For the overwhelmed, frightened, and lonely Christ is here with hope.
By Rev. Chris Rice
Luke 2:7 “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (ESV)
Christian preaching is often filled with sentimental platitudes, especially this time of year. One can get used to hearing things that we expect to hear and just tune it out. The cry of our hearts this time of year can be, “Why God do I try so hard and it seems to be all in vain?”, but we come to church expecting to hear again, “There is a light in the darkness. God is near you. Do not fear. Don’t give up.”
I believe people need a fierce hope in these dark times. Hope not for fleeting things, but in the “God of Hope who fills us with all joy and peace in believing, that we may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 15:13). This is a dark time of year for so many people. Broken people, broken families, broke homes, broken streets, broken neighborhoods, broken cities, and yet this is the holidays for feasting and celebration. And a lot of us are feeling like we just can’t do it. Can’t find something to celebrate. Don’t want to go to another dinner. Just want to be left alone.
At times we all feel overwhelmed, frightened, and all alone in this world. Into that reality Christ comes. He didn’t come to fix it all right away. He didn’t come hoping that in adoring a cherubic baby bathed in light we might experience some warmth…No, the story we celebrate at the end of the year is an end and a beginning. A baby wrapped in strips of cloth reminds of death as well as new life.
I must ask you, “What is it you are hoping for?” Are you hoping for the pain in your body to be lessened or your strength to be renewed? Are you hoping for children to be obedient when you talk to them? Are you hoping not to get sick with the flu? Maybe you’re hoping for bigger things, like for fewer young black men and women killed by guns. Maybe you want economic justice, better wages, affordable housing, affordable healthcare. And you come to church and you’re thinking, “Where is this God of justice who once again claims to love us all and want the best for us?” “How long, O Lord must we wait for redemption in our time?”
I’m not going to be one to offer you easy answers. I’m not going to tell you that when Jesus of Nazareth, born of the virgin Mary, was wrapped in strips of cloth, and laid in an animal’s feed bin, that all the world suddenly woke up and called Him King of Kings. Because that didn’t happen. If anything, this birth reminds the world that our hope is not in another interim lord of Palestine. One kingdom after another has come and gone and left it’s mark on our world. One lord after another from Caesar Augustus to President Obama have come and are going, all claiming to offer hope in this world. But it remains a very dark place. Dark, but not without light.
- The Nativity is not the Resurrection. We all ache with the knowledge that things are not right, that we can do better. There are many ways to look at the birth of Jesus. The one way not to see it is as a triumph. The manger is meant to point to the cross and resurrection. The nativity is a lesser feast in the Christian year. And we can’t let our culture’s emphasis on Christmas as a time of giving and receiving gifts cause us to forget that Jesus is realized as Lord of Time and Eternity after the resurrection.
- The Nativity is the Incarnation. The way we should understand the birth of Christ is as God’s entrance into our humanity. Immanuel: God with us. There was nothing natural or organic about it. God had to come in disguise, through a young woman promised in marriage but who had never been intimate with him. She would no doubt be misunderstood by many in her family and town, but she would treasure the story of this birth for generations to come. God wanted to be human to be Immanuel, close to us, human with us.
When the Messiah came into this world, God chose overwhelmed, frightened, lonely people to encourage one another. Let’s think of their names: Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, John, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna. And there were strangers brought near: the magi from the east and the shepherds in a nearby field. There was an angry ruler, Herod, who pretended to want to worship the Messiah, but actually wanted to exterminate him. And there were new places to which Jesus’ family would flee and settle: Egypt and Nazareth.
The gospel of Jesus is told in the biblical books of Matthew and Luke. There are more angelic visitations in these chapters than at any other point in the life of Christ. Mary might have felt completely alone, overwhelmed, and afraid had not the angel Gabriel visited her. She would have had no support had God not done a miracle in Elizabeth and Zechariah’s life, giving them a baby in their old age. There were no doubt many young married couples yearning for children at this time, unable to conceive, but God chose a virgin and an elderly couple. Why would God choose people who were not asking for babies? Wouldn’t this make them more overwhelmed, frightened, and anxious? But that’s what God did.
Mary went to visit Elizabeth and her baby, John, lept in her womb and Elizabeth marveled at it. Mary marveled and sang: “His mercy is for those who fear him in generation after generation.” (Luke 1:50) I encourage you to read Luke 1:39-80 and learn more about how Mary was encouraged and strengthened by Elizabeth. Both of these women were no doubt overwhelmed and frightened, but together they were not alone. They were assured in their callings. Together they could make it as they lived in the fear of the Lord and committed themselves to doing His will.
When we consider the people God used to welcome Christ into the world we see first that they were not all from the same family. Not all were even Jews, he brought the magi from the east. Most had very little reference point for their part. They were all surprised and were given little time to prepare. Mary had the most time of any of them. But were she to sit down with each one and explain what God had told her would they have understood? How could they understand?
