On December 28th, my sister’s five year old granddaughter, Leona climbed into my sister’s bed and declared, “In three more days, it will be a new year.”
My sister Wendy nodded, “That’s right. In three days it will be 2019.”
Leona contemplated this fact for a moment and then declared, “It will be a new year but I am still five and I’m still brave and strong and kind and a little bit silly.”
Wendy posted this conversation to Facebook and dozens of people commented, “What a perfect resolution for the New Year,” but I disagreed. When I read Leona’s declaration, I thought, “This isn’t the perfect resolution; it is rather the perfect description of what we already have in the Christian life.” Leona was not, after all, resolving to become brave, strong, kind, and a little bit silly; she was stating the fact that she already is those things and moreover, that though the years may come and go, her character will endure. And this to me describes the Christian faith. For the Christian, courage, strength, kindness, and delight are not things that we resolve to become in the face of a new season but are the enduring characteristics of the person we believe we have become in Christ when we allow Christ to shape our hearts, and who we continue to be no matter what hour, day, or year it is. Now, I am not suggesting that a Christian is perfect in goodness — all I need to do is look around this sanctuary starting right here with the person standing in the pulpit to know that such a claim would be foolish — but what I am suggesting is that as Christians, we look at our goodness differently than the rest of the world. We believe that the source of the goodness we manage to accomplish is not found in the resolutions we have made but in the person to whom we have entrusted our lives. In other words, if I, as others did on Facebook, were to see Leona’s statement as a resolution and were to say, “In 2019, I resolve to be brave and strong and kind and a little bit silly,” I would be saying that I will work to shape myself into a better person which is a pretty difficult task as anyone knows who has simply resolved to lose 30 pounds over the next year. We human beings are prone to failure. On the other hand, if I declare, “I have hitched my life to Christ and will continue to do so in the coming year,” then it is not I who work to shape myself but it is Christ who shapes me. The person who commits himself or herself to Christ, to all he taught and to all he is for us, necessarily will be braver, stronger, kinder, and more capable of delighting in the joy of the blessing of God’s presence than that person would be on their own accord because that person has given their life to someone who is braver, stronger, kinder, and more joyous than they could ever be on their own. And though as Christians, we will not always be perfect in those things, failing at times to demonstrate kindness or giving in to a grouchy cynicism and despair, we know that the way to set ourselves straight once again is not to look forward and resolve to do better tomorrow, but to look back and remember who we became when we first allowed Christ to shape us. In Christ, we discovered the courage to live in ways we never thought possible. In Christ, we discovered a strength that was beyond the capacity of our frail human efforts. In Christ, we learned how to put aside our bigotries, impatiences, and petty cruelties to practice kindness even when we would have rather retreated into our self-centeredness. In Christ, we saw light in our darkness and knew the possibility of joy even when our hearts were heavy with sorrow. This is who Christ shaped us to be and my faith tells me that though the seasons come and go, in Christ, this much will not change: When I remember who I have become in him then I will remember that I am still able to be brave because of him, I am still strong in him, I am still kind through him, and I still know moments of joy and silliness in a world blessed by him.
Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of the ages, and so for the four weeks of January, I will be preaching on these enduring marks of the Christian life as expressed by five year old Leona: courage, strength, kindness, and a little bit of silliness. In January, we will remember who Christ has made us to be.
And we begin where Leona so wisely began: In Christ, we are brave.
Again and again in the Bible, hundreds of times in fact, God sends angels to the people saying, “Do not be afraid.” We hear the words most often in the nativity stories but throughout the Bible these four words are usually the first words out of angels’ mouths because God knows that so much of our cruelty to one another — our disorder, chaos, and isolation — begins in fear. The gospel of Matthew opens the story of Jesus’ birth with a stark look at the ruinous capacity of one man’s fear, and the contagion that fear causes. When the magi come to King Herod seeking the baby Jesus, the gospel says, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…” Herod’s fear is contagious and it plays a driving role in the events that are to follow. We don’t hear this part of the nativity story very often, bringing Herod onto the stage only long enough to throw a little tension into that Silent Night. Matthew, however, returns to Herod’s throne room after the magi have departed to show that while the magi are filled with devotion and wonder at the birth of Jesus, Herod is consumed with fear and his fear unleashes a murderous rage against his own citizenry; it drives Joseph, Mary, and the young baby before it as they to flee for their lives when Herod orders the slaughter of all of Bethlehem’s babies.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,” Matthew says, “wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” In these poignant words, we hear the cries of all of the victims of oppression and genocide, innocent lives caught up in the sweep of a tyrannical ruler’s fear.
