A Homily be Andrew Philip Long
‘Do not be afraid,’ the angel said to Zechariah before announcing to him that he and his elderly wife would have a son named John. ‘Do not be afraid,’ the angel said to Mary after proclaiming to her that she had found favor in God’s eyes. ‘Do not be afraid,’ the angel said to Joseph after he learned that Mary was pregnant and had decided to dismiss her quietly. ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy,’ the angel said to the shepherds after appearing to them in the fields in a ray of brilliant light. ‘Do not be afraid.’ ‘Do not be afraid.’ ‘Do not be afraid.’ It sounds as if God is trying to tell us something.
John Buchanan, the editor of Christian Century, wrote in an editorial this month that his congregation in Tennessee dedicated a new pipe organ on November 29, which was the first Sunday of Advent this year. He writes that after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali, the downing of a Russian airliner, and a suicide bombing in Beirut, he went to church that morning with a heart full of foreboding, dread, and fear for the future. He asks this question: Was it appropriate, in the midst of violent hatred, the killing of innocents, the nihilism and fear, to be celebrating a new pipe organ?
These words hit home for us, don’t they? What Buchanan is describing is not something from the past or from the pages of a history book; there is no distance between us and the tragedies in Paris and Mali, Egypt, Beirut, and San Bernardino. There is no distance between us and the many tragedies that touch the world, yet do not make the pages of the news. Without any distance of time or space we tangibly feel the violent hatred present in the world. We deeply grieve the killing of innocents. We wonder what the world and our lives will be like in five or ten years. We are afraid; I know I am. And so we can easily ask Buchanan’s question, just in a different way. Is it appropriate in the midst of violent hatred, the killing of innocents, and in the midst of fear, to celebrate Christmas? Is it appropriate for us to gather in a safe and warm place when so many of God’s people will never experience the same? Is it appropriate for us to bask in the beauty of this night when the world outside those doors can be so ugly?
Buchanan goes on to say that the sermon that morning was a dialogue between spoken word and organ music. He says that the preacher creatively led the congregation in a survey of their historic faith, from the first pages of Genesis to the end of Revelation. This survey showed that praise and gratitude, weeping and lamenting, tragedy, dislocation, comfort, thanksgiving for homecoming and redemption, and joy in the presence of a loving and living God are all wound tightly together to create the beautiful story of God and God’s people. The organist responded to each of these themes with passionate music of lament and consolation or praise and adoration. “Halfway through,’ Buchanan writes, ‘I concluded that this is exactly what Christian faith affirms: there is beauty in the midst of ugliness, truth in the midst of lies, love in the midst of hatred, and light shining into the darkness of fear. Celebrating a new pipe organ is exactly what we needed.”
Tonight is so much more than a yearly gathering that takes place on a specific day. Tonight is an affirmation of the foundations of our Christian faith: beauty, truth, love, and light. Tonight we have heard the story of our salvation, from the day that we disobeyed God until the day when God brought about our salvation. Tonight we have sung psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs to God with gratitude in our hearts. Tonight we will break bread and share the cup, the broken body of shed blood of Christ that has redeemed us all. We will light candles in the darkness and sing, not just because we do it every year, but because the light of God always shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it. Then, when all of this is done, we will venture out into the dark and cold night, filled with the hope of God and stripped of all fear.
It is more than appropriate that we have gathered here tonight, in this safe, warm, and beautiful place: it is essential. It is essential because the world we live in, the community we live in, is in desperate need of the good news of God. It is essential because every area of our common life—financially, politically, educationally, and economically—is in desperate need of the light of God that shines so brilliantly tonight. It is essential for us because the powers of darkness are trying their best win, and through worship and song and breaking bread God prepares us to fight against those powers. It is essential for us to be here tonight, together, so that we can once again hear the words of the angel, that ring down through all time: ‘Do not be afraid.’
We invest a lot of time, energy, and emotional resources in creating a perfect Christmas. We decorate our homes exquisitely, placing ornaments gradually on the tree and a traditional, worn star at the very top. We prepare all the familiar foods with care and wrap each gift lovingly.
But the first Christmas was anything but pretty and perfect: a peasant couple, she heavily pregnant, traveled a long and arduous journey to an ill full of guests, ending up in a cow barn out back where she endured the pain of labor and birth. Animals shuffled restlessly at the intrusion. The man did what he could to help, and the baby was placed in the cow’s feed-box. Shepherds claimed to have seen and heard an angel chorus; mysterious Magi had seen a new star.
It is both a mystery and a miracle, the story of our Savior’s birth. It is a story that sounds as if it could be happening somewhere in the Middle East this very night, and in this there is great hope for us. What our faith holds onto and celebrates in the midst of all the trials and sufferings of life is that God came into human history 2,000 years ago and continues to come into history in that same mysterious, quietly human way today—we do not have to be afraid. It was messy then and it is messy now, and still God comes—we do not have to be afraid. Christ was born and brought peace and goodwill for all people with him: he is doing the same right now—we do not have to be afraid. This Christ child grew into a man, who roamed the ancient world preaching and teaching on one basic principle: love God and love your neighbor as yourself—we do not have to be afraid. This man reached out and touched the untouchable, loved the unlovable, and welcomed sinners and prostitutes to eat dinner at his table—we do not have to be afraid. This Jesus then took up his cross, died that we might live, and rose from the grave to set us free from the chains of sin and death—we do not have to be afraid.
I say to you tonight, just as the angel did those centuries ago to Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and the shepherds: ‘Do not be afraid.’ Christ is here. Allow your hearts and minds to be filled with the beauty and warmth and safety of this night. Then go into the world and create the same all around you, as God’s kingdom comes.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Merry Christmas.