If you were here last year, you might remember what I preached about. I started out by saying this. I told you that ministers hate preaching the Christmas Eve sermon. See every year our churches fill up on Christmas Eve, we sing the most glorious music, we light candles, and then comes the moment when everyone looks at us and expects us to say something interesting.
And it’s not that I don’t like Christmas, or preaching. But, like I said last year, there’s not much new that can be said about the Christmas story. I preach on a different Bible story every weekend, but here’s the secret…no one remembers those. You, on the other hand, know this story.
You know it because you’ve heard it your whole lives. And, you know it because you have heard Linus tell it year after year during “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. And here’s another secret: I can’t do any better than Charlie Brown. When Charles Schultz made that special fifty years ago he basically set up every preacher for failure on Christmas Eve.
But here we are anyway. The sermon. And, like I said last year, I have three Christmas sermons.
1. Don’t be like the innkeeper. When the love of God comes to your front door, don’t say there’s no room at the inn.
2. Don’t limit Christmas to one day a year, or even one season. Make Christmas a year round affair.
3. Don’t extinguish the light. Christmas is about the light of Christ coming into this world, so let the light burn bright.
So there you go…you can say you heard three sermons on Christmas Eve. Tell people that and they are going to think you are super holy.
But this year, I started thinking maybe there’s a fourth sermon too. And here’s what it’s about: fear. Actually it’s not about fear so much, as it’s about the overcoming of fear, and the triumph of God’s love.
Throughout the Christmas story, every time someone hears from an angel, the angel says the same thing: Do not be afraid. When Mary finds out she’s pregnant? Don’t be afraid. When Joseph finds out Mary’s pregnant? Don’t be afraid. When the shepherds are visited by the angels? Don’t be afraid. Again and again, every time the angels pop up they say the same thing.
That can’t be a coincidence.
See, I think that every time the angels told people something they knew it was terrifying. Mary was a young unwed woman who was being told she was pregnant. Joseph was her baffled husband-to-be. The shepherds were just out in the fields minding their own business when all these angels popped up all around them. And they were, as Linus says, “sore afraid”.
And yet, every time, the angels say “don’t be afraid”.
I don’t think it worked. If an angel told me that kind of news, I think I would still be pretty afraid. But the thing is that even in their fear, despite the fact their whole worlds were being turned upside down, they dared to be courageous too.
Mary, the unwed young woman becomes the mother of God. Joseph, who was really having to take a lot on faith here, became a good father to Jesus. The shepherds, who had been happy just to watch the sheep, decided to leave the safety of the fields and go and find the baby. And the three kings had the courage to worship a king that was greater than them.
There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. If anything, to be afraid and to choose to do something that terrifies you anyway makes you even more courageous. The ones who do that, the Marys and Jospehs and Shepherds, they are the characters we want to be. But the ones who don’t, like the inn keeper who turns the holy family away? We know we want to do better. And so the question left for us is this: do we trust our faith more than our fears?
We live in a world that tells us to be afraid. Be afraid of unknown danger. Be afraid of people who come from other places. Be afraid that there’s not enough for everyone, so do all you can to make sure you get yours. Fear and bunker mentalities sell. Big time.
But the message of Christmas is the exact opposite. It’s what the angels told everyone they met: do not be afraid, Something amazing is about to happen. Open your heart. Let the light in.
At Christmas that’s our choice. How will we greet Christ’s challenge to us? Will it be with fear? Or will it be with faith?
I’ll close with this. In 1818 a new Christmas hymn was played for the first time in Austria. It had been a rough year. There was a famine, and a war was just ending. Even the old organ at the church had been eaten through by mice, and there wasn’t any money to repair it. And so a priest and a musician came up with a new song that could be played on a guitar, the only instrument they had.
The song endured, and about a hundred years later, in the thick of World War I, across British and German lines, the first lines rang out in German: Still nacht. Heilige nacht. And then, from the same German voice, they came in English: Silent night. Holy Night.
That was the start of the Christmas Truce. Both sides stopped the fighting. Not only that, they began to sing carols back and forth to one another. And, finally, slowly, they began to emerge from their separate trenches, and to meet one another in the space between.
Can you imagine being the first guy who dared to do that? Who popped his head out and stood up? Can you imagine the fear? But, oh, can you imagine the faith, and the desire that, on the night that the Prince of Peace was born, God’s children should live in peace.
It takes courage to open your heart up to what, or who, you’ve been taught to fear. But more than anything else, that is the work of Christmas. If we cannot do that with one another, then we cannot do that with Christ.
But if we dare to rise above the places where are hearts are entrenched, we might find a peace we never knew could exist. And we might find that Christ’s light is burning so brightly that we can no longer be too afraid to love.
And so, that’s my fourth Christmas sermon. So now you can tell people you heard not three but four sermons on Christmas Eve. Now you’re super extra holy.
But whatever else you are, know this: you are loved by God, and God is calling you out to love others this Christmas, because God is calling you to follow this newborn Prince of Peace. I can’t promise you will never be afraid, but I can promise that God will always be beside you, no matter what. Because, as Linus might say, that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. May it be so for you this year and always.