Hopes and Fears

baby JesusWe gather to celebrate another Christmas, to proclaim the wondrous gift, to acknowledge the hopes and also the fears that are met in this birth. In the silent darkness of this night, let us consider the hopes and fears of this world. In the stillness of this night, let us imagine that we are in the fields, under the stars, speaking with the shepherds before the angels arrive, asking them, “For what do you hope?” As they struggle to express their thoughts, we shall hear their fears as well. For what do shepherds of the third shift hope? To win the lottery, hit the jackpot, pick the winner. Shepherds hope for that which remains always beyond their reach, always impossible unless they get lucky, strike it rich. And if you ask a shepherd what hitting the lottery means he might well reply, “To pay off all my debts, get medical treatment for daughter’s withered hand, buy a nice house and pretty clothes for my wife, get some respect and security and protection.” If you pushed shepherds to summarize their hope in one word, I suspect they’d stammer, “We want to be happy.”

In the stillness of this night, let us imagine we are on a lonely road, walking among camels, interviewing the wise men before they get to Bethlehem. For what would wise men hope? Remember these were not kings, but Iranian astrologers; astrologers who believed worldly affairs are controlled by the movements of heavenly bodies, silent stars, and cold planets; astrologers who explored the signs of the zodiac. I imagine they hoped “to solve the secrets of the universe.” We laugh because we know they will never find the knowledge they seek with their methods, but if we asked them what solving the secrets of the universe meant, they probably would reply as a twentieth century astronomer might, “to answer all the questions people ask so we shall never again make an error, to predict the future so everyone is prepared, to overcome barriers so even the least among us can attain her potential.” If we asked them to summarize their hopes in one word, I suspect they would reply “We seek truth.”

In the darkness of this night, let us imagine we are in a lavish royal palace conversing with King Herod. For what would an oriental king hope? Possibly, for law and order. When we pushed Herod for particulars he might ask us to understand that he is trying to do a good job with very little help. If shepherds want security, then they had better cooperate because there can be no security if everyone pursues his own hope. If the Wisemen want to pursue their version of truth, then they had better accept his order because right now people with other versions of truth seek control. And if God wants to remain silent, then he certainly wants people to obey their government, to be careful so they do not lose that for which they have worked so hard. If he could summarize his hopes in one word, I suspect he would claim, “I work for peace”.

These hopes and fears of the shepherds, wisemen, and Herods among us meet in Jesus’ birth; meet and are thoroughly transformed by this holy child. The wondrous gift is beyond the expectations of mortals.

There is a small etching by Rembrandt which portrays the angel in a burst of light making the announcement to the shepherds. At this point, they are diving for cover. Shepherds dig under logs, cows bolt off the edges of the etching, sheep scurrying about in confusion. It is as if all creation has been awakened from a deep, dreamless sleep, thoroughly taken by surprise, frightened by God’s new gift. And Rembrandt might have thought it shocked heaven as well because angels and cherubim tumble and whirl out of control in the sky. The heavenly host seems baffled by God’s wondrous act, not sure to rejoice or fear. The only peaceful person in the picture is the fat, matronly angel, serenely reading the glad tidings “to you is born a savior in the little town of Bethlehem.” You get the idea that immediately after the angels left, a shepherd poked his head from the top of a hole, from between leaves, and remarked, “Well, I don’t think it’s exactly like hitting the lottery, but let’s go to Bethlehem and see what God has given us.”

And there, they found the blessings of heaven. God who usually remains so silent in this world speaks “I love the shepherd in you, I love the Wiseman in you, I love the Herod in you. Lay down your cares; lay down your fears lay down your most precious assumptions; lay down every one of your weapons. Deny yourself and follow me. Lose your life in me and you shall find it.”

And part of the shepherd in us sings “ Yes, yes. This is what I have waited for. Happiness is to walk with God and do his will.” And part of the shepherd in us cries, “No, no. This is not at all for what I hoped. This happiness does not save me from pain.”

Part of the Wiseman in us calls out, “Yes, yes. This is truth. To know truth is to share the life of this completely loving person.” And part of us screams, “No, no. This person does not solve but rather deepens the mystery of life. He leaves so many unanswered questions.”

Part of the Herod in us proclaims “Yes, yes. This is he who brings order from chaos. Peace is giving myself to this Christ and his law.” And part of us denies, “No, no. I shall not give up what I have. Never. To surrender to this love is to give up too much.”

We gather to celebrate another Christmas, to proclaim God’s wondrous gift, to acknowledge all of our hopes and also all of our fears that meet in this silent birth. To offer thanks for God’s coming to us in Jesus, in whom we’ve found so much happiness, so much truth, and so much peace. But also to confess we have found profound challenge and great demand in his coming. He reveals hidden thoughts, incites great joys, provokes deep fears. And so as we give thanks to God for this Christmas gift, we also pray with great trembling, “Cast out our sins. Enter in. Be born again. Be born in us today.”

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