December 24, 2020 Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:1-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
A few years ago, to celebrate International Youth Day, youth ambassadors of the world were asked: “If there is one thing you could change in the world, what would that be?” Here are some of the youth ambassadors’ answers: Khalid from the UK: “I’d make the world a fairer and peaceful place to live.” Lina from France: “Gender inequalities in girls’ education.” Ajay from the US: “I would make more people empathetic.” Bryant, from the Netherlands: “I would create more education and training opportunities for vulnerable youth.” Christian, from Nigeria: “I would change the process that leads to the refugee crisis.” Bénédicte from Belgium: “I would make sure that everybody — all the children — have the same opportunities…the opportunity to become who they want to be.”
The same question was asked to famous and successful people: One said he would end the war on drugs. Another said she would fix the unemployment problem. There was one who said he would kill the weekly office meeting. One would change how we think about careers. And one would give every child a quality education from the start.
What would you change to make the future better? Ending the pandemic, curing cancer, eliminating poverty and hunger, ending wars, racism, intolerance and inequality all come to mind. And all of these are important because they indeed are a stain on our collective humanity. There really is no need that someone is judged by the color of her skin and not by her character. This beautiful and fertile creation certainly can provide more than enough for all and not just for a few.
There is something else that I personally would wish for our world. If I could change one thing it would be that all people are excited about the future instead of fearing it. Almost everybody fears the uncertainty of future. The prospect of not knowing if something good or bad will happen to you in the near future can produce a lot of fear and anxiety. People generally fear the future for they can’t predict or control it. Chronophobia is defined as the persistent and often irrational fear of the future.
Because people fear the uncertainty and unpredictability of the future, they either idealized the past or they hang on to the status quo and resist any change. The church is one of the most change-averse institutions there is.
Generally speaking, young people are more open, hopeful and excited about the future. However, as they grow older they too become very attached to the predictable and knowable status quo.
How would it be if we, as people of faith were not afraid of the uncertainty of the future but instead excited about the future for opportunities for God to do amazing things? What if, instead of being anxious about the unknown future, we were to be like children who are counting the days to Christmas? What if it were possible to, instead of having anticipatory anxiety about what may go wrong in the future, we have anticipatory joy for the surprising things God is about to do in the future? Would it not be a wonderful approach to life to get up in the mornings not dreading the day but to allow yourself to be surprised by what may come across your path that day?
I believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition actually views the future as an exciting playfield of God’s work. Yes, the future is in fact an opportunity for God to do marvelous things.
Time and again, prophets like Isaiah and others are excited and enthusiastic about the future. God will intervene and bring about good things. Because of their emphasis on the future some people see prophets as fortune tellers. They are not.
They are people who know history and God’s involvement in their history. They often remind their people that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is part of their history, part of their world and their life. They remind them that God loves them, cares for them, provides for them. All they have to do is to look back on their history and see how God has been involved. Their history shows that God has always been there for them: when they were slaves in Egypt, when they wandered in the wilderness, when they entered the Promise Land. And because God has always been there for them in the past, the prophets time and again, reminded them that their future is in God’s hand and therefore not to be feared. Time and again they are reminded that the future will provide many opportunities for God to do amazing things. The reason for their optimistic view of the future is their trust in God who has always been trustworthy.
And the comfort of knowing that God is trustworthy, liberated them to live with enthusiasm, courage, and unbridled joy.
Now this does not mean that ancient Israel never wrestled with the same kind of questions about life and fear of the future that we wrestled with. They did. That is why they were so often reminded that God who made a covenant would not forsake them.
The prophet Isaiah says: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea”. And then he continues: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The authors of the NT and the early church viewed Jesus as the One that is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Luke’s Gospel, and for that matter the other Gospels as well, build on the Jewish tradition. Jesus was after all a Jew born as the offspring of David.
And as the story of the birth of the Messiah unfolds in Luke’s Gospel, we encounter a marginalized group of people of their time – shepherds. Theirs was a dangerous and lonely job. Dangerous because thieves and wild animals were a constant threat. Lonely because shepherds would spend weeks in the field taking care of their flock. They were dirty, smelly people, hungry people, with their fair share of fear! Fear of real threats but without any doubt fear of what the future holds for them who had little resources.
Shepherds became the first witnesses of an event that directly addressed the one emotion that enslaved them and are still enslaving modern people, fear. While they were doing their job, living in the fields an angel of the Lord said: “Do not be afraid!” Luke describes their emotions explicitly when he says: “They were terrified”: “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.”
The words that introduced the very first Christmas are “do not be afraid!” In the Bible God tells people more than 100 times: “fear not” or “do not be afraid!” And, as I have mentioned to you before, according to the Gospel of Luke the birth of Jesus, the Messiah replaces fear with great joy.
Luke makes no secret that this child Jesus, was born into a real, harsh world and had to deal with real world problems. He was born during the time of Emperor Augustus and Quirinius the governor. Powerful people living in a turbulent world of power politics, social upheaval and many fearful victims of conflicting interests – just like ours.
Every year we celebrate Christmas and we think back on what happened on that first Christmas. We all know the Christmas story of a young vulnerable couple, the birth of an infant, powerful people, like King Herod, wanting to get rid of Jesus, and angels singing. When we think about the first Christmas we become nostalgic and emotional: the little baby Jesus, the fact that there was no room for them at the inn, his vulnerability and his young parents. This year more so! All of us have cropped up emotions for we have all suffered a traumatic sense of loss. We are after all in the midst of a once in a hundred year pandemic. We feel vulnerable and scared. We don’t know if and when things will become normal again.
During a time of hardship and suffering, many of us idealize the past, we find comfort in knowing how the past turned out.
We tend to think less about the future for the future is uncertain, scary and we don’t know what will happen. So we think about the good old days. And this Christmas is perhaps more so than ever.
But the authors of the Bible were not that interested in nostalgia. The Gospels in fact spent very little time on the details of the first Christmas. The Gospel of Mark and John do not even include the birth of Jesus or Mary and Joseph.
So even though the birth of Christ is important as it tells of the beginning of Christ’s earthly life, it should not distract us from the rest of Jesus’ life and God’s plan for humankind.
The Gospels are more interested in the person of Jesus, his words and his actions. His whole life, not only his birth, shows us how God is at work.
Jesus is God’s way of assuring us that God is trustworthy and is involved in our history. This Jesus, who was born as a baby, grew up, gave himself in love to the world, he died and was also raised to conquer our biggest fear of the future- death!
And in his life, death and resurrection, we find comfort, courage and assurance that the future is in God’s hands. This means that there is no reason for us to give in to our fears, whether they are fear of the future, fear of the other, fear of rejection, fear of disappointment, or fear of dying.
The theological truth is this: God who has shown himself to be trustworthy – even to the death of the Son – will be reliable and trustworthy also in our future. There is therefore no reason for us to dread getting up in the morning, or to worry about next year. Because of God’s actions in the past, we don’t have to be anxious of the future for God who loves us unconditionally will provide.
Instead of spending emotional and physical energy worrying about the unknown future, we should use all of our energy to focus on living with joy, identifying and using opportunities that God provides to serve others. Perhaps instead of worrying about the unknown future, we could look for ways to work on the things that will make our world a better and gentler place.
The question is whether we are noticing and using the opportunities that God is providing. The birth of Christ in a manger is a reminder that God has chosen to be part of our world and our history and our future! There is therefore no need to fear!
So, let me ask again: What is the one thing you would change in the world? What is holding you back to do so? There may be other reasons for not working on it but fear should not be one! Amen.