The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s005g09 Christmass 25/12/2009
'do not be afraid' Luke 2.10
Right at the beginning of the gospel story, the angels seek to reassure these nameless shepherds remembered for 2000 years and no doubt for another 2000 years, if we last that long, but eternally nameless. We rejoice at Christmass that God was incarnated into ordinary humanity. Christian tradition has elevated Joseph and especially Mary to a status way beyond that of ordinary humanity, yet it was as ordinary human beings that they fulfilled their part in God's plan of salvation. Jesus was born of ordinary peasant stock, into a carpenter's family. The shepherds were not praying in the Temple, they were doing their ordinary jobs, doing the night shift. God comes to ordinary people doing their ordinary day to day things. And suddenly we realise that these are precisely the people God favours. God has a preference for the poor and non-religious, and it was precisely this preference that Jesus repeatedly practiced throughout his life, that led him into hot water with those who believed that they were the only ones favoured by God. God has a preference for those who are not on their knees but are getting on with the jobs they have to do to provide food and shelter for themselves, those they love and making their contribution to society.
Ordinary people do not have to fear. The ones who have to fear are those who believe themselves to be in an especially privileged relationship with God, not because God is going to strike them down, but because the Christmass story reveals this as entirely untrue.
I recoil at the oft repeated mantra: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' because the proclamation of the good news seems to be logically disconnected with getting people to fear God. But, of course, in the usual gospel way of turning things upside down and inside out, the good news is that 'ordinary' people do not have to fear. The ones who have to fear are the religious, those who believe that they are in a particularly special relationship with God that they alone do not have to fear. And they have to fear, not the wrath of God, but the fact that they will have to accept the company of others.
I have sometimes reflected that God called me to be a priest because it is me that needs to hear the good news more than anyone else. It is me that needs to hear my sermons, to trust and to be a part of this world. So the words: 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' are written not as graffiti on walls for all to read, but in sacred texts for the religious to read, again and again, and take notice of.
Time and again, when people fall on their faces meeting the Almighty they are lifted to their feet. Their primal dignity to stand rather than grovel before the Almighty is restored and to use their God-given brains rather than complying is affirmed. All this is summed up in those words: 'do not be afraid'. Time and again, the church seems to prefer to keep people on their knees and of course we make a virtue of obedience.
Often I reflect that when I was brought up 'children were to be seen and not heard'. I don't think that I personally particularly suffered as much as some others. But even this very prevalent dictum kept young people fearful. Parents would chastise young people, 'lest they get too big for their boots'. How very different from the message of the angels! And I then reflect with some gladness that my own sons were encouraged to stand up and make their own contribution. This was especially true in their schooling which was public, not church-based. And it is lovely to see how more academically qualified, socially adept and confident they are than ever I was at their age. I don't want to go back to the good old days, thank you very much!
One of the important words Jesus spoke was that he came to be 'a servant of all' and this so defined his ministry that his opposition charged him with 'deferring to no one' when, of course, they actually wanted him to defer to them.
Jesus comes to those of us who lead ordinary lives amongst ordinary people with the message to not be afraid. This will instantly result in those who believe they have a special relationship with the Almighty being piqued that their presumed special relationship is worthless, because all are included.
And despite the fact that our names are never remembered, we too know that God comes to us as we too live our ordinary lives, doing our jobs, even if on the night shift.
We might care to think of those people who are working today the doctors, nurses and the police immediately spring to my mind. These keep society functioning, responding to needs of others, often due to neglect or alcohol. How many patients want to be home for Christmass, with nary a thought that the doctors and nurses might well want to do likewise! How many police would prefer to be celebrating with their families rather than scraping people up from off the road!
The other thing that springs to mind is that perception that Christmass is for children. Certainly Christmass is for children that they do not have to fear. But the Christmass message is equally to adults, that children ought not to have to fear. The Christmass message is as much to 'christians' that Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, those with indigenous spiritualities or whatever need not fear. The Christmass message is as much to 'christians' that those who are going about their own business, providing for themselves, those they love and making their contribution to the well being of society have no need to fear regardless of their faith or lack thereof. The Christmass message is as much to 'christians', that their task is to not be like some in Thessalonica, who Paul noted were: 'mere busybodies, not doing any work.' He advised: 'Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.' 2 Thess 3.11,12
But it might be asked, how will those who don't come to worship ever hear the message that they need not fear? Well, there are some things that I am entirely certain about, and one is that while the church continues to be fragmented and self absorbed, others will see that this has nothing to do with the living God. Another is that while the church spends her energies **challenging** others, piously thinking that they are loving others, (often people who think this consider this especially scriptural one wonders why the word 'challenge' appears in my Bible only once and it is quite the opposite of 'love') people will not hear the gospel message that they do not have to fear.
Jesus was not born in a palace or a temple, to one or other of the 'movers and shakers' in the secular or religious society of his day. Jesus was born to ordinary peasant parents, to say to all who are of ordinary peasant stock: 'do not be afraid'. We of ordinary peasant stock have nothing to fear from God. James gets the message right when he writes: 'Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?' (2.6,7)
Jesus' birth ought to be an affront to all who call themselves religious, otherwise we may well be charged with not actually believing it for it turns our attention towards others and our need to consider others as blessed as ourselves.
The gospel is precisely that no one has to fear, except if we fear being in the company of others.
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