Christmas Eve

Matthew 2:13-18

I recently heard a popular comedian appealing to adults not to let their children watch the news. Let them live for a few years without fear and worry. Let them laugh and play. Then he laughed at himself and said, “I sound like an evangelist, don’t I?”

The comedian’s advice comes in the midst of a time when Americans are afraid, fueled by news of terrorism and racial unrest.

Beginning with a shooting in Memphis, Tennessee on January 1 that wounded five, to terrorist shootings by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino, CA that killed 14 and wounded 17, there have been 353 mass shootings in the United States this year, fueling record gun sales, fear among many Americans, and Islamaphobia.

“What does the Christ story have to offer us in the midst of this kind of world we are living in?”

In the Bible story, the command came from Caesar Augustus for the people to go to their hometowns to register. It was a terrible burden for many and a great inconvenience, especially for a woman nine months pregnant with a child like Mary, the mother of Jesus.

It was through this mass exodus of people that King Herod discovered that a child was going to be born in Bethlehem who was reported to be a king. Astrologers had been following a star which they believed would lead them to the place of his birth. When Herod learned of this and met these men, he asked them to return his way so he could go and worship this new king as well. But his plan was not to worship the child, but to kill him.

These men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and they never did. Because of this, Herod struck terror and fear into the land surrounding Bethlehem by having every male under the age of two killed.

Have we seen ISIS commit any crime any more gruesome? This was an act of terror, snatching babies from the arms of exasperated mothers while helpless fathers stood by.

Mary and Joseph in the first year of Jesus’ life, dealt with the kinds of terror and fear that have struck Paris and Charleston,SC, Houston, TX, Roseburg, OR, and San Bernardino, California.

Mary and Joseph understood fear like the Jews felt when they were being hunted by the Nazis, like Japanese Americans felt it when they were being rounded up to be placed in concentration camps during World War II, like the African Americans felt it when they were being hunted by the Klu Klux Klan, like Syrian refugees feel it today as they try to find some place that is safe from the civil war that’s devastating their country.

Mary and Joseph had to cross over from Israel into another country. Before they ever made Nazareth their home, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were refugees, seeking a place to stay, depending on the grace and mercy of strangers in Gentile territory. Thankfully, there were people there willing to take them in.

Fulfilling Christ’s commandment to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” does not come without risks. By nature, most of us want to minimize our risks. We want to protect our families. There is nothing wrong with that.

Based on the fact that Jesus and his family were once refugees, strangers in a distant land, how do you think Jesus wants us to respond to the strangers around us?

The Sunday after the attack on Paris, the Green Bay Packers played the Detroit Lions. Before the game there was a moment of silence in memory of the Paris victims. The silence was broken by one fan who yelled a derogatory comment at all Muslims.

Following the game, Aaron Rogers, the Green Bay quarterback called out the fan. He said, “I must admit, I was very disappointed with whoever the fan was who made a comment that I thought was really inappropriate during the moment of silence. It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that I think puts us in the position that we’re in today as a world.”

I think Rogers is swimming against the stream, but so did Jesus. It’s much easier to err on the side of caution. It’s much easier to hold every Muslim as suspect.

When I was a boy, no one wanted an African American family living next door. It was an unspoken rule that you did not put a “For Sale” sign in your yard if you were trying to sell your house, lest an African American family might want to buy it. You just let the word get out among the white families that your house was for sale. Why? Because white people held all black people suspect. They were stereotyped. Unless that that ever happens to any of us, we really don’t understand how it feels.

The Westboro Baptist Church is known for its hate speech against gays, Jews, and politicians. I’m sure you have heard of them. Members of the church have picketed funerals of those killed in action and those who have been victims of national tragedies. Their signs are highly offensive and judgmental. They are an embarrassment to Christians in general, Baptist in particular.

For anyone who didn’t know better, they’d get the idea that all Baptists have the same judgmental theology as these few hate-filled church members. If these people were someone’s examples of Baptists, and that person then met you, don’t you think it would be unfair to project that understanding of being Baptist onto you?

What is it that keeps us from becoming that fan that shouted out those offensive words about Muslims during the moment of silence?

What keeps us from thinking people of a particular race or color are all one way or another?

What keeps the hate from becoming a religious fervor? What keeps people from becoming haters but dressing it up and calling themselves a church?

When Jesus began his ministry as an adult, he became a threat to the religious authorities of his day because he challenged them to move the boundaries of who they called their neighbor.

The second greatest commandment is to love thy neighbor as thyself. That’s easy for most of us to do as long as our neighbor is white, middle class, Protestant, and SEC football.

Because of Jesus, we don’t allow fear to win the day. Instead, we allow our love for Jesus to be the overriding factor in our decision of how we treat others.

When Jesus was confronted by the threat of death by religious leaders, the fear of death did not have any power over him. Because of that, he was free to love all the people God had instructed him to love. He told them the truth was meant to set them free from sin. He did not allow their threats to cause him to cower in fear, nor did he change his message.

Have you walled off and made an effort to love them? Remember, just because you make the effort, that doesn’t mean you are going to be loved in return. You might be rejected. You might be wounded. For Jesus’ efforts, he was eventually killed. But he wasn’t afraid to love. Fear had no grasp on him. Jesus was free to love.

That’s part of what Jesus came to do, to set us free to love. Instead, many are enslaved by fear and when we are enslaved by fear, we will not risk loving others.

The freedom to love is incarnational. It is the reason Jesus was born. It is what makes Christmas unique.

Even as Herod put a plan together to kill the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding areas, an angel of God put a plan together to move Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt.

Even as people continue to plot to strike fear and death into our lives, the Lord makes plans to show us how we can continue to move with freedom to love others, not because we have to, but because we want to and because what the world needs now, more than ever, is love, sweet love.

Paul wrote to his friend Timothy that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7)

After the Second World War, can you think of anyone that Americans would have hated any more than a Nazi soldier? Perhaps a Japanese. We put Japanese Americans in concentration camps because our fears and racial prejudices ran so high.

A forgotten piece of history by many is that we brought 430,000 captured Nazi soldiers of war to the United States and placed them in work camps in mostly Southern regions because the weather was much more friendly.

There was a work camp in a small town called Clio just seven miles from where I grew up. My grandfather would drive his truck to Clio and get a truckload of these prisoners of war and take them to his farm to work under the watchful eye of a guard.

However, my grandmother insisted that if these men were going to work in her husband’s field, then they must come to her house for a noon meal. So each day, my grandmother prepared a noon meal for them and fulfilled

Jesus’ words when he commanded us to “love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us.”

My grandparents never told me that story. All the years I sopped gravy with biscuits and ate dumplings and cornbread, and my grandmother’s chocolate pie, I never knew Nazi soldiers once put their feet under her table.

Was it easy for her? I doubt it. Did she have some animosity in her heart knowing they likely killed some mother’s son? Perhaps. Was there laughter and joy around the table? I doubt it. There was a language barrier and a culture barrier, but the gift of hospitality to strangers, people different from them, people with different religion, philosophy, and beliefs about the world, was the beginning of what it took to break down the walls of separation that created war in the first place. Breaking bread on a farm in Barbour County Alabama with Nazi soldiers was the peace on earth, good will to men that Jesus was born for, that He died for, and he rose to life for.

If we are going to be His disciples, we must find it in our hearts to be as good hearted and set aside our prejudices of today as my grandparents did back in 1945.