Do Not Be Afraid

The Feast of the Incarnation
Sermon Preached Christmas Eve at St. Mark's Episcopal Church

The last several weeks – the Season of Advent – the lead up to this holy night – has been all about waiting and preparing.  But what is it we have been waiting for?  A baby born in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph and some shepherds? Encircled by cute farm animals?  A choir of angels announcing this good news?  Some of us were here at 4 o’clock this evening to see this vision of Christmas – slightly altered by some theatrical embellishments - reenacted by our children.  It was fun, it was adorable . . . but did it represent all that we’ve been waiting for? Does Luke’s story – when we focus only on what has become the crèche displayed in many of our homes – does that adequately justify the time spent in prayerful preparation?   And, more importantly, can that tableau satisfy the deep yearning in our hearts for something deeper and more meaningful? 
In conversations with many of you these past several weeks, it is clear that we need something more than the pastoral and quaint to satisfy our longings.  We are looking for and desperately need something deep and true.  About 10 days ago, Stephen Colbert offered a parody of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” as his response to 2016.[1]  The song referenced many of 2016’s dark moments –Flint Michigan’s water crisis, wild fires, the death of cultural icons – Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen – and the ugliness of the campaign cycle leading up to the November elections.  And this litany of darkness was followed by the ironic refrain, “it’s the end of the year as we know it . . . and I feel fine.”  While Colbert’s lyrics focused exclusively on the woes of the United States, the sentiment resonates around the globe. 
For me, the dust and ashes of Aleppo – to say nothing of the lives lost, the children orphaned, and the refugees shunned around the world – speaks to the present darkness in a way that nothing else in my lifetime has before.  But history tells us there have been other times like this.
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[2]  Judea had just been declared a Roman province – an occupied territory – and the Jewish people were most likely registering for tax purposes.  This census ultimately led to a violent uprising.  Now there are a number of problems with the chronology in Luke’s gospel, not the least of which is that the first registration in Judea probably took place several years before Jesus’ birth; but the author of the gospel, nonetheless, wants to make it very clear that Jesus was born in politically turbulent times. 
Occupied territories, people living under foreign regimes or exiled from their homelands, peoples torn apart by war, these are not new.  In fact, this was the world into which Jesus was born - the world into which God chose to deliver a baby.  This year, instead of a baby in a manger, I see 5-year-old Omran Daqnees in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo.[3]  This is the darkness into which God enters, the darkness into which God chooses to be born. 
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”[4]  A few nights ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and unable to sleep, I went to my cell phone to play a game of Scrabble with some stranger also lying awake at that hour.  But what struck me in that moment – in addition to the odd connection this technology could create across the miles – what struck me was how bright my phone’s screen was.  It actually hurt my eyes a bit, causing me to squint.  I found the setting that would allow me to dim the screen and then continued my game.  Of course, the lighting on my phone hadn’t changed; but the light surrounding it had.  Instead of the bright light of day or the fluorescent glow of bulbs in my office, I was lying in the dark.  In that instant, I recognized something profound about the “great light” that Christians have come to know as Jesus the Christ.  That great light shines brightest in the dark places.  And isn’t that what the gospels tell us? 
“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.”[5]
This Jesus who we, using the prophet’s words, name “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” is born in a land at war.  This Jesus, a baby sent by God to be our hope in the darkness, comes to us in the darkness of this night to be for us a great light – a light so strong against the darkness – that the darkness cannot overcome it.  This light has the power to enter our hearts to transform us so that we are filled with hope, a hope that the darkness cannot overcome.[6] 
Tonight’s celebration is filled with songs of joy and of great gladness.  Tonight’s celebration is filled with family and friends and a feast of bread and wine that is but a foretaste of the feast we will all experience when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.[7]  And tonight’s celebration is filled with a manger – Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds – and a baby, a baby who overturned the world of politics in his day and promises to do the same in ours.[8]  A baby in a manger - an unlikely person and an unlikely place to look for and to find hope; but may this holy night be the night in which we realize once again that God with us – Emmanuel – is doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  And may this holy night be the night in which our deepest yearning finds fulfillment once again.
“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be assign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”[9]

[1] The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “It’s the End of the Year as We Know It,” December 16, 2016, accessed December 23, 2016.
[2] Luke 2:1-2.
[3] Photograph, Aleppo Media Centre, accessed December 23, 2016.
[4] Isaiah 9:2.
[5] Luke 1:52-55.
[6] John 1:5.
[7] Katherine Willis Pershey, “Christmas Eve: A Feast of Light,” A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C, compiled by Jessica Miller Kelley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 9-10.
[8] Jim Wallis, “Singing Our Way Back to Hope: Lessons in Resistance from theChristmas Carols,” Sojourners, December 22, 2016, , accessed December 23, 2016.
[9] Luke 2:10b-12.