4th Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012
Elizabeth A. Deibert
This has been a year of fear. Fear was stoked used by both parties in the election season and the brooding fear continues with all the debate and posturing at the edge of the fiscal cliff. In the church, not just Peace Church, but the church across America, there is great fear of diminished power in society and declining numbers. There are larger segments of the population not interested in church, turned off by church, seeing church as irrelevant. At Peace, we’ve been growing, but we’ve had our own recent anxieties about church building -- about having an affordable home where we can worship and accomplish the mission to which God has called us. And like everyone, we have our individual fears about health, family life, money, and the like.
But of course, the worst of our fears in the last week have been around the security of our population, especially of children in our violent culture. In July, the movie theatre in Colorado, in August, the mosque in Wisconsin, and nine days ago, the elementary school in Connecticut. We are not feeling very safe. We’re not keeping our children safe. A study by the Children’s Defense Fund found that we lose some 2,800 children and teenagers to guns annually. That’s more than the number of American troops who have died in any year in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. More than twice as many preschoolers die annually from gun violence in America as law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty.
Gun suicides (nearly 19,000 a year in the U.S.) outnumber gun murders (more than 11,000), and a gun in the home increases the risk that someone in the home will succeed at committing suicide. And here the most disturbing statistic: Every two months, we lose more Americans to gun violence than we lost in the 9/11 attacks. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/20/opinion/kristof-looking-for-lessons-in-newtown.html?ref=nicholasdkristof We need to address this fear. We need to choose life over this constant death.
We need to work against gun violence through better control. Plus we need to work for good mental health support systems for all people. But as the writer of the book, Far from the Tree, a study of the family of the Colombine perpetrator Klebold, Andrew Solomon says, we do not have any easy out by blaming the family and friends for not spotting a disaster in the making. “If we want to stem violence, we need to begin by stemming despair.” Despair and self-hatred are at the root of this tragedy. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/opinion/sunday/anatomy-of-a-murder-suicide.html?src=recg&_r=0 There is too much fear and not enough good news spilling over as hope, peace, love, and joy in our world!
“Fear”: That word shows up 438 times in the Bible, the word “afraid” 217 times, the word “terrified” 47 times. But for people of God fear never gets the last word, unless we are referring to the often repeated Biblical notion of holding God in highest reverence – often when the word “fear” is used, it is in reference to God, but it has a different connotation there, just as we use the word love to describe how we feel about family members as well as favorite foods. But fear, being afraid, worrying or even being terrified, that is never the final answer for Christians. Fear moves to comfort and joy. Hear these reassurances:
NRS Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
NRS Psalm 27:1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
NRS Isaiah 35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come and save you."
NRS Daniel 10:19 He said, "Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous
At the time of Jesus birth, there were many reassurances to those who were afraid:
NRS Luke 1:12-13 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.
NRS Matthew 1:20 An angel of the Lord appeared to (Joseph) in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
NRS Luke 1:30-32 The angel said to Mary, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…”
In Jesus’ ministry he offered many reassurances to those who were afraid: to the disciples in the storm, to Jairus whose daughter was dying, to those who would worry about money, about having enough stuff.
At the time of Jesus death and resurrection, there were reassurances to fearful:
NRS John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
NRS Matthew 28:5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
NRS Matthew 28:10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
And now, listen carefully for the reassurances of the angels to the terrorized shepherds:
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them,
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another,
"Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us."
16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;
18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.
19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen,
as it had been told them. (NRSV)
When we are most afraid, perhaps we should look to see where the angels are, because in all of the stories which prepare for and announce Christ’s birth, there are always angels reassuring the ones who are scared. Particularly in difficult times, we are called to move like the shepherds from fear to joy, by listening to the message of angels. It is not easy in our rationalistic world to speak of angels, but I still believe. I believe that angels come to us in our dreams, as the angel did Joseph. I believe angels call us to active faithfulness and receptiveness to God, as they did Mary.
I believe angels come to reassure us and remind us that God has brought us good news of great joy, charging us to go to the manger each year, as we also go to the cross each year, to walk through the life and teachings of Jesus, and weekly to feast on him in our hearts through Word and Sacrament. In every encounter with angels, the first charge is “Be not afraid.”
So let’s us move into the twelve days of Christmas and into a brand new year, unafraid because we know the good news of great joy! We have a Savior who came to show us God’s great love, to lead us toward peace, and to fill us with hope.
It is that Savior who empowers one like Leigh Knauert, Tricia’s friend, to proclaim the good news even at her 14 year old son’s funeral, after his suicide. When you hear these excerpts from her proclamation, you will know she is surrounded by angels and uplifted by the prayer and presence of so many:
Only because my cries have been heard, by God and by many of you, have I been able to stand in this new place and enter into the healing that has taken place in my life over the past three years. Because I have been able to say how bad the bad is, I can also say how good the good is.
I remember well in the weeks after (my husband) David died, feeling like I was every bit as overwhelmed by the goodness of people stepping in and caring for us in unimaginable ways as I was by the awfulness of the fact that my husband had just died and I was left alone to face life and raise four children.
The horror of (my son) Peter’s death is overwhelming in a much different way, and I have, in one week, been faced with things that have not yet and never will surface in grieving David. What I do know is this: Like those being addressed in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, I have two choices in front of me. Chapter 30 verse 19 says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”
I would literally have to bury my head in a hole to not be blinded by the light of God’s love that so many of you have allowed to shine through yourselves. I cannot reject it; I cannot turn away from it. I can and indeed will be distracted from it, pulled back into the dark, painful places of my reality, but I am convinced that choosing life will always be my ultimate decision because I have had the gift of seeing what that choice looks like in the very best and in the very worst of situations.
I stand here today to tell you that even in the unspeakable awfulness of what has happened to Peter, death will not have the final word, not in my house and not in my family. Horrific images and haunting questions of why will not be my focus, even though they will manage to creep in sometimes.
Darkness and evil and horror and sadness and guilt and pain will not be the last thing left at the end of the day. I will continue to tell them that they have no place in a life and in a family that has been won over by Jesus’ message of triumphant love.
Like all the grieving families in Newtown, CT, Leigh has many hard days ahead of her, so do many of us. But she is choosing life over death. She is will not let fear have the last word. Nor will we! Because we listen to messages of the angels.