December 24, 2017: "Do Not Be Afraid"
Christmas Eve Homily 2017
by Andrew Philip Long
I became a Dad this year. One thing I promised myself before our little guy was born was that I wouldn’t talk about him in my sermons, but tonight is a little bit different.
You see, Theo was born on June 29th. It was a Thursday and Katie called around noon as I was coming back into Enid from a funeral out of town. She called to say that she wasn’t feeling great and that maybe we should go get things checked out. The doctors and nurses told us the whole pregnancy that we could always go to the hospital if we thought something was happening; if it was a false alarm, they would just send us home. So I drove to Katie’s office, loaded her into the car, and off to St. Mary’s we went. We rode the elevator the the third floor, walked onto the maternity ward, and a nurse showed us to a room. Even before she did anything, the nurse told us that if Katie was walking into the hospital and talking without any trouble, they would do a few tests and probably send us home. But after a few tests, the nurse looked at us both and said, “You’re going to have a baby today, and he’ll probably be here in five or six hours!” Say, what? And she was close; about seven hours later Theo was born. His entrance into the world went off without the least bit of trouble and his mother was an absolute superhero.
The only thing is, Theo wasn’t supposed to be born for another week, and in the haze of excitement and joy and exhaustion, I was completely terrified. I know a week early isn't a lot, but I’m a methodical person. As a musician and a pastor, all of my education and experience has revolved around doing things one step at a time and in the proper order. Theo was born on a Thursday and Thursdays during the summer are very methodical for me: I leave the office at about 5, arrive home to let the dogs out and change clothes, then I spend the next few hours mowing and trimming the lawn and weeding the gardens. This past summer I had a few other steps to take on Thursdays in anticipation of Theo’s arrival: there was painting to be done inside and outside the house, squeaky doors needed to be adjusted, the kitchen needed to be rearranged to make room for bottles and bottle warmers and bottle sterilizers, and a hundred other things.
Not only did Theo break into our world a full week early, he came on a day when I had so many other things to do. And some of those things are still not done. Fear and anxiety gripped me the day he was born, and at times it still does. Of course the painting and the adjusting and the rearranging can wait, but what about the bigger things? What about being a good parent? What about giving hi the best chance at a good life? What about all the things that could potentially mess him up? What about teaching him the faith and how to ride a bike and how to not touch the stove when it is hot? What about showing him how to accept everyone for who they are and how to respect everyone’s religion and opinion even when it rubs up against his own? What if he doesn’t like me? It seems to me that there is a step by step way of going about these things, and that little dude just couldn’t be bothered. I’ve learned that babies don’t really care about your schedule, your timing, your to-do list. He came not when we were ready, but when he was ready, and he’s happy and healthy and a little stubborn and slightly moody and absolutely perfect.
On tonight, on Christmas Eve, Theo’s early arrival into the world is a good way for us to think about the birth of Jesus. God, our God, the God of Bethlehem and Jesus Christ, also could not be bothered with our schedule or timing or following the proper steps. Instead of a prominent family, with means to nurture a child in comfort and security, God chose a man and a woman who had not even set up their home together. Instead of a woman who had many children, who knew exactly what to do with a baby, God chose Mary. Instead of a city, or at the very least a well-known town, God directed Mary and Jospeh to deliver the baby in Bethlehem. There was no comfortable bed, no warm towels, no midwives, no support from friends or family, just a stable and some hay in a feeding trough. A bunch of dirty, uneducated shepherds living in the fields heard the news of Christ’s birth first, and Wise Men from the east came instead of friends and family. God did come when we were ready; Jesus would never have been born if God had to wait us. Instead, God came when the time was right.
