The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL)
The Savior cares for our fears
“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
1. Sources of fear today
More than ever, the angel’s words, “Fear not,” sound strange to our ears. All around us it seems we have much more to fear than last year. On a global scale, economic uncertainty abounds. Huge financial institutions collapse, stock markets plummet and fortunes are wiped out. How many pensioners will be made penniless? How many children will go hungry? How many laborers will lose their jobs? How poor must the poor get before human greed is reigned in?
I was recently in Tanzania, where I saw with my own eyes the effects of global climate change. The “Great White Mountain” is becoming less white. The snows of Kilimanjaro are melting as the temperature of the world increases. How many glaciers will disappear? How many more Hurricane Katrinas will wipe out the homes of the disadvantaged? How many sea-level civilizations will drown before we cease our senseless polluting, which has led to the global warming crisis?
Though the world’s nations seem unable to make the necessary decisions, they are united in fear. Will there be real change, as politicians promise? Will the war-torn countries of the world, such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Congo, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Columbia and Palestine, ever see peace? How many walls of fear must be erected? How many innocent lives will be lost? How many parents in Gaza will burn clothing and furniture before the siege will end? Do elections bring to office charismatic, courageous leaders who will work for peace, justice and the common good, or simply use their power to secure their own country’s welfare and comfort?
Such questions were not unknown in ancient times, for the writer of the first book of Timothy sums up the answers with these words: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” At the heart of the crisis confronting our world is the love of money in the form of neo-liberal economics – a set of economic principles that seek to maximize private returns in the shortest possible time. This failed economic model has pushed our world to the brink of financial, political and ecological disaster and has created more fear than ever. As the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, said while receiving his award in December, “The effects of this crisis may prove another setback for the developing world. The very poorest people are already being hit hardest by the impact of climate change, rising food prices and lower level of foreign trade.”
Every where you turn there are more things to fear. In such times, we would do well to turn off the TV and stop listening to news that will only multiply our worries.
But in the midst of this, something unexpected can still happen. For us today, as for the poor and despised shepherds outside Bethlehem, the angels’ words still apply: “Fear not.”
2. Sources of fear during the shepherd’s day
The shepherds in the text knew something of such fears. They were, after all, on guard duty that night. They probably expected the night to pass uneventfully, as it had so many nights before. Yet they were still alert to threats to their charges, such as predators or thieves.
Animal husbandry is work rife with risk and economic uncertainty. The flock could be easily wiped out by disease or predators. The animals could perish in drought or flood. They could starve or stray without careful oversight.
Further, the shepherds were part of a powerless minority people under the rule of a mighty, occupying nation. Perhaps the Roman army had a 1st century version of checkpoints and closures. No doubt whatever methods they used, life under the Romans was difficult.
So the shepherds faced threats on many fronts. That night in the field, the shepherds were prepared for wolves. They were prepared for thieves. But they were not prepared for what happened: Imagine their fear when a messenger of the Lord, shining with God’s glory, appeared to them. And perhaps the idea of a fearsome God coming to earth was not a happy one.
So the first thing the angel says is, “Fear not.” God’s incarnation among you is an occasion of great joy for all people. Though God entered history in a specific time and place, the joy was intended for the shepherds then, for you today, and for all people of all times in all places.
3. Amidst these fears, God became incarnate
In the midst of the night, with threats that creep about under cover of darkness, God became incarnate. The shepherds apparently forgot their concerns about predators and the safety of the sheep, for they agreed to “go see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us.” Perhaps they remembered the ancient prophecies about a coming messiah or were persuaded by the divine messenger. Perhaps they expected this messiah to save them from their economic, ecological or political troubles. All we know is that they believed God had made known to them God’s action in the world and their response was to go themselves to see it.
What did the shepherds find when they arrived at the stable? What they found was a savior not incarnated as a captain of industry or as a Wall Street tycoon to usher in an era of prosperity. The messiah was not incarnated as Mother Nature to restore harmony to the natural order. Nor was he a political messiah to restore the kingdom of Israel.
What they found was a baby – the Creator of the cosmos incarnate as a human baby to be among us, to share all that it means to be human. And at the same time, this baby was divine, sent to deliver a message of divine hope: Fear not.
