2017 December Issue
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A Time To Fear

Luke 1:26-35/

It is customary to lament the commercialization of Christmas. In my opinion, however, the significance of Christmas has been lost, not so much by the commercialization of it in our society at large, as by the sentimentalizing of it in the church at large. We have by and large reduced Christmas to the sparkle of a bright star and to the warm glow radiating from a manger. To read the Christmas narratives in Luke 1 and 2, however, and to find there only warmth, joy, and happiness is to read them superficially and to miss much that is significant.

There is, for example, a profound undercurrent of fear and uncertainty running through these stories.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to announce that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were to become the parents of a son, John, who would be the forerunner of the Messiah, "Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him" (1:12).

When Gabriel subsequently came to Mary with the announcement of the special son who was going to be born there, "she was greatly troubled at the saying" (1:29).

Later, when John was actually born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, "fear came on all their neighbors" (1:65).

When the angel appeared to the shepherds in the field to announce the birth of Jesus, "they were filled with fear" (2:9).

Focusing on the angel's announcement to Mary that she had been singled out by God, what did he say that could have caused Mary to be uncertain and afraid?

First of all, he said, "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus." When you consider that Mary was not married, one reason for her fear becomes obvious. In her day, there was no tolerance whatsoever for an unmarried mother. The fulfillment of this promise threatened to ruin her reputation.

Secondly, the angel's explanation of how this mysterious thing would be accomplished added to her fear. He said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." She did not want to hear that! She had become engaged. She was looking forward with excitement to her wedding day. She was dreaming of having a home with her carpenter husband and a normal life with friends and neighbors. It was clear to her that she was being chosen for a role which was going to make a radical change in her life. Mary realized, as did the writer of The Letter to the Hebrews in a later time, that "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

Thirdly, the angel said of the son who would be born to her, "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever." It was a terrifying thing to hear. Rome already ruled over the house of Jacob with an iron fist. Armed centurions patrolled the streets every day. Every patriot who had attempted to restore the independence of Israel had been caught and tortured and crucified as a public example to others who might be tempted to such foolishness. If the son who was going to be born to her should claim the throne of David, how could he possibly escape that terrible fate?

Mary was right to be afraid. And if at Christmas time we pray, as we should, that Christ be born in us, and if we understand what we are praying, we too should tremble with fear.

Her reputation was shattered. Her whole family became an object of puzzlement to most and an object of derision to many because of that strange son of hers who emphasized all of the wrong things and embraced all of the wrong people.

The same thing happens today to people who are foolish enough to follow his example. The Presbyterian Church (USA) and some other Christian families have become objects of derision for many religious people because of their acceptance of homosexuals, alcoholics, divorced people, and "all sorts and conditions of men," as the old, traditional, sexist phrase puts it. Biblical literalists can quote you proof texts which unequivocally condemn all of these people. Two or three years ago a woman came to me, tearfully relating the fact that the pastor of the church of which she had been an active member for years would not even talk to her about getting married. He observed that her fiancÚ had been previously married and said that he could not participate in the creation of an adulterous relationship. He quoted to her Matthew 19:9, "Whoever divorces his wife… and marries another, commits adultery."

People quoted Scripture like that to Jesus also. One of the main things which led to the loss of his reputation and that of his family was the way he put people ahead of proof texts. It is a fearful thing to fall under the influence of someone like that.

It is also fearful because falling into his hands will entail the kind of radical changes which Mary rightly sensed were coming into her life. Within months of Jesus' birth, she and Joseph had to flee to Egypt as refugees to escape Herod's murderous slaughter of infants. Perhaps even harder, when they finally returned home, they had to accept the fact that their son was never going to be in step with the world around him.

You are always going to be out of step to some extent as well if you let him be born in you. You are not going to be able to ignore his Body, the church, no matter how uninteresting or irritating or irrelevant it may seem to you at times to be. It is going to be a community from which you cannot flee.

You are not going to be able to pursue your own personal goals for personal advancement and earnings unencumbered by concern for other people. You are going to have to consider them again and again in ways which will limit and even endanger your own progress and success.

You are going to realize that Mary was right when she foresaw the experience of suffering in store for her son. You are going to realize again and again with a groan of resistance that, like Paul, "you are not your own; you were bought with a price." You are going to discover, with a prayer for courage, the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's observation that "when Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die."

Where, then, do we find the "glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people?" The paradox of Christmas is that we find the joy at the same place we find the fear.

If we are willing to risk our reputation for Jesus' sake and endure the opposition which that may entail, we will share Mary's joy in finding "favor with God."

If we are willing to fall into the hands of the Son of God and let him work radical changes in our lives, we will know the joy of having life in great abundance.

If we are willing to share the suffering of the Son of Mary, we will rejoice to find that in losing our lives for his sake and in his service we have truly found our lives.

And Mary said, "Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

Prayer:

We are, 0 Lord, people who have lived in darkness.

Our undisciplined appetites have led us into dark places.

Our unruly tempers have turned warm relationships cold.

Our unresolved losses have blocked out the sunshine of happiness.

Our unfulfilled responsibilities have left us in shadows of guilt rather than in the brightness of satisfaction.

Your care and the promise of your grace are already realities for us. Otherwise we would have neither the desire nor the courage to confess our need. With your Light incarnate dispel whatever gloom may yet oppress us that we may walk in newness of life.

We are grateful, dear God, for the pleasures and joys of Christmas: for music which lifts our spirits,

for food and drink which delights our tastes,

for loving hands and cheeks which touch our hearts,

for stories and traditions which remind us of the meanings of this season, and for your steady, loving presence in whom we find refuge when it all becomes too much.

Forbid that the security, affluence, order and well-being which we enjoy should make us insensitive to the insecurity, poverty, chaos, and danger in which so many of your children live.

We pray for people whose nations are coming apart at the seams.

We pray for people who are unable to produce sufficient food for life. We pray for people who are being tyrannized from both the left and right. We pray for members of our church family who must face this day with vulnerabilities of body or mind. And watch over those especially dear to us who are, for varied reasons, beyond our reach. May we know and find comfort in the fact that they are even more dear to you than they are to us. Amen.

J. Harold McKeithen, Jr.

Hidenwood Presbyterian Church

Newport News, VA