Be Not Afraid (aka, What if-?)
"Let not your heart be troubled, Be Not Afraid.
Heaven and earth have been gathered, Be Not Afraid."
- Advent sending song and Christmas Eve welcome song, LNPC 2014
|Christmas Eve at LNPC, photo by Maggie Cochrane|
Imagine you are God, and you love this gorgeous world you’ve made, and especially you adore all these creatures made in your image, to care for each other and this world.
Imagine you’ve made it all to work together in this crazy, intricate, symbiotic relationship, where nobody is able to do it alone, and everyone needs each other, and all have a part to play, and the animals and plants and human beings are interconnected in this giant web of teeming, joy-filled life that fills you with delight.
Only, the humans get afraid.
Afraid that maybe you won’t accept them the way they are, and you’ll want them to do or be something different first.
Afraid that maybe the person on the left and right might actually be better, more important, than they are.
Afraid that in fact there isn’t enough to go around, so they’d better grab what they can even if it means someone else doesn’t get any.
Afraid that someone will take what is theirs or hurt them, so they start taking what is others and hurting others instead.
Maybe they get so afraid that they start putting up all sorts of walls between themselves, these walls even get inside themselves, so the parts of them that seem weak or ugly, the parts that make them cringe and cry, the hopeless, helpless parts, they tamp down and bottle up and cover over and make themselves appear stronger, better, more sure than they really are because it is dangerous to be weak, and terrifying to be vulnerable.
Maybe they start devising ways to tell who is better than others, and who is not worth even considering, who can’t be trusted and who should be shunned, who is most a threat and who is most a target.
And all this is so frightening that they set up some systems and beliefs and procedures to bring some clarity to what is expected, and how to get there, how to avoid what is harmful and chase after what can make them more secure and less scared, and pretty soon they are living completely dictated by it all and disconnected from you, each other, even themselves. And while it’s exhausting, and overwhelming, and all-demanding, at least it’s familiar, and the rules of the game, while harsh, are at least clear, so they persist, and the lies dig deeper and the fear gets bigger and so it goes.
Imagine you try to get through to them. To tell them it’s not like this. To tell them they’ve got it wrong. That you already love and choose them, that they already belong. And that you don’t want them to be strong and independent, you want them to be real and interdependent. That there is enough for all, and that they all need each other, and nobody is better than any other, and it’s all meant to work in connection and not division.
Imagine that you try to show them that their sadness is as welcome as their happiness, and their anger is a gift that points them to truth, and that no matter what they do, even when they lose sight of what’s real and hurt others or themselves, none of that can separate them from you because you heal what’s sick and mend what’s broken and welcome home what’s lost. That the point of it all is to be connected to you and one another, and to join in life in the world you love.
You try to tell them in gift and abundance, sharing all that you have and inviting them to share it with you. And they turn instead to fear and suspicion, blaming each other and you and hiding from your love.
They start competing and killing and destroying, and it gets so ugly, and evil, and feels so lost that you decide to wipe it all out and start over. But you love them too much to end it completely, and you see that they will not really change, so you decide that no matter how much they keep turning away from you and hurting each other, you will never give up on them, so you make promises and invite trust again.
And while they keep on turning to fear instead of love, you choose one family, through whom to bless the whole world, one family who will live in connection to you and invite everyone else into that connection and love, your proxy, your community of welcome.
But the fear creeps on and the division grows stronger and they declare enemies and battle and enslave each other, and so you send plagues and promises and part waters and provide in wilderness, and bring freedom and order, and describe for them what life in relationship with you and each other looks like: that you are the one who holds their life, and in your way all have enough, and nobody has to live in fear. You tell the people they no longer are bound in the way of fear, but are free instead to follow your way – the way they were wired to live after all.
And they find themselves living between your way and the way of fear, returning again to the relentless pursuit of more and the acceptance of less, and the way of fear grows within them and spreads like cancer, continuing to divide and devastate, so you send messengers who speak in poetry and prophesy, and you send leaders who bring guidance and wisdom and honest songs of praise and lament, and who also fall themselves into the pursuit of power, prestige and possessions as their source of security, and so both succeed and also fail spectacularly to embody your message of love.
And on it goes, until you decide the way to communicate your true intent, the only way to undermine all the false beliefs they have created, and expose the powers they’ve erected to enslave themselves, the way to show them the love it’s all grounded in and leading to, is to embody it yourself.
To come right into it with them.
The loneliness, the isolation, the divisions and the deceit, the lies that bind them tight, and fear that keeps them captive to violence and discord, you will go there and join them in all of that.
