Be Not Afraid Because Love Fuels Courage: Christmas 2

Be Not Afraid Because Love Fuels Courage: Christmas 2

Second Sunday After Christmas Day: January 5, 2020

Year A : Jeremiah 31:7-14;  Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

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On this Second Sunday after Christmas, we’re in the gospel landscape of Matthew. It’s a story of angelic messages delivered in dreams. It’s a story without shepherds, without a manger, with no mention of other animals. It’s a story that features strangers from other realms – “Magi”, whatever such a word might conjure in our imaginations: astronomers, magicians, maybe even the first-century equivalent of scientists.

It is a story of a gathering darkness and danger, featuring the evil we see often expressed in the world, in this case in the person of Herod. Matthew recounts the narrow escape of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus when Herod ordered the execution of all the babies in and around Bethlehem, two years old and younger.

If ever there’s an example of a ruler who used power only for himself, it’s Herod. And when someone has more power than they have concern for the good of others, it becomes a great evil. Evil is the only way to describe a person who could order the deaths of children.

Yet there’s one thing that Herod’s power did not do. It did not take away Herod’s fear. In fact, his fear was increased by his desire to hold on to power. The slaughter of children is a horrible example of the fearfulness of a powerful leader. As with Herod, fear often expresses itself as violence, but violence cannot take away fear, it only increases it.

But if there are fear and misuse of power in this Gospel lesson, where shall we turn? This lesson has a powerful answer, more powerful than all of man’s fears and hungering after power.

Listen to what happens next. “After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.”[1]

Throughout the early chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, God’s messenger’s comes to Joseph in dreams. In the first dream, the message we heard on the last Sunday of Advent, the angel said, “Do not be afraid to take this woman as your wife.”[2]

Now that the baby has been born, the angel tells Joseph to get up and take the baby and his mother out of Herod’s reach, into Egypt.  the land where Israel had been held captive and enslaved generations before.

It was a difficult solution, not an ideal one. For starters, Egypt is the land where Israel had been held captive and enslaved generations before. But the baby was safe.

Joseph did not act fearfully or violently; he took his family and fled to safety. In fleeing Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph and their infant son became refugees. And several years later he brought them back, carefully again to a safe place, not to Bethlehem his home, but to Galilee, far away from the son of Herod, a man who was Herod’s equal in fearfulness and violence.

Think about it: if Herod’s plan had worked, the joy of Christmas would have been snuffed out even as the light of Christ was coming into the world. And yet, while Herod could and did exercise his own will, he could not thwart the ultimate will of God.

God is omnipotent, which means all-powerful, but even having all power doesn’t make two contradictory things happen at once. God cannot both give humans free will and take away that free will. If God prevented our choices that lead to pain and suffering in the world, then we would no longer be free.

The limits of what God can do are set not by logic or some arbitrary boundary. The limits of what God can and cannot do are set by love and love as we know is often not logical.

To say, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,”[3] explains so much. It shows that first and foremost, God loves us unreservedly. But we also know that you cannot force love. Love must be freely given and freely accepted in order for it to be love. For God to love us and tell us to love means that God has given us free will.

God gave us a choice. And through our choices, we can get hurt and we can hurt – or even kill – others. God has created a world where humans can bend their wills to do some very ungodly acts.

The result includes things that should not happen. And yet, this world of choice founded on love is also what makes all the noble acts of self-sacrifice possible. This world is not only a world of pain and suffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, and love.

Earlier this week, I read about something that happened on a New York City subway. Now, if you’ve ever ridden a subway anywhere, but especially in New York, you know there are some unwritten rules. Mind your business, keep your head down, don’t have eye contact.

In this case, a man got on a subway in Manhattan and found Swastikas on every advertisement and every window. They’d been drawn in Sharpies, which as most of you know is next to impossible to remove. The train was silent as everyone stared at each other, uncomfortable in what they were seeing.

In that silence, one man got up and said, “hand sanitizer gets rid of Sharpie. We need alcohol”. He found some alcohol wipes and got to work. With that an almost entire car of people reached into their bags and pockets looking for Purell and tissues. Within about two minutes all the Nazi symbolism was gone.

One passenger said, “I guess this is America today.”

No, it’s not. Not today, not ever. Not as long as God’s love is among us. Not as long as there are people with hand sanitizer and tissues ready and willing to get rid of those hateful expressions.

Herod struck out against innocent children in Bethlehem. And yet, God’s plan was not thwarted. Even as Herod exercised his free will to do the unthinkable and ended innocent lives to secure his power, Herod still did not have the power to stop God’s love and the plan of salvation for all. Herod could not put out the light of God’s presence born in Bethlehem. Herod could not steal the gift of love which was Jesus.

In answer to the evil humans do, God offers love. Real, enduring, eternal love. Love that in time will break the power of evil and death. Yes, we see that an evil ruler could use the gift of free will to do evil. But we also see that evil could not and did not win a victory in Bethlehem and it will never win an ultimate victory in all creation. The power of love can and does defeat evil. Love will win out in the end.

Contrary to the fear and violence of Herod, and all those who have inherited Herod’s misplaced love of power, God’s message to the faithful is to not be afraid.

It is tempting to buy into fear and anger; to live reactively and participate in the indignities of violence and hatred. But God came among us as one of us so that we may live without fear, with the dignity of God’s love for all of God’s people. Christ lived a whole life among us, healing our wounds, healing our indignities, teaching us to live without fear.

Even as he was subjected to the worst indignities and killed on the Cross, he was not fearful or hateful. When the world had done its worst, the peace that he brings was revealed as God raised him from the dead.

We are made safe, not by acting on our fears but by being transformed in the wisdom and love of God. May it always be so.

[1] Matthew 2:13, NRSV

[2] Matthew 1:20, NRSV

[3] John 3:16, NRSV

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