(Based on a Meditation Delivered at Irvington Covenant Church, Portland, Oregon, December 21, 2014)
By Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D.
When I was a little child, I used to run back and forth throughout the house for hours on end with a towel for a cape exclaiming, “Never fear! Underdog is here!” Don’t worry. I won’t do that this morning. After all, it is supposed to be a brief meditation! Still, the Underdog line bears upon this message: “Rejoice! Don’t fear! The Lord is near!”
We live in a culture of fear. It fills the air, even at Christmas time this year. Fears over our personal finances and the economy, fractured relationships with friends and family, and violence in society shape us. Remember the Clackamas Town Center and Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings from two years ago? Remember Ferguson and New York not too long ago, where Michael Brown and Eric Garner died at the hands of Police Officers? So, too, in New York over the weekend, a man killed two Police Officers without warning or provocation. We live in a culture of fear. It suffocates us. We cannot breathe.
Clarence Larkins put it so well last week in speaking out about the system of fear and recent and historic, tragic events in places like Ferguson, Missouri and New York City:
“What is it that caused the death of these Black Men? It’s a system of fear. You are supposed to protect me, but how can you protect me when you fear me? You fear my size and my color so you treat me worse than others. It’s a system of fear. Your system despise me, don’t trust me so you block me. I have dreams, hopes, goals, and I have family and a community that knows me and loves me. Please don’t block me with your system of fear.”
Clarence did not leave it there. As he always does, he moved from the problem to the solution:
“2nd Tim. 1:7 God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and self-control. My Christian Brothers and Sisters when we witness a system that is unjust, speak up with the spirit of power, love, and self-control and see how Christ changes a system of fear to a spirit of love. Hands up don’t shoot. I can’t breathe. Two statements that expose a broken system and cost a movement around the nation. John 3:16 For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that who so ever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That is the Word that will save the world, and heal a broken system. Spread the Good News, to God all life matters.” (Clarence Larkins, Senior, taken from “Black Life Matters,” December 14, 2014, Irvington Covenant Church)
“How can you protect me, when you fear me?” The system is broken and so is the record we keep playing in our heads. We need to change the record. As God’s “angelic” messengers to one another, we need to produce a new album and encourage one another not to fear, but to rejoice because of the good news of Jesus: the Lord is near. As the angel said to Mary about the miraculous births of Jesus and John the Baptist, “Nothing is impossible with God.” We can respond to the system of fear in view of God’s Word of love that alone can and WILL save the world. REJOICE!
Let’s take a look at biblical texts surrounding Jesus’ birth. The hope of the world was born into a culture of fear—fear of the Romans, fear of Herod, even a distorted fear of God. God breaks through to a system replaying a broken record of fear through his Word, ultimately his personal Word who became flesh (See John 1:14), and through our faith and obedience to his Word. We find that God's Word and our faith and obedience to his Word trump fear. We find these themes present in the following passages surrounding Jesus' birth:
- Luke 1:13: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.” (ESV; emphasis added)
- Luke 1:43-45: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (ESV; emphasis added)
- Luke 1:30-38: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. FOR NOTHING WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (ESV; emphasis added)
- Luke 1:46-55: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (ESV; emphasis added)
- Luke 2:10-12: “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.” (ESV; emphasis added)
Let me sum up these texts in view of our meditation this morning, including the highlighted biblical texts: God speaks and promises. God fulfills his promises. God’s people should not fear, but rejoice, for nothing is impossible with God. In this light, we should take to heart his Word and obey God like Mary and the shepherds: Don’t fear. Rejoice! The Lord is near! Share this Word with others!
This is no fairy tale. This good news was not a pie in the sky Christmas wish. Whenever people have taken hold of this story by faith, it has revolutionized them, just as it did Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi from the distant East, the Apostles, and others up to the present day. God came down to earth to IDENTIFY with people who were on the outside looking in. God with us, Immanuel! (See Matthew 1:23)
Jesus was born in a manger outside the inn in Bethlehem. He was born of a virgin peasant girl, not Cleopatra. His father was not Caesar, but a humble carpenter living in Nazareth, not Rome or Jerusalem. A people who had everything to fear now had everything to believe and be relieved that God was near, that he heard their cry, and acted on their behalf. The world around them told them their lives did not matter. Because of Jesus, we see that their lives do matter.
The world often tells us “Black lives don’t matter.” Jesus tells and shows us that Black lives do matter.
The world often tells us “Your and my life does not matter.” Jesus tells and shows us that our lives do matter. A rabbi who recently spoke on Judaism to my world religions class passionately decried the ideology so prominent in our society that “You’re an accident.” “No one is an accident,” he exclaimed. Everyone has significance before God. Everyone is fearfully and wonderfully made. So, your and my lives are not accidents. We do matter. Your life matters. Black lives matter. NYPD and all Blue Lives matter: Just as some have turned to hashtags to show support for the fallen—“#BlackLivesMatter” for the recent slayings of African American men by Police Officers and “#BlueLivesMatter” for the recent slayings of Police Officers (See the discussion at CNN.com), so we need to put the hashtag on our hearts “#AllLivesMatter”. Jesus became matter to identify with us and demonstrate to us that all lives matter.
The world often tells us “The church does not matter” or “This church does not matter.” Jesus tells and shows us that our church and the people of the church do matter. Though we are small in number, we are precious to God. There is no place that I would rather be this morning than with you. Our church is precious and profound, no matter the struggles we face. Our life together matters to me. Our life together matters to God.
Words and ideas/ideologies make a difference. They matter. They shape imaginations and create movements. Just think of ISIS. Just think of Nazism. From the opposite end of the spectrum, think of Jesus and his revolutionary ideals and life that created a movement that quenched retribution and hate with redemption and love. Think of how this revolution of love movement shaped the words and imagination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement that he led. Think of Apple’s motto—“Think Different.”
We need to “think different” and no longer look at anyone from a human point of view in view of Jesus. Our words are often self-fulfilling prophecies. We project onto people our views of who they are and what they will be. All too often, our prophecies are fulfilled, as we project fear onto them until they become the realization of our fears. Perhaps we do that with those in our families and neighborhoods and work places and churches? Perhaps we do that with one another? We need to change the record. It’s broken. Instead of projecting onto others our fears and fostering self-fulfilling prophecies in the lives of people and society and church, we need to live in view of the fulfillment of the prophecies surrounding Jesus’ birth—Luke 2:10-12: “And the angel said to them, ‘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; emphasis added).
Our words and ideas and actions to share the good news that all life matters in view of Jesus can make a difference. They can make a difference because Jesus is the ultimate difference maker. This God who comes close to us as Jesus will save the world. We cannot save the world, nor can anyone calling for change in our day. We need to live in view of what Jesus has done and live in view of his coming again today. In fact, he is with us today—God with us, Immanuel.
What kind of community do we aspire to be—one filled with fear, one that rehearses the broken record of a system captivated by fear? Or will we continue to press in and be captured and liberated by God’s love that devours fear? Let’s continue to pray and live with and for one another in view of Jesus. Let’s submit in obedience to his Word together, like Mary and the others. Let’s continue to share the good news of Jesus’ life and love with one another and those we meet: REJOICE! DON’T FEAR. THE LORD IS NEAR! HIS LOVE ALONE CONSUMES OUR FEARS. SPREAD THE WORD. NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD. REJOICE!
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths and Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold. More information at Dr. Metzger’s work is available at paullouismetzger.com.