What they all shared in common was a desire to do the will of God. They wanted to be part of His story. This is the true value for us in understanding this story. Now, of course, old Herod only understood his own lust for power. And this would lead him to want to kill to preserve his line of power. But all the others, from Joseph to the Shepherds to Simeon and Anna in the temple who waited just to hold Jesus, they were there to do their part to the praise of God’s glory.
The gospel of John tells us what God was doing in sending Christ the light: “The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:9-14, ESV)
He came to those who would receive him. And its amazing to marvel that this birth we celebrate gives us all a birth-right when we receive Christ. We are, “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God”. The story of Jesus is the beginning of our own new story. Sadly, we often forget our true birth rights when confronted by our problems. I have a friend who celebrates two birthdays. When she came to believe in Christ she started to celebrate her new birthday to remind herself of the change God made in her life. She thinks of that day as the day she really started living. Every year she remembers the day Christ came into her heart for the first time.
When you really know and serve Jesus it changes your whole reason for being. Fearing the Lord, or wanting to do His will instead of disobeying Him becomes more important than any other agenda in our lives. The shepherds, though terrified by the apparitions they saw in the night sky, were more afraid of not seeing what the angels told them about. They couldn’t live their lives without Christ in them. And when we receive Him it is the same thing. How can you live your life wanting to do your own thing when God has something so much better?
When we come to fear God fear gets turned on its head because in trusting that our loving Creator has a purpose for our lives we know that anything outside that purpose is the real thing to fear. Fear has no real power in his love. The only thing we really need to fear is sinning against His will.
It is perfectly natural to get overwhelmed by life’s problems. Feelings of fear and loneliness are powerful in us for a reason. We need physical warnings in our bodies when danger comes around. Those feelings are God-given. The problem comes when we’re not really listening to God at all but are trusting in other things instead of him. Some trust in a monthly government check. They know the very hour their check is due to arrive, and their friends know the hour too. Old debts will soon be repaid and their minds are flooded with thoughts of freedom from want and what comforts will come with that money in hand. But along with the money come more unforeseen problems. We all need money, but why can’t it provide love, companionship, and freedom from fear? Because it wasn’t meant to.
This week I’ve met with people literally shaking with fear for what’s overtaken them. A father and mother with four children seeking shelter, the father breaks down into tears when he hears we have an overnight emergency shelter. He can’t imagine this is what life has come to. He is a man and his family needs him. Where will they go? A woman who is so overcome by fear and anxiety that when I take her hand and pray with her, her fingers lock onto my hand and she seems unable to let go. She cannot stop crying and her short and long term plan at this moment is simply to die. Only this morning I rouse a man who is sitting in the cold rain behind our shelter. His hands are numb from the cold and the rain is dripping off of him as he stands. He’s been consuming so much alcohol that I know he will die if he does not move. I give him a hat and gloves and directions to the drop in shelter. I know that without this he’ll die of hypothermia. How do we listen, how do we smile, how can we be present for them?
When we look at the birth of Christ we find people who did not say, “No.” They were willing to listen and hear and move and put their very lives on the line to do God’s will. They could not do everything, but in small and large ways they bore witness to God’s mercy and cared for the new life he was bringing into the world. Some, like Simeon and Anna were there to encourage and remind Mary and Joseph that He is the One we’ve been waiting for!
The question is not whether we will ever feel overwhelmed, afraid or alone. We will feel these things. In this life we are ever reminded of the presence of death and its imminent possibility. Jesus was wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a feed trough, probably in a grotto, or cave that kept the wind and rain out. This image should give us pause and cause us to remember that we humans had no more power than the animals to keep the Christ from peril. They all sought shelter together. The most amazing thing is that God would humble himself and be born like the rest of us, through another fragile human body, into a world waiting to execute him. How could God become so vulnerable? And why would he do that?
When we accept that God came near out of love for us, we can understand that his love will sustain through whatever fearful path we are on now. God has not led us this far to fail. We are worth it because we are spiritual beings. In Christ we are what God is making us. We should be most afraid of telling our loving Creator and Savior that He doesn’t know His business.
Life will overwhelm us, we will be afraid, we will feel all alone within ourselves. But when our desire is to do the will of God and when we accept with gratitude the grace He offers even where we don’t know what the step after that is, He grows our faith and give us patience. We never stop changing, and life never stops changing. It feels wrong to have so much change happening all the time. But God believes that we can do His will. He has entrusted us with a ministry of reconciliation. He will give us what we need today for doing His will if we ask.
Heavenly Father, we just want to thank you for seeing fit to include us in your redemption plan. When we see how you used young and old women and men, fearful people, lonely people—to accomplish your purpose we marvel and are grateful. Come to us now O Lord and birth in us the promise of your saving help. Not for ourselves only but so that we might do your will. Some of us now feel we are too poor, to needy, too broken to be used by you. And so we lift them up and ask for your grace at this hour. Do in us what we can’t do for ourselves. Change our minds and give us the mind of Christ.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Chris Rice