Christmas is many things to many people. This is a time for celebration, a joyful time of giving and receiving, with happy music playing in the stores, kids too excited to go to sleep, and meals shared with friends and family. Of course, for some, the realities of life dampen the joy of Christmas, especially for those separated from loved ones, or those struggling to make sense of changes in their lives, or who find themselves without food, warmth, and shelter. And, even as we embrace the joy of Christmas, as a parent I can attest to the stress of it all: kids out of school, trying to find childcare, then gifts to be wrapped, houses to be cleaned, laundry to be done, and, when it’s all over, bills to be paid.
Christmas, for many, is quite a production; even in a pandemic we hold ourselves to a high standard.
Yet, as great as the gifts and food and celebrations are, the message at the heart of this holy season is something much more basic, a message that cuts right to the core of who we are and what we do.
And there were shepherds in the fields – normal, everyday, hard-working people, with mouths to feed and family drama, going about their business – and suddenly an angel, a messenger from the Lord appears to them. And what is the message? Do not be afraid.
Do not be afraid. And why? Because this baby who has been born, this promised one, Emmanuel, God-with-us, changes everything.
“Don’t Be Afraid”
That’s the fundamental message that gets lost behind all the traditions and preparations of this season: do not be afraid.
Now, I’m sure most of us haven’t had the experience of being terrified by a bright talking light sent from God, but the truth is that all of us have things that scare us.
The Shepherds, I’m sure, were anxious like any of us about their families, their bills, and their work.
There’s much that get us worried, and sometimes we feel like we’re juggling so many things that our lives might come crashing down at any moment. Sometimes we find that we’ve built such a façade, we’ve built such an image for ourselves, that we find ourselves isolated or even feeling like you don’t even know who you are anymore. Sometimes we feel like we’re hanging on by a thread, hoping and waiting for things to get better.
And underneath the lights and the tinsel and the gifts is that simple message of infinite hope: do not be afraid.
And it’s important, too, that we hear the message properly. It’s not “have courage”, it’s not “be brave”, it’s not “suck it up and quit whining”. It’s not a dismissive “think happy thoughts” or “put it out of your mind”. No, it’s “don’t be afraid” because God is here, he understands, and he wants to be with you. It’s “don’t be afraid” because, although our problems and struggles and stress are real, by the grace of God, he will give real and lasting peace peace to those who invite him in.
God in our mess.
The beautiful message at the heart of Christmas is not about picture-perfect nativity sets and pristine houses hosting happy parties where everyone smiles and gets along.
In fact, it’s the opposite.
It’s that God wants to be with us, in, and in spite of, our mess.
He could have chosen a beautiful palace, but he knew what he was doing when he chose a smelly cattle stall. He could have had a family that appeared to have it all together, but God chose an unwed mother engaged to a carpenter, a family so poor they couldn’t even afford a lamb to offer in the temple. He could have revealed himself to the powerful and respected leaders, but he chose to reveal himself to uneducated farmhands, forgotten on the outskirts of a tiny town.
This is a God who says in the Christmas story, “I love you so much that I want to share your pain”. A God who wants you to know that he understands what it is to celebrate, and what it is to mourn, or to feel rejected, and to hope for a better tomorrow.
God near us.
I don’t know what your image of God is like. Some picture Him as a distant observer, keeping score, weighing good against bad; some, if we’re honest, don’t give him much thought as we run through the rat-race of life, where there’s always something else that needs to be done, something else that needs our attention.
But the message of Christmas is that God doesn’t want to be far off; he wants to be here with us; and, if we invite him in, his presence makes even the stable a place fit for a king.
This Christmas, I invite you to take a break – make time for a break – and, as part of your joyful celebrations, take to heart the message of the angel: “do not be afraid”, “stop worrying”, and accept the gift of his peace, the peace that comes from trusting in God.
God doesn’t need the polished veneers or the happy masks we so often put on. God, the Church, and the world around us could all do without our strivings to present ourselves as people whose lives and relationships are all well put together. The great wonder of Christmas is that he meets us where we are, and invites us to follow where he leads.
Shepherds don’t get invited to palaces. So, the King of Heaven is content with a stable if that’s what it takes to reach them.
Whatever you’re going through – whatever stress you’re carrying, whatever questions you have about your value, the message of Christmas is that God thinks you’re worth it, and, to receive his peace, all you have to do is invite him in.
And, maybe, like that innkeeper, the best you can really offer him right now is the shed out back, but that’s enough: he’ll take it, and make it something beautiful, and as everything else comes into focus, we learn, once again, what really matters.
Don’t be afraid. Like the shepherds, come with an open heart and mind, and worship the God who loves you so much that he’ll meet you where you are.
To God be the Glory. Amen.