In a couple of weeks, Christians around the world will enter the season of Advent, where we wait for the Light as we walk toward Christmas. Waiting is difficult because it requires us to acknowledge we do not have control over the future. Waiting on God is vulnerable before it can be anything else. This year will prove to be no less difficult a season of waiting, given the shadows currently maligning the world’s stage. We seek to live into a reign of peace as people who are literally surrounded by war and violence. Such is our calling, and it has been so from the very beginning. It is not for the faint of heart.
It is not for the fearful, either. Fear has such a strange effect on people. In some it produces hand-wringing and isolation. In others it produces rage and anger. Often, our fear triggers us to put on a full coat of armor in an attempt to avoid being affected by the pain and suffering of others, much less our own.
Thank God, Jesus chose none of these things. He chose to be with us, which, as it turns out, is his very name: Emmanuel.
From the very beginning of his story, there was so much to be afraid of. A young girl in a precariously scandalous looking situation wasn’t just news for the local gossip but something that would bring shame and consequence to Mary’s entire family. Thank God Joseph did not choose fear, but faith. Thank God Mary said yes.
When Mary was very pregnant, and they received word that they had to register for the census, they traveled to Bethlehem. When she went into labor, they couldn’t find any place to stay, until an innkeeper made room for them in his stables. Thank God he did not leave them out on the street. Thank God Jesus had even a manger for a bed. Thank God for hospitality, even the kind that happens in barns.
When power-hungry King Herod was visited by astrologers from the East seeking to greet a new child king, he felt threatened and began scheming ways to find and kill the child. Thank God the wise astrologers didn’t fall for it.
King Herod only became more unpredictable after the astrologers did not return with the information he requested, and he was as resolute as ever in eliminating any threat to his authority and control. Because of this fear, Herod ordered every male child under the age of two to be executed in Bethlehem and all the surrounding areas.
All of those lives lost, all of those grieving mothers and fathers and families, all because of one man’s fear expressed through violence. God have mercy. Choosing fear sometimes costs more than we can bear to imagine.
Joseph took his wife and newborn son and fled to Egypt. They remained in Egypt as refugees for many years, not returning to Israel until after Herod’s death. Thank God Egypt received the holy family when they arrived as stranger refugees.
Jesus did not come in a time of peace. He did not come into this world armed and guarded, with a security detail. Jesus came into this world as a vulnerable child born in a manger, who lived his earliest years as a foreign refugee fleeing a violent and unstable situation. He remained safe, and alive, because of the brave and kind hospitality given to him and to his parents by a stranger and a neighboring nation. He exists because Joseph and Mary did not choose fear, but faith.
The Son of God would never had been born if it were not for people who chose something other than fear to guide them. Mary chose uncertainty. Joseph chose fidelity. The innkeeper chose hospitality. The astrologers chose wisdom and discernment. The Egyptians chose empathy.
All so that Jesus could choose us.
All of us.
Every last one of us.
I thought of this as I pondered Matthew 25 the other day.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
To live in the way of Jesus is to choose courage, and peace, and wisdom, and hospitality, and empathy. We choose them not because they guarantee our personal safety or our national security. We choose them because we believe they are the way of life. We choose them because we trust that yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for God is with us. Emmanuel is with us. He chose to be with us, even when there were countless reasons to choose fear instead.
You can be afraid. Everyone is afraid. You would be crazy not to be afraid. Jesus himself, on the night of his death, was afraid. But there is a difference between feeling fear and choosing fear. You cannot help but feel fear. But it is up to you whether you continue to choose fear.
The world has never lacked reasons to choose fear. There were violent, senseless tragedies caused by fearful and cowardly men then, just as there are now. But if we are to celebrate the birth of Emmanuel in four weeks time, and call ourselves followers of Jesus any time, it is incumbent upon us to accept that fear of the world has never been an excuse not to do what is right. We have chosen to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Jesus, who was a child refugee, and who died as an outcast. Jesus, who as the Son of God chose to become the least of these.
If we follow him, then we have chosen this story- his story- to guide our lives.
What, now, will we choose?