Monday, January 10, 2011

Advent 4a sermon: The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

Psalm 27: 1-4, 11-14
Matthew 1: 18-25

I’ve always believed that one of the best ways to have an incredibly meaningful Christmas is to pay close attention to the words & phrases in the Christmas carols. There is so much inspiration & meaning in Christmas music.
Now there are a few questionable lines here and there . . .
"Away in the Manger" says, "Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes." That’s not biblical, realistic, or helpful! And "We Three Kings" is a bit off, since they were Magi, advisors to kings, but not kings themselves.
Christmas is for poets, because only the expansive, wondrous mind of a poet can begin to put words to it all. The phrase that has come to me most often this Christmas is from "O Little Town of Bethlehem," where it says, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."
What I love about poetry & song lyrics is also what I struggle with the most -- it’s that you can never be 100% certain about what the author is truly saying. You can only have a hunch. "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight."

What are you afraid of?

When I was a kid, I was deathly afraid of aliens. I can remember laying in bed worrying that if I were to get up and peek out the blinds, there would be an alien right on the other side of the window trying to peek in at me.

Something about that immediacy, being right there in front of my face, still gives me chills down my spine.

Perhaps it’s easiest to speak about the fears of our childhood—what we can so easily see were unfounded, or at least embellishments of reality.

it’s harder to talk about the fears that I and perhaps you too have. I fear that I won’t know if the decisions I make or have made the decisions made on my behalf are the right ones. I fear that the tension my kids sometimes feel in my household will scar them. I fear that I won’t really end up contributing anything for posterity’s sake and remembrance. (I fear that if I plumb the depth of that particular fear, an outsized ego is at the root.) I fear that I’m not compassionate enough or sensitive enough to be a pastor. I fear that my children and wife will suffer because of a calling that I sometimes seriously doubt I even have. I fear that I the feeling of drive and resolve I was once animated by has gone and will never come back. I fear.

But, I used to hope that I would hit a home run when I was playing baseball. I was a good hitter. I rarely struck out, and I usually got on base. I hit a lot of runs home. But I always hoped for that glory watching the ball sail over the fence. It only happened a few times in several years of playing baseball.

I played in every game with that hope firmly lodged in my solar plexus.

It’s also, perhaps, harder to speak of those hopes that have continued to stick around in my soul. Are they signs of naivity? Are they “foolish hopes” that aren’t built for the “real world?” Are they simply products of my own privilege, or are they something that can attract people of all kinds of backgrounds?

Barak Obama wrote a book when he was a presidential candidate called The Audacity of Hope. I always liked that title—and it was sure something to see how the “hopeful candidate” invigorated an electorate and how his speeches based on that audacious hope seemed to really capture the imagination of a lot of different people.

Hope can be a powerful thing—but can it survive the onslaught of our cold, hard fears. You can probably divide the world into two camps by asking the question, “Is ‘hope’ or ‘fear’ more rooted in reality.

We have seen what has happened to the “hopes based politics” that catapulted Barak Obama into the White House. He charged right in with big plans for big hope filled programs like “Health care for all people” and the fears that are attached to achieving that hope won out. There was a backlash to that particular hope, and now he’s trying to get his own party to ratify the tax cut program that his predecessor dreamed up. A compromising hope is a lot more easy to stomach than an audacious hope, after all.
Well, I’m not intending on getting into politics—but I think it is helpful for us to ask ourselves, if the unabashed hopes that we claim to subscribe to are worth their salt. Will they hold together and keep us afloat in the midst of the crashing waves of calamity and violence and schemes and jealousy?
The story we hear today says yes. The nativity says that “hope floats.” Hope endures. Now, that’s not to say that “fears” should be disregarded. After all, the angel warns Joseph about things that he should fear—like a scheming Herod out to kill the Christ child, but the angel also says “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” I have a good friend who wrote about this phrase, and she says,
“n the Bible, God--or sometimes God's messenger--often implores freaked-out men and women not to be afraid. It's a standard divine greeting, a nicety to allay the pulse-quickening shock of receiving a message from heaven. Frequently the commandment stands alone: Fear not, period. Sometimes it's stitched to an object or person: Do not be afraid of _____.
Only twice is the would-be scaredy-cat encouraged not to be afraid to do some specific action. Following his family's near ruination by famine, Jacob sets out for Egypt to be reunited with his long-lost son, Joseph. God speaks to Jacob in a nighttime vision: "Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there." The New Testament Joseph's message also comes by night, in the brume of a dream. "Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife," the angel enjoins, and discloses the controversial mystery of the child's conception.
Jacob is also promised the favor of God's presence. "I myself will go down with you to Egypt," God whispers into the night air. Meanwhile, the angel explains that the holy child in Mary's womb fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah; this child is the Emmanuel, God with us. And there is truly no better reason than this to sacrifice our anxieties at the altar of faith. We are not alone.
A lot of clergy think that the "Footprints in the Sand" poem is pretty schlocky, but there's a reason so many people prefer it to our most learned exegesis. People yearn to know that God is with them. The heart of Joseph's dream is the promise of divine presence: in Mary's womb, in Jesus's bloodstream, in a good man's shame. Fear and death and sin are trounced by love and life and salvation, all on account of the Emmanuel.

The text says that Joseph awoke and did as the angel told him. In time-management parlance, that's called "eating your frog"--taking on your hardest task first thing in the morning. I hope that as he quietly married his scandalous, sacred bride, he did so without an iota of fear--perhaps even with a tender heart. I hope, too, that we can encourage our parishioners to be so bold as they plumb their own dreams and confront their own trials, always and ever in the saving grasp of Christ.
It’s good that Joseph is who he is and pays attention not only to his hopes, but his fears as well. The angel didn’t just have peaches and cream for Joseph—he was telling him about some pretty dreadful stuff. He was going need to take this pregnant girl for his wife—and he was going to be the guardian of the Messiah! Then he was going to need to become a refugee because King Herod wanted to kill the boy. That’s a lot of weight! Where was the dream that said, “Take a load off, Fanny!” Well, you know the rest of that line right—“and… put the load right on me.”
Joseph was a “just man,” the scripture says, but he didn’t fear the law. He knew when it deserved an injection of hope too. The law called for Mary to be stoned to death. And yet, Joseph left room for something more. He did as the angel said—he did not fear, and he did not let fear guide his actions with regard to Mary and the baby she carried. Instead, he let them in. Marriage was about ownership in that day and age. It’s not to our liking, or our sensibilities about love, but it’s true. In taking Mary as his wife, Joseph was taking ownership of a problem. He was putting his family inheritance on the line for what could have been another man’s child.
Those were the rumors, after all, about the origin of the Christ child. Very early on in the Christian church—before the church had these stories about his birth, in fact, were the rumors that this great man Jesus Christ was born to a woman that had been raped by a Roman soldier, in an attempt to discredit what Jesus had said.
We bring all that to the Christmas holiday—our hopes and fears, our joys and our frazzled, overwrought selves. We bring it all to the only one who can take it all because He is the redeemer of it all. He is the one who deserves it all, and he asks for it all. And we bring it with the utmost humility and the utmost shame because at this time of year we remember that at one time he was just a little vulnerable baby. He was so out of place in this world that there wasn’t even room for him in an inn to be born, so his parents had to take him out to the barn.
Fortunately for us, he didn’t hold a grudge. Though there was no room for him, he made room for us and all we have to turn over to him.

My parents always taught me that most fear is rooted in ignorance, not reality. So, I guess you can figure out which camp I’d be in. But, you can’t really dismiss “fears” altogether, can you? The song says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

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