Some Gospel lessons can be re-titled, “Christianity in one sentence or less” because they’re filled with concise statements on leading a life as a follower of Jesus. Like:
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34)
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” (I would also add to make sure you’re wearing good shoes) (Luke 12:35).
“The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23).
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16)
These neat little sayings got me to thinking about signs out front of some churches. You know the signs, right, with the large plastic letters or LED lights? The signs that have a saying for the week, and that are able to neatly bottle up the Christian message? Here are some choice selections:
“Need a lifeguard? Ours walks on water.”
“Bring your sin to the altar and drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot.”
“God reigns and the Son shines.”
And my personal favorite: “Don’t let anger kill you; let the church help.”
Aren’t such little sayings helpful in spreading the Christian message? Um, no. If it all breaks down to smart sayings, I could just stop this post. But being followers of Jesus is more than just taking in a one-liner. It’s about taking in the entirety of the message, all of the words of the Word made flesh born among us. Not just hearing or seeing these words, but listening to them, taking them in, digesting them in the Eucharist, even wrestling with them... having them accompany us on our journeys, especially during those times where we may just be in a rough place. Yet there’s a one-liner from the Gospel read on Christmas Eve that really gets to me. Some of us may have heard it while we’re stressed, while we’re fearful... “Do not be afraid...”
Do. Not. Be. Afraid. Spoken under the rule of an oppressive empire. Spoken to shepherds in the fields, literally and figuratively on the edge of society, by an angel of the Lord.
Don’t be afraid. It’s so easy to read. But do we remember this when we’re leading our day-to-day lives, and something happens where we had a planned trajectory for our lives... and it seems that God’s trajectory is entirely different from what you had planned? It’s no coincidence these words come to us in this season of Christ’s arrival. A child who comes to change everything. A child whose arrival is to redeem and restore a broken world. This is actually scary stuff. How can we not be afraid when we’re living in a stance of waiting and anticipation and when so much in the world around us is in turmoil? Hoping for divisions and fractures to be repaired, waiting and hoping for restoration in the nation, in the world. Especially wanting peace to reign upon this world where there is desperate need.
I’ve wondered what the Gospel of Christmas Eve has to say to us, especially when our plans and expectations we had for ourselves and the world do not coincide with God’s plans? What happens, when our trajectory isn’t what God intended? What happens when the plans you made... don’t happen? There’s fear, anxiety. Have you had them, fears and anxieties? Let me make a gross assumption: you’ve had them. During times when we don’t know what’s coming next? When you’ve had plans that you’ve made, determined and resolved where your life was going to go... just like shepherds tending their flock in a field late one evening? Just like Joseph resolved to quietly dismiss a pregnant Mary?
I think of Luke 2 being a call story. Not just for the shepherds to see God made flesh, but also for us to respond to God born in our midst. Like any call story, there is an individual who had plans, or was supposed to live out stereotypical expectations. Moses. Jeremiah. Jonah. Paul. Mary. The shepherds. Us. Then a messenger, an angel of the Lord, or even God’s own self comes to set a new path; a different path; a faithful path. There’s resistance and struggle. Why me God? How can this be? No, I am not worthy because I am not filled with holy words. No God, I had different plans for what I wanted for my life.
I am afraid.
Yet the angel of the Lord professes, “Do not be afraid.” The angel tells the shepherds to see good news and great joy: the Messiah. A chorus of angels arrives to profess, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!” I cannot imagine what was going through the minds of the shepherds at that moment. If they were terrified with what they just heard and saw. Yet they were able to take the words in, “Do not be afraid,” and hurried to Bethlehem.
What if the shepherds gave into that fear? Fear... it holds us back. Writer Annie Dillard stated, “So once in Israel, love came to us incarnate and stood in the doorway between the two worlds, and we were all afraid.” Afraid because this love challenges the plans we had for ourselves and for our loved ones. This love is radical, illogical, and goes against the norms of human nature. We are afraid because this Incarnate love challenges us to turn outward from ourselves and out to a world that desperately needs to know of this love. We are called to care about more than whatever the “status quo” may be. But to turn inward... we would live outside this illogical, radical love that was born into this world. God constantly calls out to you and me.
God is moving, and that is evidenced here. Today. Now. And tomorrow. Our God is a God of not just call, but out of response to such immense and illogical love, yearns for a response. Not a response to earn God’s favor, but that yearning to make the world right again, to live out that Emmanuel was here, that Emmanuel will come again. This is reflected in a liturgy of call and response; when God calls, God yearns and aches for us to respond to our neighbor in the pew. To our neighbor wherever we live. To our neighbor in desperate need. With such love as to be fed and bathed with God’s own life in the sacraments, we are called to respond. We are called to live out that liturgy, the work of the people.
God feeds us and prepares us, in hopes we’ll reach back, in hopes we’ll respond to one another, in hopes we’ll respond to God. Scripture continues to be fulfilled because God wants to be in relationship with us, and wants us to be in right relationship with one another to be Christ’s body in the world. The Scripture that has been fulfilled is when we realize that God’s been present for us all along, waiting for us to notice, waiting for us to respond to that call.
Rev. Tuhina Verma Rasche (@tvrasche) is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and serves in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also served as a young adult mentor with The Forum for Theological Exploration, blogs at thislutheranlife.blogspot.com and https://medium.com/@tvrasche, and is the Networker for and co-conspirator with #decolonizeLutheranism.