And they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid’
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
That people were afraid is a bit of a repeating theme in the Christmas story. Whenever angels turn up, the first thing that they tend to say is “Do not be afraid”.
I’m not sure whether it is the flapping of wings or the volume of the singing or the sheer unexpectedness of seeing an angel where you least expect one that leads to this repeated refrain.
I suspect though that there was a bit more to it than that. For there is much to be afraid of in the world. There always has been. And some feel that fear more than others. Those who are most vulnerable often have the most to fear.
But as we face Christmas 2016 it doesn’t feel so difficult to enter into the story this year.
For we end this year with many people feeling apprehensive about what is to come. This has been a year in which expectation was upended. The world of politics seems to have been turned upside down and no-one really knows what is coming next.
In such circumstances, it is not surprising that people feel fearful.
Looking back at the Bethlehem story this year, there is much with which we will be familiar.
The story begins with a demand that the people had to return to their own towns across the empire in order to be registered.
In most years that I’ve read the story, I’ve tended to think of this as a bit of a glorious census like our censuses that take place every 10 years. Just a way of counting people so that services can be provided.
But as I read the story today and see in my mind’s eye the holy couple making their way to Bethlehem to be registered just at the most inconvenient time for them when the birth was nigh, it is difficult not to think of the recent political promise on the other side of the Atlantic to insist that all Muslims should be registered and accounted for. Somehow the census that insists that Joseph and Mary hurry off to Bethlehem feels a little more sinister.
The Christmas Story takes place in a particular context. People have asked often enough why then? Why them? Why her?
The particularity doesn’t matter so much as the context I think.
It doesn’t matter that much which year it was – the point is that it happened when Big Men ruled the world.
Whether we focus on Emperor Augustus or Quirinius the Governer of Syria or King Herod there is no avoiding the reality that God came into the world when big men were in charge (or thought they were in charge) and had no intention of losing their power to anyone.
There are all kinds of things that are part of the Christmas tradition that have little or no mention in Scriptures. There’s no ox and ass lowing in the bible stories. There’s no certainty at all that there were only three wise people who visited from the East and no mention of them being kings at all. The manger and the straw and even the time of the birth (at midnight) which seem so much a part of the story are not really there when we look for them in the bible.
But what is there is that God chose to come into a world where big men were in charge. And the angels cried, Do not be afraid.
It feels today as though Big Men with an unhealthy interest in power are taking over again.
But Herod didn’t manage to kill the Christ child, didn’t manage to kill hope, didn’t manage to wipe out love either.
And neither will Trump. Nor Putin. Nor any of the putative far right big men (or big women, that’s not impossible either) be able to wipe love out either.
Love always wins.
Those are the rules we play the game of life with.
I’ve a feeling that the time that God came into the world was a bit of a happenchance. But the context wasn’t. God’s message appears from the very beginning to have been that the kind of power that rounds people up, detains them, registers them, makes them take great risk in order to find safe refuge is not the kind of power that God was ever in the business of getting involved with at all.
And the angels said do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid because real power does not lie with big men.
Do not be afraid, because real power does not inhabit palaces or presidencies.
Real power is the power to love and be loved.
That’s what we are celebrating amidst all the tinsel and the glitter and the razzmatazz of the season
And it is worth celebrating.
Here in this church we’ve been busy for the last few months – there have been more people in church than we expected. It may be that people are looking for places to connect to a message that is timeless – that love is the name of the only power game worth winning.
Christianity is a challenge, one of the challenges to political systems of tyranny and oppression.
It hasn’t become that way – it is our very dna. It is what we were born with.
From time to time, faith colludes with power. But that way leads away from God not towards God.
The truth that God gave us at the beginning of our own faith is that all that is holy would not be born in a palace and would not wear the robes of power but be born in a manger and wear humble swaddling bands.
And it is our task to take up the song of the angels and to sing out to a needy world – do not be afraid. Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.
For God’s love matters and matters a great deal in the world in which we find ourselves.
And love wins.
Tyranny never does in the long run.
Love always wins.
For after all, love trumps fear.
That’s what we believe.
That’s the Christmas message.
Love always trumps fear.
Forever and ever.