by Mike Clymer
December 17, 2006
When the Wise Men saw the star of Christmas, the star of the Christ-child, rise in the east, they were inspired. They were so inspired, so filled with hope, that they embarked on what must have been a very long journey to find the child, to worship the newborn Christ. Somehow they knew, didn’t they? They knew the significance of what had happened that night, in the cosmos, in the world, in Bethlehem, in a manger. They brought gifts fit not for an infant, but for a king. They understood who Jesus was. The Bible says when they saw the star, which led them to Jesus, they were overjoyed. When they saw the child with his mother Mary, they bowed down and worshiped him – the Messiah, the realization of their hopes.
Unfortunately, on the way to finding the Christ-child, they stopped to ask directions in Jerusalem. When King Herod the Great heard that they were looking for the newborn king of the Jews, he responded quite differently than the Magi – he was disturbed. He was so disturbed, so filled with fear, that he embarked on a plan to kill the Christ-child. When the Wise Men never came back and told him where Jesus was (they had been warned in a dream not to), Herod gave orders to murder all the boys in the Bethlehem region who might have been born around the same time as the Messiah. Of course Jesus and his family had escaped to Egypt by that time, again warned by an angel in a dream. Whereas the Wise Men had responded to the Christ’s birth with hope and joy, Herod responded with fear and violence.
The two primary, fundamental motivations that drive us are love and fear. You might reflect on whether or not you agree with that statement. The love I mean is agape love – the love that is concerned for the well-being of all, the love expressed in I Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not boast, it is not proud…”), God’s love as stated in John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world…”) – the love manifested in the birth of Jesus. This is the love that Lisa talked about in her sermon a few weeks ago – the love that offers grace as the solution in difficult situations, that gives us hope for tomorrow. When we are motivated by love – those are the times we are at our best; when we know God’s Spirit is upon us. We have an innate sense that actions motivated by love bring glory to God; these are the most generous, most worshipful things we do-not unlike the Wise Men’s journey to find the Christ.
If you are like me, you pray to be guided by that love, by God’s love, all the time. But I recognize that the other great motivation in life is fear. I’m shocked, frankly, when I consider how much of what I do is driven by fear of one sort or another: fear of illness or death, fear of pain or suffering, fear of failure or humiliation, fear of poverty or lack of control, fear of loneliness or exclusion. And those are just a few of the obvious ones for me. Many of our fears are difficult if not almost impossible to identify – and our unnamed fears are often the most powerful ones of all. Fear might sometimes motivate us to do constructive things, like buckle our seatbelts, or study for our tests, or pay our bills on time, but just as often fear pushes us in darker, more destructive directions. Much of the violence in our lives, and in our world, is rooted in fear. Whereas agape love is expansive and generous and gracious, fear is by its nature selfish – concerned with me and those closest to me. As powerful a force as fear can be, its effect on us is to make us smaller, meaner. Too often, when we are motivated by fear we are at our worst, not unlike Herod as he furiously gave the order to slaughter so many innocents.
Just as I wish for myself that I would respond more often out of God’s love rather than selfish fear, so do I pray that our world would choose the way of the Wise Men rather than the way of Herod. But these are fearful times, and we live in a fearful society; we are much consumed these days by terror, and terrorism. And in fact the September 11 attacks five years ago were designed not only to kill thousands of innocent people, but to spread fear among the rest of us. Too often our political leaders are ready and willing to exploit those very fears in order to garner support for policies or to win elections, thus perpetuating a rather dismaying cycle of suspicion, accusation, and fear-mongering in which it is usually our basest instincts that are appealed to, rather than our highest ideals. We even have a color-coded “terror alert” system that tells us just how fearful we should be. In the midst of such pervasive, manipulative fear it is tempting to assume that we have no choice but to live fearfully. Yet we Christians know better, don’t we? We know about agape love; we know that God’s grace can break those cycles of fear and violence; we know that our security and our hope are based not on military might or economic power but on the birth of that Christ-child in a dusty manger in Bethlehem. And further we know that there is always a choice – a fundamental choice – to give in to our fears, or to hold on to our hope that God’s way is love.
So how do we enter the heart of this Christmas season, some 2000 years after the event that inspired such different responses from the Wise Men and King Herod? Ostensibly this is the season of hope and good cheer, a time of celebrating love and generosity, a chance to spend meaningful time with friends and family in recognition of God’s great gift to us. And yet… we carry our fears with us into this season as well, don’t we? Statistically, we know that the holiday season usually brings a rise in rates of anxiety and depression, even suicide, in the population. We know it can be among the busiest, most pressure-filled, most stressful times of the year. The commercialization of Christmas on TV and in shopping malls all too easily drowns out the authentic message of Jesus’s profoundly humble birth. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find the cumulative effect of all this “festivity” can inspire more selfishness than generosity, more weariness than joy. If anything the fears and anxieties that drive us throughout the year may be heightened (consciously or unconsciously) at Christmas.
But what happened that night in Bethlehem was important, as the Wise Men knew; it was something definitely still worth celebrating 2000 years later. God changed the world with love and generosity, and in the process God freed us from all our fears. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds that night. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” And the heavenly host joined in the chorus, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” This was God’s cosmic response to his lost creation. This was his personal response to each little lost sheep. To a world of violence, God offered peace. To a world of selfishness, God offered generosity. To a world of brokenness, God offered healing. To a world of fear, God offered hope.
In the years between Christ’s birth in Bethlehem and Jesus’s adult ministry, it was John the Baptist’s job to prepare the way for the Messiah, to explain to the people what God was up to, to get them ready. In Luke 3, as John is preaching, he keeps getting asked the question, “What should we do?” His responses are interesting: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, he tells them: The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, the one with food should do the same, tax collectors should not collect more than required, soldiers should not extort money or accuse people falsely, be content with your pay. The common threads in all these very practical suggestions are to live generously and honestly and thankfully. This is the opposite of living fearfully. Again, we see that God’s gift of Jesus – the gift of love, the freedom from fear – though freely offered, nonetheless provides us with the choice of how to respond. Do we recognize Jesus as the Christ, God’s generosity incarnate, and live our lives motivated by grace and hope? Are we Wise Men and Women, or do we succumb, like Herod, to our fears?
If we journey, like Wise Men and Women, to find the Christ-child this Christmas season, perhaps we don’t bring with us offerings of gold, incense, and myrrh, but perhaps we carry with us the fears that bind us, weigh us down, narrow our vision and harden our hearts. Fears based on past experiences, fears springing from present difficulties, fears imagined in the future. Fears to offer to the King, to the one who can free us from all our fears. Listen to the promises of Zephaniah 3: “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm… Do not fear, O Zion… The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” The birth of Jesus represents the realization of those promises, the establishment of a new covenant between a loving God and his beloved creation, the source of all our hopes.
- “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”