Sermons That Work

Why Frightened?, Christmas 2 – 2009

January 04, 2009


When Herod heard about the child who had been born King of the Jews, we read in Matthew that “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Isn’t that odd?

All Jerusalem was frightened with Herod. It’s not like they had our technology that’s capable of getting news from one end of the planet to another. Communication had to have been excruciatingly slow then, compared to ours. How could all of Jerusalem even known the wise men were consulting with Herod at the palace?

That’s probably one of those odd little questions we might ask ourselves as we hear this very familiar passage about Herod whose wickedness astounds us several verses later. We might even remind ourselves that the stories we all know and love about the Christmas event as they’re told in the Synoptic gospels all have variations of time and characters and symbolism. But still, the idea of others in Jerusalem being frightened about the news of the birth of this child is intriguing.

Why frightened – when the birth of the Messiah should have been a cause to rejoice? Why frightened – when the arrival of wise men from afar could have been like the circus coming to town? In those days the idea of three men on their own camels traveling alone from another country would be unimaginable. They’d have traveled with an entourage, armed men as protectors against desert robbers, families perhaps, other animals for food and the portage of tents and other necessities. They may have made quite an entrance into Jerusalem. They got an audience with the king, so they must have had credentials.

Well, we don’t know any of this, and it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point of this passage. Matthew uses this story to establish that Jesus is the Messiah and as a prologue to establishing Jesus’ ministry in the following chapters. He uses this story also to show that Jesus’ ministry is to all God’s people. The wise men would have been gentiles. The shepherds would have been the poor. Jesus would later challenge the religious leaders by saying tax collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom before them. That alone could cause the leaders to be fearfully angry.

But fear – that’s still intriguing, especially as we hear this wonderful story of Jesus as a baby again. The whole idea of wise men, shepherds, angels, a star, our Christmas card version of a cozy, very clean stable (as if there is such a thing), gold, frankincense, and myrrh gives us such a beautiful picture, a magical picture, that we might be tempted to stay with that picture and not look further to what we might reflect on about ourselves.

So, fear. Who should be afraid? Well, not the faithful, not the remnant of Israel as our reading from Jeremiah tells us. The Old Testament reading talked about redemption and restoration for those who had been scattered. While this isn’t a prophesy about Jesus’ birth, it does remind us that God never forsakes God’s people. Even if they have turned from God and have been scattered, the faithful and those who repent will be led by God’s own hand out of sorrow into joy, out of hardship into comfort. Among the remnant will be the blind, the lame, and those with children – they have no need to fear. The poor, the helpless, the marginalized have no need to fear. Generations later, it’s the same. God takes on human flesh and comes to dwell among God’s people as a child. No fear here.

Awe perhaps, and awe has been used as a synonym for fear. This awe is described so beautifully by John Donne in his poem “Annunciation.” He calls the pregnancy of Mary “immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.” That one phrase just explodes with beauty and wonder. To begin that same poem Donne wrote, “Salvation to all that will is nigh.” Here may be what this passage from Matthew could teach us.

“Salvation to all that will …”

Salvation is certainly offered to all, but not all seek God’s truth or accept the free gift of grace. That should be no surprise to us. We see too much evil in the world today, even in this wonderful Christmas season. We see our own governments pandering to the powerful and ignoring the powerless. We see too many in our own church giving lip service to caring for all God’s people, while putting energy into seeking ways to marginalize many and destroy unity.

Children living on the street, family farmers being run out of business by an oppressive economy, humanitarian aid being the first thing cut from a country’s budget, workers losing jobs and often homes while CEOs retire with golden parachutes: these things should give us real cause to fear, just as the arrival of the wise men dropping the truth of God’s incarnation right into Herod’s lap made him fear.

Our fear, however, shouldn’t be a fear of God turning away from us. It should perhaps be the fear that we could be tempted to feel so overwhelmed by all we see in our world today that we might just give up trying to witness to a different way of living as godly people. Fear could make us close our eyes and pretend all is well. Another English poet, T.S. Eliot, in his magnificent poem “The Journey of the Magi” had one of the magi describe this feeling of being overwhelmed by what they returned to after seeing the Christ child:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

If we take seriously all that the Incarnation calls us to, we might also find that we’re no longer at ease in our own “old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” We must ask ourselves, who or what inhabits our old dispensation, our old lives.

Can we see who or what in our lives are an “alien people clutching their gods?” Like that wise man, we should be uneasy with some of what we see around us. Our fear of what we see should – instead of paralyzing us – empower us, propel us forward into doing something. A response to God’s free gift of grace will turn fear into the kind of deep joy we associate with the story of the wise men. That doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Eliot’s wise man talked about the journey to Bethlehem.

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

The whispering that this journey might be all folly could have been a real source of fear for that wise man. But they kept on, and in the end:

… arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again.

Our collect for today offers us a wonderful prayer to help us as we reflect on our fears, but more hopefully on how we might respond to God’s invitation to affect for good the world we live in.

“Oh God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him, who humbled himself to share our humanity.”

What greater thing could we ask? May it be so for us all.

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Christopher Sikkema

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