Hope Overshadows Fear: A Christmas Sermon

A sermon given on December 24, 2021 by the Rev. Teri Daily…

Merry Christmas! This is our second pandemic Christmas, and some of us have had trouble knowing what exactly it looks like to wish one another merriment this year. I usually picture a “merry” Christmas as one marked by large gatherings, hugs from family members we don’t see every day, and crowded dining room tables loaded down with turkey, dressing, green bean casserole, and pie. Many of us dreamed of just this kind of Christmas. And then omicron arrived on the scene – crashing our Christmas parties and bringing our fears once again to the foreground. Covid-19 has claimed more than 800,000 lives in the US over the past two years, and almost five and a half million lives worldwide. We are not yet at the end of Covid, and we are coming to the realization that whatever the “end of the pandemic” might look like, it will probably be a new normal and not a return to the way things were before. In the midst of such discouragement, what does it mean to “celebrate” Christmas? Maybe Luke gives us a clue.

For Luke, the birth of Jesus is grounded in the socio-political reality of first century Palestine. Luke makes a valiant effort to locate the incarnation in space and time. Unfortunately, his account has caused headaches for many a New Testament scholar. First, there is no record of a census for the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Second, the Roman system of registration did not require that a family return to the place where they were born or to the land where their family originated. Third, while today’s reading states that this occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria, in the previous chapter Luke writes that the annunciation of John the Baptist’s birth (and presumably that of Jesus’ birth, too) happened “in the days of Herod” (1:5). The problem is that the reign of Herod the Great did not overlap with Quirinius’ governorship.[1]

There are reasons (other than just a faulty memory for dates) that may account for why Luke told the story the way he did. But that’s not the point of this sermon. What is important is that Luke recognizes that when God enters history in this babe born in a stable, God inevitably enters a specific socio-political reality – one characterized by political oppression and the fear such domination brings.

Israel was no stranger to oppression. From Egypt to Assyria to Babylon, Greece, and Rome – the Israelites had lived under foreign rule most of their existence. Our reading from Isaiah, containing some of the most well-known verses in the Hebrew scriptures, is believed to have been written as the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already begun to fall to the Assyrians. It speaks of a child who is descended from David and who will rule with justice, righteousness, and peace. Isaiah prophesies: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” God comes to a people in trouble, a people who walk in darkness.

Our readings for this most holy of nights remind us that God doesn’t wait until things are perfect to come to us. In fact, to do so would be antithetical to what Christmas is all about, because Christmas is the story of a people who walk in fear and darkness being suddenly “ambushed by hope.”[2] Hope bursts upon the scene for a young woman and her husband as she gives birth in difficult conditions far from home. In a nation that has waited expectantly for hundreds of years for its deliverance, light blazes in the night sky and an angelic announcement stirs up in these shepherds enough hope that they go in search of the promised Messiah – a vulnerable newborn lying in a manger.

At Christmas, the place of fear becomes the place of hope. God takes over the storyline[3] – making the impossible possible by God’s very presence, bringing the promise of peace into the midst of messy, imperfect, and chaotic lives.

See, Christmas doesn’t happen despite tragedy, uncertainty, and fears that loom large – despite gnawing anxiety or paralyzing grief. The deepest truth of Christmas is that God comes to us in the very midst of all this – transforming the storyline, pointing us to the kingdom of heaven, overshadowing our fears with light, showing us a vision of the future so very different from the one we fear, and making that impossible future possible.[4]

On this second pandemic Christmas – when we are discouraged and longing for change, beset by both fear and a lingering hope – perhaps we are closer to the circumstances of that first Christmas than it seems at first glance.

And so how do we celebrate Christmas in such a time as this? In the Incarnation, in coming among us as a vulnerable newborn, God shows us how to live in this imperfect time and in every imperfect time. Instead of giving in to despair and fear and uncertainty, let our life, our actions, be guided by that great love – a love which is always willing to be born yet again in this world, a love that transforms every storyline, even our own.

Madeline L’Engle puts it best in her poem, The Risk of Birth:

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & truth were trampled to scorn—
Yet here did the Savior make His home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

[1] These historical observations come from R. Alan Culpepper’s “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume VIII, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015 (47).

[2] Michael Gerson, “The Christmas story is a source of hope, even for the grieving,” The Kansas City Star, December 24, 2017, https://account.kansascity.com/paywall/subscriber-only?resume=191304239&intcid=ab_archive.

[3] Based on a phrase in Michael Gerson’s article above.

[4] Lisa Cressman explores the idea that, in Jesus, fear is turned to hope and we see a new future. Lisa Cressman, “Three Christmas Sermon Themes for a Pandemic Christmas,” Backstory Preaching, December 13, 2020, https://www.backstorypreaching.com/blog/three-christmas-sermon-themes.

Hope Overshadows Fear: A Christmas Sermon
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