SERMON: by Norma Nakai Burton, M.Div. Dec, 25, 2011
The Message to the New Humanity
– “DO NOT BE AFRAID!”
As I read through the familiar Christmas texts this year, there was something that jumped out at me that I’d not paid as much attention to before, and that is how many times in those first couple of chapters of Luke that “fear” is addressed. A form of the Greek word “phobos”, translated as “fear” or “afraid” appears seven times in Luke 1 and 2. Year after year we latch on to the familiar images of adoring parents, a cooing baby and humble shepherds, but this year I was struck by the fact that this story is also full of anxiety.
The first century, much like the 21st, was a time of uncertainty. Jesus was born into an Empire of enormous proportions. It spanned from Western Europe to the heart of Africa and possibly as many as one in four people on the planet lived under its rule. The Roman Empire was a huge institution with a matching bureaucracy. There was a sophisticated methodology in place for governmental functions like tax collection and military management of the far off lands. The gap between rich and poor was exceptionally wide. Life expectancy was short, particularly among the majority poor. Even the Empire would struggle economically. In the year 33, for example, shortly after the death of Jesus, Augustus’ successor Tiberias would be forced to give out the modern equivalent of millions of dollars of government money to businesses in order to keep the empire solvent—a Roman bailout package, if you will. Already at the time of Jesus’ birth there were signs of difficulty ahead. Times were tough everywhere.
History has a way of cycling through times of prosperity and poverty and we’re in one of those down cycles right now. We may not be quite as bad off as the people of first century Palestine, but we feel the same human fears and uncertainty about the future that they felt. Fear can become our lens for viewing the world. Fear is something we all have or will at times experience:
Most of us experience it in mild form, now and then.
Some folks experience it in extreme forms. We call it a Phobias when Fears become extreme and take over:
Mental Health dictionary has quite a menu of phobias –
• Peladophobia: fear of baldness and bald people.
• Aerophobia: fear of drafts.
• Porphyrophobia: fear of the colour purple.
• Chaetophobia: fear of hairy people.
• Odontophobia: fear of teeth.
• Thalassophobia: fear of being seated.
• Graphophobia: fear of writing in public.
• Phobophobia: fear of being afraid.
Joke: What do you call an irrational fear of Santa Claus?
• Answer: Claus -trophobia.
Well you might not have extreme fears & phobias;
But we all have concerns, worries, anxieties & uncertainties
• i.e. Fear of losing our jobs, of aging, loss of health or wealth, Fear of being found out – exposed! Fear of facing an uncertain future.
Maybe I noticed the thread of fear through these scripture passages especially this year because I have been sensing that fear in our own community and world.
Christmas time not all cheer and fun. As a counselor I hear the stories of people and what they’re afraid of right now, that may stay hidden behind the scenes. Chances are, many if not most of the people in the room have felt some of the same fears.
One person told me about his company losing several major clients and 40% of his revenue in the last 6 months because of the downturn. He’s afraid of losing his number one client, of not being able to meet his obligations to his family with two kids in college and not being able to be the person that everyone else relies upon. Fear of losing what you’ve worked so hard to achieve—that’s real fear.
I talked to a retired couple who have lost two-thirds of their retirement fund in the last nine months. They now have to think about selling their home in a down market, getting some part-time jobs, moving someplace less expensive. They fear the uncertainty of having to make such major changes late in life.
Another person told me about lingering grief on the 20th anniversary of her brother’s death in a plane crash and the pain of that loss. And then from a mother in the midst of a long-term battle with cancer: “My biggest fear is how many more Christmases I’ll have with my family. My oncologist told me last month that I have 2-3 years as a “ballpark” guess for my life. As I look forward, I fear missing events in my children’s lives and feel panicked to leave them. My problem is I fear not being up to the task of dying and showing to others that God’s grace and love are with me. It’s one thing to say you have no fear because God is with you, but it’s another to live it…”
One might say that all fears boil down to one basic human fear – that we will not be able to cope with what is presented to us.
What kind of message can we speak to these very real kinds of fear?
Well, I noticed something else as I read these familiar words of the Christmas story this year.
In the first two chapters of Luke there is a prominent role for the angels. During this time when something big was brewing – these light beings from another dimension broke through to humans in a visible way. The word angellos means in Greek – a messenger – a communicator of something important. ANGEL Gabriel shows up four times in the opening part of the Christmas story and each time he speaks he begins with the words, “Do not be afraid.”