But you’re not going to go in the way they would expect or respect. If the world wants power and might, you’re going to come in vulnerability and weakness. If they venerate those with stature and prestige, you’re going to come to the poor and the overlooked. If they think it is about what they can earn or prove, you will choose the unsuspecting ordinary, and you will come in unexplainable mystery.
And instead of appearing to the confident and the respectable, you will hang out with the doubters and the stumblers, the ones who can’t fake it. Those up against their own humanity will be nearest to your transcendence. This is how you’re going to come in.
Into their fear, that keeps them in striving and struggle, you’re bringing peace.
Into their fear, that plots and plans and guards and hedges, you’re bringing hope.
Into their fear, that layers things in apathy, and seeks shallow pleasure in greed and consumption, you’re bringing joy.
Into their fear, that makes them hide in self-protection and lash out in hate, you are bringing love.
But you’re going to do it in upside down and backwards, foolish absurdity.
You’re going to break the rules wide open.
And so the time arrives…
The congregation told the story of Christmas in readings, carols, drama and music, young and old together sharing in the telling, using Luke 1:26-38, Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:39-56, Luke 2:1-20.
So, there we have it. Our foolish, absurd and glorious story, that God enters in to claim the world in love. And we ended things there on a pretty big claim, a cosmic from the very the beginning promise, that the light has come that the darkness cannot put out. And now it’s time to wrap it up neatly, so I guess we have a choice, tonight, you and I.
We can take this as a quaint, if not bizarre, traditional story, a sentimental habit, sing our carols, light our candles, and go home to the rest of our Christmas Eve plans. Nobody would think twice about it, if that’s what we did. It’s all that’s expected, really. The only real logical move with this story we pull off the shelf once a year to page through the faded pictures wistfully until the moment passes, and real life with real reality resumes, and we move on without a second glance.
But I want to suggest another idea.
What if we don’t wrap it up and put it away? What if we linger in the what if of this preposterous story? Poke with our finger this astounding claim, that in Jesus Christ, God is with us? What if there is a God whose love is so relentlessly for us, that God came into all this alongside us?
What if this were true?
What if God already loves and choose you and you already belong? And what if you’re not meant to be strong and independent, but real and interdependent? What if there really is enough? And we all really do need each other? And it’s designed to work in connection and not division? What if our sadness is as welcome as our happiness, and our anger is a gift that points us to truth?
What if, no matter what we do, even when we lose sight of what’s real and hurt others or ourselves, none of that can separate us from God, who heals what’s sick and mends what’s broken and welcomes home what’s lost? What if, the point of it all is to be connected to God and one another, and to join in life in the world God loves?
What if, in Jesus Christ, the whole trajectory of things is forever bent back toward God; all things are moving toward their completion, redemption, and wholeness, and you and I are held within this, so that even in the darkest times, when death is breathing down our necks, there is still something greater holding us fast, never letting us go? What if we can, from time to time, walk the weak and foolish way of God, even in the midst of the way of fear that seems so big and powerful?
Sisters and brothers, picture for a moment that this is so: that into our fear, that keeps us in striving and struggle, Jesus brings peace.
“Not as the world brings”, he says, “Let not your hearts be troubled, nor let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Into our fear, that plots and plans and guards and hedges, Jesus brings hope, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” calls the author of Hebrews. (Heb 6:18)
Into our fear, that layers things in apathy, and seeks shallow pleasure in greed and consumption, Jesus brings joy.
You show me the path of life” sings the Psalmist. “In your presence there is fullness of joy...” (ps 16:11)
And into our fear, that makes us hide in self-protection and lash out in hate, Jesus brings love.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The Apostle Paul asks, “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
What an outrageous claim!
What if it’s true?
If it’s true, then it is possible that God is always breaking in like we’d never expect or respect. If it’s true, then the Holy One is actually encountered, not in power and might, but in vulnerability and weakness, and not through stature and prestige, but alongside the poor and the overlooked. Everyday, it’s possible that God does meet us in the unsuspecting ordinary and unexplainable mystery, breaking the rules wide open.
If it’s true, then the place to find Jesus, really and truly and actually, isn’t with the confident and strong, but hanging out with the doubters and the stumblers, the ones who can’t fake it. The place to see Jesus, the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome, is up against our own humanity, the doorway to transcendence is right there, in our own raw, and unpolished lives, where God is with us, bearing our pain and sharing our joy, and we can see God with us when we are with and for each other.
And if it’s true, then in upside down, backwards, foolish and absurd ways, quietly and steadfastly, God is turning the world around.
So why not stay open to this Christmas moment for a little bit longer, and see what might come of it? Why not hold still in the what if of all this for a while more, and see if God shows up?