of each other, had seen centuries of people projecting their fear onto God and weaponizing that fear to maintain their power … power that never seemed powerful enough cast out fear.
In those days, it was time to end the reign of fear. And God’s audacious plan emerged… to dwell among us… full of grace and truth… to live with us as perfect love that casts out fear… God planned to become the one thing that evokes no fear in humankind at all, a baby.
When God announced to the angels the plan to come among us as a baby, even the angels were fearful. Renowned preacher Barbara Brown Taylor imagines that conversation going this way: “Could you at least create yourself as a magical baby with special powers?” they ask. “It wouldn’t take much—just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl bolts of lightning if the need arose. The baby idea was a stroke of genius …but it lacks adequate safety features.” Taylor writes, “God thanked the angels for their concern but said, no, [it] would just be a regular baby. How else could God gain the trust of [God’s] creatures? …There was a risk … a high risk, but that was part of what God wanted us to know—that God was willing to risk everything to get close to us in hopes that we might love God again.”
So, in those days, God worked from sidelines instead of the headlines, it seemed. To a sidelined Mary, the angel said, “do not be afraid, you have found favor with God.” To a sidelined Joseph, the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” To the sidelined shepherds, the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” Good news: Do not be afraid. That is the number one message throughout the Bible from God to humanity. It is said 365 times, once for every day of the year.
And on it goes, this good news. In a boat buffeted by storms, Jesus said, “Quiet, be still. Why are you afraid?” In the Upper Room, to the disciples, fear coursing up their legs, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you, do not be afraid.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, to the women on Easter morning, exhausted and rattled, angels said, “Do not be afraid. You are looking for Jesus. He is not here. He is risen.” To the Easter disciples, desperate and doubting, “Do not be afraid. Go tell the others.” And even in the book of Revelation that sometimes feels hot to the touch, “fear not. I am the first and the last.” And that love was there all along: In the words of Isaiah, “Do not fear. I have redeemed you!” In the Psalms, “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.” We always knew fear and love were close, but without love calling the shots, fear instantly comes tyrannical.
And how about you in these days? As you read the headlines, the decrees of fear still blaring over all the world, shame and its pointy fingers still poking our families and neighborhoods, can you hear from the sidelines the Christmas refrain? And if you hear it, can you sing it? And if you sing it, can you invite that love to make its home in your heart? To dwell in your body and govern your mind? We know firsthand that love’s deputies are candles and infants and bits of bread and defiant hope and you, yes you, even when you feel the most fragile. Love loves to work with small things like that and grows them up and multiplies them and changes the world through them.
A headline caught my eye this week. A woman named Kim Morton in Baltimore received a text from her neighbor across the street telling her to peek outside. Matt Riggs had hung a string of white Christmas lights from his home to hers. He’d also left a tin of homemade cookies on her doorstep. The lights, he said, were meant to reinforce that they were always connected despite all their pandemic isolation. Matt said, “I was was reaching to Kim to brighten her world.” He knew she had been facing a dark time… depression, the loss of a loved one and work stress. The pressure led to panic attacks. Matt understood. His teenagers had been struggling, financial pressures had been mounting. He knew a lot of light was in order. He did not expect to start something of a neighborhood movement. In that followed, Riggs light-hanging gesture, neighbor after neighbor followed suit, stringing Christmas lights up and down all the streets. A neighbor named Leabe Commisso wanted in. She said to her neighbor, “Let’s do it too. Before we knew it,” she said, “We were cleaning Home Depot out of lights.” Then, Kim said, the entire neighborhood did it. The lights were a physical sign of connection and love.” She said, “What blows my mind is that it was all organic. There was no planning. It just grew out of everyone’s desire for beauty and connection.” Riggs said, “it brought tears to my eyes. From such a humble beginning, a tiny little act, it became a movement.” A woman down the street made her lights into a sign that said, “Love lives here,” bending coat hangers all night long. Finally, Kim Morton after such a hard year said, “It was light pushing back the darkness.”
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love. And wonders of His Love. And wonders of His love.
That’s the only headline we need. Merry Christmas. Amen.