Now, part of the reason he says that may be that the people to whom he appears are not used to seeing angels. We might picture an angel like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”—friendly and somewhat benign. Clearly, Gabriel this magnificent light being, was somewhat more imposing.
But I think there’s another reason why Luke offers this angelic repetition—“Do not be afraid.” I think that it functions as a kind ofthesis statement for the whole story that will follow—the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Somehow it is because of the meaning of the life of this Prince of Peace, that we really don’t need to be afraid any longer. The people of Israel had long been expecting a Messiah, a deliverer, who would free them from Roman domination and restore them as a separate people. In a very real sense, they seemed to be expecting a kind of divine bailout plan—that God would somehow make everything right according to their expectations.
The first time Gabriel appears it is to the old priest Zechariah. I think Luke uses him as a kind of link between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Temple system. The angel says to the old man, “Do not be afraid – because your prayers have been answered.” They were going to be answered in a personal sense because Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a son, who would become John the Baptist, but also in a larger sense—God was going to do something about the plight of his people through sending a prophet. So this elder establishment couple gets to bring forth a radical “crusty” “vegan” kid who proclaims the end of it all, going around saying “Repent” and anointing the new Messiah,t who turns out to be his cousin.
Wouldn’t we all like to hear that our prayers have been answered? We’d like for God to send Gabriel to tell us that our business is going to be prosperous again, that the pain of our grief will subside, that a cure will be found for us before it’s too late. We pray for these miracles, the sense of well-being. But the answers don’t always come in the package we expect.
God’s way of answering our prayers is often by doing something way beyond our hopes and expectations. Yes, sometimes our prayers are answered in ways that we want, but more often we see God at work in giving us what we really need when we need it.
In Israel’s case, God’s Messiah comes as a tiny, helpless baby instead of a conquering hero. Instead of taking on the Romans with military might, he would suffer and die at the hands of the Empire. This is how God chose to save the whole world—by participating in human suffering and taking it on—not by bailing out Jesus, nor by bailing us out either.
The Christmas story tells us that God intimately knows our grief, our sorrow, our pain because God experiences it right along with us: Emmanuel – God with us. We don’t have a God who acts like a cosmic Santa Claus—making his list, checking it twice, distributing his grace, mercy and miracles to a deserving few and not to others. In Jesus humble birth in the stable, God gets the point across that God is in the world for all of us, even what some call the least of these.
That’s the message of Gabriel’s second visit, which comes to Mary. “Do not be afraid,” he says to her, “for you have found favor with God.” Perhaps it wasn’t that Mary was especially wonderful or perfect. Maybe God chooses her because God chooses to favor the unlikely, the obscure, the innocent–to do a most important work. Like Zechariah, like so many others in Scripture, Mary is offered an opportunity—she will be blessed in bringing Spirit into the world, but as always seems to be the case that blessing would cost her something, too. As Simeon will tell her when she brings Jesus to be dedicated in the Temple—“a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” I imagine she remembered those words when she saw her son hanging on a Roman cross.
Do not be afraid—you have found favor with God. I think that’s the second message we need to hear in the midst of our fear. God favors each of us, loves us with an everlasting love, loves us enough to come as one of us. The God of the universe surrenders a lot to be with us – even to the point of death out of love for us, what a mystery beyond comprehension that God lives with us and in us. This favor is not that we have earned it —it is the ultimate gift. We call that gift “grace”—and God offers it to us lavishly. The favor doesn’t mean we get a pain-free life—that’s not how the Christmas story goes —but God does promise to be with us every step of the way as we get to embody in our lives the great destiny of bringing transformation on planet earth.
There is grace right in the midst of our fear—grace is the knowledge that no matter what happens, we are Beloved. The promise of new life is always there, even in the midst of hard times. The angel’s word to Mary is a word to us—“Nothing will be impossible with God.” God turned the Roman cross from a symbol of death to a symbol of triumph. Imagine what God can do for you if you’re open to the possibilities of grace!
The third angel announcement takes place to Joseph – who is told to go ahead and take Mary as his wife, even though she is mysteriously pregnant. Way way outside the system-this young Jewish man is told its ok to step over all approved societal boundaries for the way a man should be with a woman – it as a really huge request being made of him and the angel comes to give him a choice.
