Read the text: St. Luke 2:1-20
Do Not Be Afraid
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.
And with those three simple sentences Luke sets the scene for the birth of Jesus, and it is a scene of darkness, hopelessness and fear. Over the many years since the time of Jesus we have lost this sense of darkness, instead we tell a version of this story which has a faithful and dutiful holy couple, a clean stable, fresh and happy shepherds and devout kings. But this version of the story misses the point in so many ways. Luke wants us to understand that this was a difficult time and Mary and Joseph’s lives were hard, as were the lives of everyone else living in 1st century Palestine. Indeed only a few years later the Romans would punish dissent by destroying the city of Sephorris, which was visible from Nazareth. The heavy hand of Rome was resting upon this region and it was Quirinius’ job to maintain the Pax Romana – the “peace of Rome” which is imposed peace through violence. Of course Joseph and everyone else headed off to wherever they are order to go for this tax census – they had no choice.
The shepherds had it particularly rough. The life of a shepherd was a hard life. Most people invested all of their wealth in livestock, so these sheep and goats would have been someone’s entire possessions. These shepherds “abiding in the field, watching their flocks by night,” would have been hired hands. The work was dirty and dangerous, especially at night. Because of the dirtiness of the job shepherds were excluded from the Temple rituals and considered untouchables. These were people on the margins – poor, destitute and excluded. But these are the ones to whom the angels appear, for these shepherds represent all of those who sit in darkness and fear and for whom Christ comes.
The darkness, hopelessness and fear have not left us. This past year has been a particularly dark year. Just here at the close of 2014 we have climbing poverty rates in the US, even people who are employed at minimum wage cannot afford basics like food, clothing and shelter; protests in Ferguson, MO and around the country have raised again the issues of racism even as violence has erupted in some communities; ISIS and other extremist groups have been growing and have been notable for their brutality; at the same time there are simmering conflicts in places like Africa, Israel and Ukraine; and if that weren’t enough, North Korea has launched a cyber attack on a movie studio because they didn’t like a particular movie. And this is at a national level, closer to home many of us have our own personal darkness with which we struggle. These issues include dealing with grief and loss, illness, alcoholism, domestic abuse, depression and on and on.
It is into this world that the angels come and speak to us: 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. It is into this world of darkness that God enters in Jesus in order to illumine from inside; it is into this world of hopelessness that God comes in Jesus to bring hope; it is into this world of fear that God comes bringing the gift of faith and it is into this world, with all its problems and darkness and struggle and sorrow and pain that God comes in Jesus, bringing comfort and joy and offering us peace. Not the pax Romana kind of peace – no, Jesus brings to us a different kind of peace. Jesus offers to us shalom – complete well-being and unity, light and life and hope. The kind of peace that rejects violence as a solution, the kind of peace that doesn’t have to deny the darkness but rather accepts the reality of the darkness in our world and lives, and brings light to it from within. The kind of peace that recognizes that we are all human brothers and sisters and that we must find ways of not being afraid of each other, but of embracing each other – especially those most different from us.
This is what Christmas is all about, friends. This is what incarnation is all about. It is not just a fancy theological word we pull out around Christmas to dust off in order to sound, well, theological. Incarnation is the way God works in the world. Incarnation is the way of the cross. Incarnation is a way of discipleship.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…” Mark 8:34-36
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” Luke 2:14