The Scriptures tell us that the whole event of Christ’s birth was shrouded in fear. And we can understand that, right? Jospeh was afraid that Mary had stepped out on him, and he faced disgrace if the community found out she had been unfaithful. Mary was afraid because she was an unwed, pregnant teenage mother without a support system or any idea of what to do if Jospeh broke off their engagement. The shepherds in the fields were afraid when angels appeared with a message of great joy for all people, particularly because they never heard the news first, or really ever. Even King Herod was afraid. I get it; babies are scary…the whole process of a child coming into the world is terrifying.
But the refrain in the Scriptures, over and over again is, “Do not be afraid.” The angel said to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, follow through on your wedding plans because while you may not understand what is happening, God does. The angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.” In other words, God has chosen you and God will make a way where you see no way. The angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” In other words, this isn’t a mistake—Christ is here for you and you are the first to know. No angel appeared to Herod, though, because his fear was justified; Christ meant the disintegration of his kingdom.
That refrain—“Do not be afraid”—plays over and over on the pages of Scripture and it is a calm and peaceful assurance that God is taking care of us when when we can feel it and when we don't, whether we want it or not. “Do not be afraid” means that while the things around us might be hard to understand, God is guiding everything to a loving and perfect purpose. “Do not be afraid” means that when we don’t see a way through or around or above or under, God is making a way for us. “Do not be afraid” means that there are no mistakes or coincidences in God’s kingdom—God works all things together for the good. “Do not be afraid” means that steps, timing, methods...these things don't matter to God; God is present and God gives when we need it, not when we're ready. “Do not be afraid” means that God is loving the hell and death and sin out us so that we can bask in the glory of eternal life, while we are living and forever.
I hear this as tremendously good news. I hear it as good news as I learn every day what it means to be a father. I hear it as good news for the times when I think I’m failing as a husband, a parent, a pastor because my methods and plans go up in smoke. I hear it as good news for all the uncertainty I face on a daily basis. You should hear it as good news, too, because it is likely that you are facing fear and uncertainty and anxiety, too. We should hear it together as good news because the world we live in is quite off balance at the moment—if there was a step by step plan for things, we abandoned that long ago. Of course I’m thinking of the political atmosphere we live in at this moment, but it is bigger and deeper even than that. When the voice of my childhood, the voice from Lake Woebegone, was exposed as a predator, I didn’t think things could get much worse. Every day, though, God’s people experience much worse: disease, famine, war, poverty, despair, persecution, and oppression, failing minds and failing bodies. People of color in our society experience the same fear and uncertainty their ancestors faced centuries ago; the impoverished and underserved are continually being pushed down and out; anyone that does not fit the traditional mold in what they wear or who they love or what they believe is labeled and treated as an evil that must be destroyed. We might imagine that we are the most brilliant and advanced generation that has ever walked the earth, but things are not much different than they were 2,000 years ago.
So listen to the angelic message that swept over Mary and Joseph and the shepherds when they thought hope was lost, when fear gripped them, when nothing was clear: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, my friends. Do be afraid of the uncertainty and unknown that surrounds you. Do not be afraid of the divisiveness or the doomsday preachers or the bearers of bad news. Do be afraid when your plans turn out to be useless and nothing follows your schedule. Do not be afraid to give up your preconceived notions about God, about your neighbors, about yourself. Do not be afraid to stand up for God’s values of love, radical compassion, and generous hospitality. Do not be afraid to take your blessings and share them with those who are less fortunate. Do not be afraid to lay your life before God and ask for God’s wisdom and guidance. Do not be afraid to defend the poor, to shelter the widow, or to care for the orphan; do not be afraid, either, of broadening your understanding of the height and depth of God’s kingdom. Do not be afraid of the challenges before you, whether they are physical or mental or medical or financial. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, the Lord has come, he is born and he comes when you and me and the world needs him the most. That time is now and he is here. In him, nothing in heaven or on earth, above or on or below the earth, no rulers or powers or principalities, and certainly no power of hell can separate us from God’s love for us in him. Live in that love tonight and always; bring that love into everything and to everyone; this love will lift you up and it will never let you go. Do not be afraid. Merry Christmas. Amen.