Mary and Joseph are both given a choice – not forced obedience. The divine being respected their questions and hesitation – answered them with conversation – they decided of their own will that this was a good thing. God calls us but we have the choice of whether or not to say yes. The angel respected their process – there was no forced obedience. We have destinies but we get to say yes or no.
The fourth ANGEL announcement was given out there in the fields beyond Bethlehem. Shepherds, who are poorest of the poor, are watching over their flocks when the angel appears and they were “sore afraid.” “Do not be afraid,” says the angel a fourth time, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
The good news was not a bailout plan for the world, a simple propping up of the human system with enough of God’s grace as capital to give people a little bit of hope. Instead, the angels announce to the shepherds – that the birth of the Messiah was going to usher in a completely different spiritual economy—a program that Jesus himself would use as the basis of most of his teaching. The Kingdom of God was coming, a reversal of fortune for the whole world and the turning upside down of all that humans value. Luke gives us a clue of this kind of economy when we puts a song in Mary’s heart in chapter 1—she sings “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Jesus would teach values of a Kingdom as a new economy where the last became first, where the sick, the lame, the poor, and the grieving were the most valued, where money is valued less than love, where even death is turned to life. Instead of retaliation in kind to those who mistreat them, the Jesus story invites humans to love their enemies, to give generously to those who beg or even steal from them, acting in love toward all other humans as they would themselves like to be treated.”
So the birth of Jesus, the Christmas story the way I believe it was meant to be told, was such an entirely different story – such a huge contrast to the way of the Empire – that people could hardly even imagine it. Then or now.
The Christmas story of this birth and the life of Jesus could have easily been the first widely recorded CALL for the new humanity- for all humans to shift their consciousness about HOW to live in this world in peace and goodwill. Christmas was and is a call of radical transformation. Its a call for a whole new framework, to work from a new paradigm. This was a call for a metamorphosis. This is an evolutionary process of one form transcending a previous one.
It’s akin to the expression we use when we say something hasmorphed into something else. The word “morph” evolved from the Greek language, and means the same thing as the word “metanoia.”
How does an tadpole who can only live in water become an amphibious frog? How does a larva change into a winged butterfly? These forms of life are so different that if we did not know otherwise we might think that it impossible for the end product to come from what we know as the beginning.
“Meta-noia” uses the prefix, meta, meaning “beyond” or “outside of what was previous”—“out of the box” as we say when we want to describe a really significant new way of thinking or acting. The second part of the word, “noia,” comes from “nous” in Greek, the word for “mind.” So, “metanoia” describes transcending a previous mindset and opening into a very different worldview, a new way of perceiving the world, a new way of thinking about how to deal with the issues we face. My simple way of describing this is: complete transformation of thought.
The usual translations for Metanoia have been to repent, in other words, change or open your mind about the story of Jesus and believe in it in order to achieve salvation. But, there are others ways to interpret this word.
Dr. Lee Van Ham, seminary professor, helps us to shift consciousness about Jesus, both the person and his message. In Mark 1:15 in the New Testament. The original text says this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Dr.Lee, paraphrases this bible quote of Jesus words this way:
The time of waiting and groaning is complete; God’s rule, not just Caesar’s rule, is accessible to us all now. We need to shift out of our ways of thinking and acting shaped by the culture of the Empire; we need rather to believe that good news for all is possible, and that we can live into the new paradigm. We can be already what we wish to see happen.
WE CAN BE ALREADY WHAT WE WISH TO SEE HAPPEN.
I believe that for too long, conservative theology has held a firm grip on the interpretation of Jesus and has watered down the meaning of Christmas with its capitalistic overlay. What if Jesus really was an anti-establishment Jewish radical, who was initiating this social change movement by affirming that humans have the awesome capacity to emerge from the cocoon shaped by the paradigm of Empire and its ways of thinking and being, into a world in which community, unity, love, and hope prevail??
Mark uses the word “metanoia” to press this invitation; to crack the hardened hearts of the people of the Empire, people who had internalized and lived everyday through the lens of the Empire’s story about their subservient status; People working to supply the privileged, struggling to live a life of subsistence. Perhaps this new story, if read differently isn’t about being saved by Jesus or God, it is about relationships with each other and is designed to unveil a worldview in which the citizens of the Empire are called to be full participants and not just consumers and providers for the privileged. This was a message that was not just about shifting our thinking, but was about transforming every aspect of our lives. Its about occupying our own souls. The Occupy Movement is very in line with Jesus’ message. We need to occupy not only wall street but our inner home terrain.