This baby came to say, Fear not: God has heard the cries of the people. Fear not: God will heal you from your sins. Fear not: the God of justice and compassion acts in history. Fear not: the kingdom of God is at hand. Fear not: God has come to give you hope as you await the day of the Lord and his liberation.
4. Amidst today’s fears, God is still incarnate
The shepherds experienced God incarnate in the midst of their fears. This compels us to look for God in the unexpected in the midst of our fears, where we would least expect or imagine the divine to appear.
Martin Luther called this “Deus absconditus,” the hidden God. Because no one can see God and live, Luther reasoned, God reveals Godself indirectly. Thus, Jesus came not in divine glory and majesty, as one would expect. Instead, Jesus came where you’d least expect him: as a vulnerable baby, amidst the filth of a stable, in a setting of oppression and suffering. In this, God says: Fear not.
So, here we are today, in a time of great distress and fear, when we feel that everything is on the brink of collapsing. Maybe these economic, political and ecological upheavals are signs that God is disturbed by our greed and injustice. Maybe the Lord is trying to tell us that we have trusted our own might and our own post-modern idols. Maybe the hidden God is calling us to repentance – to turn from trusting ourselves to once again trusting God, as the first commandment says. As Luther explains it, a God is one in which you put all your trust. Maybe – no, definitely – we are to stop trusting in the idols of the Nikkei and the Nasdaq and instead trust Christ. We are to “fear not” – to turn from nursing our fears to seeking the living Lord in all that is happening.
Today, the body of Christ is incarnate among us as the church. To trust God does not mean that we – particularly we in the church – have no responsibilities. Indeed, in the midst of all this fear, it is the church’s role to act as a light to dispel the fear. It must fulfill its call to be prophetic, speaking truth to power about the injustice and greed that led to the current situation. It must call for economics with ethics and politics with integrity. It must renew the dignity with which God endowed all humanity. It must seek the equality and acceptance of all. It must work to eradicate poverty and enact justice. It must lead the way to real peace on earth.
Here in Palestine and Israel, fear is no stranger to us. In the very place where the God of peace and justice was incarnate, there is still no peace and justice. Despite the good intentions of the innkeeper, there is still no room for peace and justice at the inn. And still, the angel says, “Fear not.”
We pray that all people in this land hear the angel and do not succumb to fear. In the shadow of a wall, we continue to ignite candles of hope and compassion, friendship and hospitality, for a secure Israel and a free Palestine. Within hearing of house demolitions, we continue in our steadfastness and resilience, to sing praises to the one God. Among religious divisions, we continue to yearn for a united Jerusalem, shared peacefully among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Despite headlines that announce ethnic tensions, Israelis and Palestinians forge cross-cultural friendships and work courageously together toward a shared future. In the face of forces that divide Palestinians, we continue to call for the unity of the nation. And in spite of all indications, we continue to hope that this will be the last Christmas of fear and injustice; that one day all our small candles together will overcome fear and darkness. In this, once again, you can hear the angel say, "Fear not. For unto you a Savior is born.
No one captured the hope of the Palestinian people better than our poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away last August. He wrote the following poem.
We are here near there
We are here near there, thirty doors to a tent.
We are here between pebbles and shadows,
a place for a sound, a place for freedom or
any place that has rolled off a mare or scattered
out of a calling or a bell.
We are here, soon we will puncture this siege,
soon we will liberate a cloud and depart in
ourselves. We are here near there, thirty
doors to a wind, thirty has-beens.
We teach you to see us, know us, hear us,
touch our blood in peace. We teach you our
salaam. We may or may not love the road
to Damascus, Mecca or Kairouan.
We are here in us. A sky for August, a sea for
May, a freedom for a horse, and we ask of
the sea that it haul out the blue circles
around the smoke.
We are here near there, thirty shapes and
thirty shadows to a star.
And that star is a glittering one, which shows us, politicians and populous, religious and secular: A Savior is born. Peace and justice are born. Freedom is coming. Fear not: He will be born quicker than expected.
Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!
+Bishop Dr. Munib A. Younan
For more about Bishop Younan, see this link: http://www.elcjhl.org/admin/bishop/bishop.asp
--- --- ---
To receive regular bulletins from Ann Hafften, subscribe at the blog: A Texas Lutheran's Voice for Peace - http://www.voicesforpeace.blogspot.com/