Historians question whether Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the toddlers of Bethlehem really took place because there is no record of such a massive murder in any of the histories of the time, but whether King Herod actually ordered the murder of Bethlehem’s children or not, Matthew’s readers were quite ready to believe it because it was very much in keeping with the character of the King Herod their grandparents had talked about. King Herod ruled over Judea for about 40 years and was always insecure about his position. The Roman Emperor had given Herod the province of Judea and rule over the Jewish population in spite of the fact that Herod’s Jewish pedigree was disputed. Herod knew that the people questioned his credentials and his insecurities drove many of his decisions. He built lavish buildings to prop up his ego, rebuilt the Jewish Temple in a display of religiosity, but ordered the execution of a Jewish high priest to consolidate his power. He banished his first wife and son in order to take a second wife who could advance his career, and then he ordered the execution of his second wife and three of his sons when he became afraid that they were eyeing his throne. Herod is also said to have organized a cadre of secret police who spied on his opponents, tried to prohibit popular protests, and some accounts say that he had a bodyguard of 2000 soldiers, probably a necessity for a man who used the sword to maintain his power. Herod’s methods were embraced by the sons who managed to survive his reign to rule in his place: his son Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist when the prophet dared to criticize him, and then infamously had him beheaded and displayed his head on a silver platter. The gospel of Matthew attributes all of these evil acts of Herod and his family to fear; fear of any challenge to their power, fear of the unfamiliar, and fear of losing the importance and authority that defined the self-identity of Herod and his sons. God knows the horrendous results of unrestrained fear in the human heart and so tells us over and over again, “Do not be afraid.”
In a lecture at the University of California at San Diego in the fall of 2007, Rabbi Michael Lerner argued that human history is the story of the struggle between two conflicting world views: the first is characterized by fear and dominance; the second by hope and generosity. In a world view characterized by fear and dominance, a person sees the world as one ruled by self-interest in which everyone is in competition with everyone else. This world view assumes the worst about people and so believes one’s best bet for securing a safe future is to dominate others before they dominate you. People who ascribe to the second world view, however, Lerner says, the one characterized by hope and generosity, assume that the average person is concerned about the needs of others and will even occasionally sacrifice some of his or her own needs to help those of a neighbor. They thus pursue cooperation rather than competition and are open to new ways of thinking. They trust that when treated with kindness, the average person will respond with kindness. Their faith is grounded in the unquenchable hope that peace can be a reality, that people can change for the better, that if you look for the goodness in others, you are apt to bring it into being.
The gospel proclaims this second world view and calls us to believe that hope, generosity, goodness, and even sacrifice on behalf of others is the only way to life and peace, and the gospel promises that even if we doubt the capacity of the human heart to accomplish such things, we can trust in the power of Christ to bring treasure out of these frail earthen vessels.
As I thought of the two world views described by Rabbi Learner, I am convinced and greatly heartened by the belief that the people of this church ascribe to that second world view, to a world in which hope, generosity, goodness, and compassion can prevail. I believe that the people of this church are not motivated by fear but instead exhibit constant courage as we remember together week after week who we have become in Christ. I have seen people here who may have been afraid for their own financial security and yet, in Christ found the courage to give generously to those in need around the world. I have seen people who may have been afraid of the grief they might experience when they tied their hearts too tightly to those who were gravely ill and yet, in Christ found the courage to sit at the bedsides of men and women in hospice care, to pray for the sick, and to visit the frail elderly. They found that courage because they trusted that when the grief of parting inevitably came, Christ would help them through the pain and bring them to the other side whole. I have seen people who may have been afraid to cause a scene or who would normally shrink back in reserve yet in Christ found the courage to speak out against injustice and bigotry trusting that Christ would remain by their side through the turmoil of heart and soul. And I have seen people who may have been afraid that if they gave their time to others they would have no time for themselves, and yet in Christ, they found the courage to volunteer at the food pantry and the community kitchen, to contribute to Christmas boxes, to collect shoes and coats, to shepherd the children of our church while schelpping their own children hither and yon, to attend rallies for peace, to keep the heat on in the church center, to listen to a lonely person’s phone call, to travel all the way to Ethiopia, to care, and to work, and to give, and they found that courage because they trusted in Christ who tells us that it is only in giving that we receive and in dying daily for others that we will come to know the life we seek.
That is who we as a community of fellow followers of Christ have always been, and so, though it is a new year, in Christ, nothing has changed for us. We are still not afraid of today, or of tomorrow, or of anything at all, because we know that in Christ, we can do more and bear more and be more than our frightened human hearts ever thought possible.
It is 2019, but in Christ, we are still brave, and in the next few weeks we will remember that we are also still strong, and still kind, and even still a little bit silly.