In his famous quote, Buckminster Fuller says it this way:
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change things build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Is it possible that the story of the birth of Jesus is such a model?
Is it possible that this Jewish teacher wasn’t calling for an institutional religion at all, but a huge change in a way of life amongst humans, a change of framework, a Metanoia?
This kind of transformation of thought is both a challenge and an invitation urging us to transcend the paradigm that tells us there are no real alternatives to the way things are, to a persistent and growing divide between rich and poor, to destructive global warming, to insurance company lobbying or top-down Wall Street banking power, to cancers and immune disorders that are devouring us. We can choose a fear- free perspective. We can choose the common good.
The power of Metanoia brings us to the point where we can come together around any pressing issue in society or in our personal lives and create a new path and a presence of love.
Too often we see the solution to conflict is about negotiation or compromise where there are expectations created about giving something up. What kind of world would it be if the expectation of most conflict management processes was to create something new—something that had not even been thought of or considered before, what if our goal wasn’t to look at your way or my way must win, but to discover a third way, something new, something different than we have yet known? Something that would truly benefit all concerned. This puts FEAR to an end. Fear of loss in the fight is such a core fear built into us.
Christmas viewed this way can’t help but face us with the fact that it’s time in our world to create a shift, a Metanoia, around this whole concept of productivity. We are too long driven by the Empire’s definition of Productivity at the expense of our personhood, productivity at the expense of sustainability, productivity at the expense of the sense of what is sacred in all of us. This drive for productivity has built a capitalistic world empire, but there is a huge shadow side, a side that has brought us to constant international conflict, a lack of universal health care, global climate destabilization, and the consistent lack of civility in our political process.
Over 40 years ago Bobby Kennedy cited another Greek thought. In his speech given upon the occasion of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he said. “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” To tame the savageness of humans and make gentle the life of this world….Two Thousand years later in a time of another great challenge to the world, we find wisdom in this ancient Greek concept of Metanoia for each one of us has the ability to participate in this cycle of Empire, or we all have the ability to find wisdom from the ages and reframe, transform or make the existing model obsolete by creating a new one.
Paul Hawkin social entrepreneur and the Author of Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming is quoted as saying, “Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. Healing the wounds of the Earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party. It is not a liberal or conservative activity. It is a sacred act.”
A sacred act. Can you see now how CHRISTMAS IS JUST SUCH A SACRED ACT.
Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” This is radical because it’s a message for everyone, not just the ones favored by the Empire who can bail themselves out.
The messenger angel said – “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” A common little baby born out among those who could not afford better.
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
Even in this more traditional language, we know that peace means not through strength of force, not through war, but peace through good will, through good being willed, through a new way of relationships.
The angel said – Peace on Earth. Not despair, not fear. It is good news for all the people—not just for some. Christmas Peace is a radical concept, a new framework, a shift of human consciousness. Christmas is a metanoia moment.
This is the grounds for ultimate hope and not fear as we move into the challenges of the future —that no matter what happens, God has promised to set the world to right once and for all…to complete it all in love. Jesus way is the Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end.
In the meantime we hear the Angel voice—“Do not be afraid.”
Money will come and go—still the God of LOVE is with us. Our health may fail—still the LOVE of God is with us. Our lives may be broken by heartache and our past mistakes. But still the God who completes all in love is with us.
That is the good news of Christmas for all of us—good news that lasts forever. Our failures are not final, our infirmities are not ultimately fatal, and our death will not be the last word.
If you get nothing else from today’s message, may you leave here knowing that you are loved in ways so far beyond what you can even imagine. Each one of of you.
“There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18) How deep is that love? “Nothing can overcome it – not principalities or powers in high places, not height not depth, nothing in heaven above or on the earth below ….for indeed we are more than conquerors – in Christ who loves us.”
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is within you and it is at hand now. “We can be already what we wish to see.” So if we really hear the Christmas message. The long awaited second coming of the Christ child when God’s Kingdom will be fully realized on earth – is now – This time Jesus is coming in the many – are you going to chose to answer the angel’s call?
I pray that this year you will hear and feel this familiar Christmas story and the good news in a different way. It asks us all to shift our thoughts and be open to a different reading of this story, a new way of thinking, a blossoming of possibility, and hear the Christmas story as a source to feed the great shift taking place all over the earth.
The baby whose birth we celebrate this day is born in you and in me so that we might no longer be afraid. That’s good news you can take to the bank.