Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. One of the difficulties that preachers have at times like Christmas and Easter is trying to figure out what to say about these stories with which we all have become overly familiar—so familiar, in fact, that unfortunately they often lose the power to surprise us anymore and hold our interest only slightly more than reruns of television Christmas specials we have watched for decades. Quite frankly, when it comes to the Christmas story, we know what to expect (or at least we think we do). So how do you say something in a sermon that seems fresh and relevant year after year after year?
The same thing can happen with our favorite Christmas carols, hymns that may still strike a sentimental chord, but which we do not really have to think about. For example, in “Away in a Manger,” we give no serious consideration to the line, “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” (LSB 364:1), which, as cute as it sounds, is simply nonsensical. After all, Jesus was fully human—a real boy—and real babies cry real tears. There ain’t no sin in it! Or we sing a rousing chorus of “Joy to the World” without marveling at the rich theology of the entire hymn, particularly its third verse: “He comes to make His blessings flow/Far as the curse is found” (LSB 387:3). To which curse does Isaac Watts refer? And how is the birth of Christ the undoing of the curse?
Do you see what I’m after? If we rehearse the songs and stories of Christmas by rote, we miss the meaning of what it’s all about.
But then sometimes there is that unexpected surprise when a word or phrase from a Scripture or hymn gets stuck in your head and suddenly surprises you by the mystery or profundity of what it is trying to say. And even though you may not be entirely sure what it is trying to say, the more you come back to it, the more you sense there is something exciting to discover—like peeling back layer after layer of an onion.
This happened to me recently with the hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which, admittedly, is probably one of my least favorite Christmas carols. But a few weeks ago, while listening to the Christmas playlist on my iPod one line from the hymn caught me off guard and sent me reeling ever since. It’s the last line of the first stanza: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” (LSB 361:1). Hear that again: “the hopes and fears of all the years.” What does that mean? I think I have an idea what the hope is all about: the birth of Israel’s Messiah, the Savior who would undo the hurt of the world and set wrong to right by his life, death, and resurrection. (Although, perhaps, I shouldn’t be so certain that I don’t allow hope to surprise me too!).
But what are the “fears of all the years”? Whose fears? What fears? The holy family’s fears? Bethlehem’s fears? Israel’s? Yours? Mine? The whole world’s fears? Maybe Joseph and Mary were afraid of what it would mean to raise the Son of God; should they treat him like any other ordinary boy, or should they handle him with kid gloves? Maybe the Jews were afraid that Messiah would never come, the kingdom would never return, and they would never be a nation again. Maybe they were afraid of how high Caesar’s taxes would be this time and whether or not they were going to have to mortgage the farm to pay the tax collector. Perhaps they feared war or plague, fire or flood, famine, or any other innumerable ways to die. Worst of all, they might have been afraid that God had forgotten and forsaken them, or would never forgive them.
What are “the hopes and fears of all the years” for you and your family, the worries and anxieties from which you are desperately seeking distraction tonight? What do you fear on this Christmas Eve? Are you afraid of spending another holiday alone? Are you fearful that you won’t be able to pay your bills this year and you’re going to lose your job or house and get buried in more and more debt? Are you afraid that the United States will be hit by another terrorist attack or that you yourself will be the victim of another mass shooting at your school or workplace? Are you afraid that our country is going to hell in a handbasket? (Aside: If that is your concern, then perhaps the best investment advice for 2016 might be to invest in a company that manufacturers hand baskets!) Are you afraid that people will finally figure out that you’re a fool, a fraud, or a phony? Are you afraid that your spouse doesn’t love you anymore? Are you afraid that you’re never going to see your kids again or reconcile with your estranged siblings? Are you afraid of dogs or cats? Afraid of spiders? Afraid of going to the dentist? Afraid of death? Are you afraid of God? On a scale of 1 to 10, how fearful are you? Perhaps you simply have the same neurosis as Charlie Brown from A Charlie Brown Christmas: pantaphobia, “the fear of everything!”
Now let me tell you about my “hopes and fears,” about what I fear the most. First, I’m afraid that I’m not as smart as I think I am and that someday people are going to notice. Preaching sermons still scares me; I have nightmares about losing my manuscript or forgetting my clothes nearly every Saturday night! I also have nightmares about someone kidnapping my kids or them getting a terrible disease. Worse yet, I’m afraid that I am unwittingly doing great harm in my childrearing. (Too much discipline or not enough? Too lenient or too strict? Am I spoiling them or withholding too much? Am I the only one who stresses stuff like this?!) I’m afraid that I’m going to get in another car wreck on I-25 due to a college kid on her cell phone and that this time I’ll end up dead or—worse—a “vegetable” who can no longer communicate my feelings or needs to the people around me. I’m afraid that I’m going to die young from a heart attack or stroke because I’m overweight and heart disease runs in my family. And more than anything, I’m afraid that I’ll get to the end of my life and discover that I haven’t accomplished anything worth remembering.
Those are just a small sample of my fears. I suppose you could say that I am a “worry wort.” Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, I might be the Charlie Browniest. By the way, I tell you this not for the sake of group therapy, but to be honest about the fact that, even though I’m a pastor, I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t have it all figured out yet. And that’s pretty scary for me.
Then into our doubt and despair cuts the angel’s sudden cry: “Fear not!” “Fear not,” declared the angel on that first Christmas so many years ago.
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12, ESV).
Fear not! Don’t be afraid! Stop biting your nails and running for cover! Stop worrying and fidgeting about tomorrow! I have Good News! Not bad news, not old news, not no news, but Good News!
And what is the Good News? What are the “glad tidings of great joy”? That Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Mary, is born on Christmas Day. Jesus is both Savior and Lord. He comes to save us from our sin and save us from our enemies. He comes to right the wrongs in the world and usher in the kingdom of God. He comes to judge the rulers of the earth and replace the curse with blessing and justice. He comes to bring “peace on earth” and “goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14) because in his very body, Jesus reconciles God and men by becoming man himself, born of a virgin, born as a little baby boy in Bethlehem. The Good News is that, because of Christ, humanity gets a fresh start and gets to put on a new face: the face of God in human flesh!
Jesus is the answer to “the hopes and fears of all the years,” not just for Israel, but also for you and me. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” (Isa. 9:6a). That doesn’t mean that all your problems are going to disappear just like that! [Snap fingers.] But it means that you are not on your own, and you don’t have to face your fears alone. God is with you! Christ Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us” (cf. Isa. 7:14). The sign and cause for hope given to King Ahaz in our Old Testament was the sign of Immanuel: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). Jesus is God with us and God for us. “What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). No one and nothing—not your fears, not your sins, not your disappointments and misplaced hopes. God will never give you more than you can handle with him. And, as some wise person once said, “The will of God will never take you where the grace of God cannot keep you.”
Truly, “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met in Jesus, the Savior and Lord, who was born for you, who died for you, and who lives and reigns forever for you. Not only is that Good News! It is the best news you’ll ever hear! So on this Christmas Eve, I hope and pray that you can set aside your fears for at least a little while and simply glory in the grace of God and the most wonderful gift of all: the birth of Christ our Lord. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12). Now, in wonder and praise, we join together in the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14, NIV). Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year! In Jesus’ name. Amen.