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2007-12-18 issue:

All our hopes and fears

In an age of terror, we respond to God’s greatest act of love by living hopefully rather than fearfully.

by Mike Clymer

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The story of history’s greatest act of love and hope—the Christmas story—is also a tale of fear and terror. Consider the contrast in the responses of the Wise Men and King Herod to the birth of Jesus.

When the Wise Men saw the star of Christmas rise in the east, they were so inspired, so filled with hope, that they embarked on an arduous journey to find and worship the newborn Christ. Somehow they knew, didn’t they? The Wise Men knew the significance of what had happened that night in the cosmos, in the world, in Bethlehem, in a manger. They brought gifts fit not for an infant but for a king. The Bible says that when they saw the star, which led them to Jesus, they were overjoyed. When they saw the child with his mother, Mary, they bowed down and worshiped him—the Messiah, the realization of their hopes.

Unfortunately, on the way to finding the Christ-child, they stopped to ask directions in Jerusalem. When King Herod the Great heard they were looking for the newborn king of the Jews, he responded differently from the Magi. He was so disturbed, so filled with fear, that he embarked on a plan to kill the Christ-child. When the Wise Men never came back to tell him where Jesus was, Herod gave orders to murder all the boys in the Bethlehem region who might have been born around the same time as the Messiah. Whereas the Wise Men responded to the Christ’s birth with hope and joy, Herod responded with fear and violence.

Our two most basic motivations are love and fear. The love I refer to is “agape”—the love concerned for the well-being of all. This is the love expressed in 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not boast, it is not proud” NIV) and John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world”). It is the love that offers grace as the solution in difficult situations, the love that gives us hope, God’s love as manifested in the birth of Jesus. When we are motivated by love we are at our best; those are the moments when we sense God’s Spirit moving us. We know intuitively that actions motivated by love bring glory to God. These are the most generous, most worshipful things we do—not unlike the Wise Men’s journey to find the Christ.

While I pray to be guided by that love, by God’s love, all the time, I recognize that the other great motivation in life is fear. I’m shocked when I consider how much of what I do is driven by fear of one sort or another: fear of illness, fear of pain, fear of humiliation, fear of poverty, fear of exclusion. And those are just a few of the obvious ones for me. Many of our fears are difficult to identify; those unnamed fears may be the most powerful ones of all. Fear sometimes motivates us to do constructive things, such as buckle our seat belts, study for tests or pay our bills on time, but just as often fear pushes us in darker, more destructive directions.

Much of the violence in our lives and in our world is rooted in fear. Whereas agape love is expansive and generous and gracious, fear is by its nature selfish, concerned with me and those closest to me. As powerful a force as fear can be, its effect on us is to make us smaller, meaner. When we are motivated by fear, we are often at our worst, not unlike Herod as he furiously gave the order to slaughter so many innocents.

Just as I wish I would respond more often out of God’s love rather than selfish fear, so I pray that our world would choose the way of the Wise Men rather than the way of Herod. But these are fearful times, and we live in a fearful society. We are much consumed these days by terror and terrorism. The Sept. 11 attacks six years ago were designed not only to kill thousands of innocent people but to spread fear among the rest of us. Too often our political leaders are ready and willing to exploit that fear in order to garner support for policies or win elections. This perpetuates a dismaying cycle of suspicion, accusation and fear-mongering that appeals to our basest instincts rather than our highest ideals. We even have a color-coded “terror alert” system that tells us just how afraid we should be. In the midst of such pervasive, manipulative fear, it is tempting to assume we have no choice but to live fearfully.

Yet we Christians know better, don’t we? We know about agape love. We know that God’s grace can break those cycles of fear and violence. We know that our security and our hope are based not on military might or economic power but on the birth of that Christ-child in a dusty manger in Bethlehem. And we know there is always a choice—a fundamental choice—to give in to our fears or hold on to our hope that God’s way is love.

How then do we enter the heart of the Christmas season, some 2,000 years after the event that inspired such different responses from the Wise Men and King Herod? Ostensibly this is the season of hope and good cheer, a time of celebrating love and generosity, a chance to spend meaningful time with friends and family in recognition of God’s great gift to us. Yet we carry our fears with us into this season as well, don’t we? The holiday season often brings a rise in rates of anxiety and depression. It can be among the busiest, most pressure-filled, stressful times of the year. The commercialization of Christmas on TV and in shopping malls all too easily drowns out the authentic message of Jesus’ humble birth. I sometimes find the cumulative effect of all this festivity inspires more selfishness than generosity, more weariness than joy.

But as the Wise Men knew, what happened that momentous night in Bethlehem was something still worth celebrating 2,000 years later. God changed the world with love and generosity, and in the process God freed us from all our fears. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.” And the heavenly host joined in, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” This was God’s cosmic response to his lost creation. This was God’s personal response to each little lost sheep. To a world of violence, God offered peace. To a world of selfishness, God offered generosity. To a world of brokenness, God offered healing. To a world of fear, God offered hope.

God’s gift of Jesus—the gift of love, the freedom from fear—though freely offered, nonetheless provides us with the choice of how to respond. Do we recognize Jesus as the Christ, God’s generosity incarnate, and live our lives motivated by grace and hope? Are we Wise Men and Women, or do we succumb, like Herod, to our fears?

If we journey, like Wise Men and Women, to find the Christ-child this Christmas season, perhaps we don’t carry with us offerings of gold, incense and myrrh but rather our fears—fears that bind us, weigh us down, narrow our vision and harden our hearts, fears based on past experiences, fears springing from current difficulties, fears imagined in the future, fears to offer to the King, to the one who can free us from all our fears. Zephaniah 3 (NIV) promises: “The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. … Do not fear, O Zion. … The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” The birth of Jesus represents the realization of those promises, a new covenant between a loving God and his beloved creation, the source of all our hopes.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Mike Clymer is a member of Jubilee Mennonite Church, Meridian, Miss. This article is adapted from a Christmas sermon he gave last December.

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