Reflections on Hope Before Christmas

December 23, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert

The last verse of Silent Night invites us to raise our voices in alleluia’s to the one who is “King.” This descriptor was more radical for the people of Jesus’ time as it resisted the powers of empire that threatened “the least of these” that Jesus came to serve. We are reminded by this seemingly benign and sweet song that whenever there is injustice in this world, we are to look to the one whose power is love. How might this increase our hope for the future? Let us pray, O Holy One of love and light, be with us this day as we continue to prepare our hearts for your arrival once again on Christmas.  We ask this in Jesus’s name, Amen.

Earlier in the week, I watched a 15 minute piece on the Year in Review and much of it was very hard to watch.  I don’t need to remind you of the many, many events that happened across our country and in the world this past year.  So much tragedy, so much sorrow, so much fear.  Yes, there were glimpses of beauty and joy, but much of it left one asking, how are we to feel hopeful after this year?  How might we be hopeful in the face of such suffering and loss?

The scripture about the visit of the Wise Ones and Herod doesn’t usually come before Christmas. We typically hear it on Epiphany Sunday. But this fourth verse of the “Silent Night” hymn points us toward this word “King” and it felt important, like a movie that gives you a hint of the trouble ahead before flashing back to the start of the story, to approach Christmas Eve with the knowledge of the revolutionary nature of this naming of Jesus as “King.” Singing “alleluia’s to our King” can offer us a vision of hope in the midst of tyranny, whatever its form in our lives and in our world.

We want to remember that the time into which Jesus was born was a very difficult one for the Jewish people and all who found themselves under the rule of Caesar Augustus.  While a form of peace existed after a long period of war and violence, it came at the expense of a government which ruled with strength and power and with no voice for those it ruled over.  We often hear Jesus called the “Prince of Peace” which was certainly a threat to the Roman rule of Caesar.

The time of progress that hailed Roman achievements in systems of roads and building projects was made possible only through an oppressive and deadly force. It was a time of dictatorship, tyranny and totalitarian rule. “Prosperity” and “peace” were truly only for the few.

For those not considered the elite few, for instance the Jews, the hope of liberation would have been thought about in terms of a king to overtake and replace the reign of fear and oppression by Caesar. People would have been seeking “signs” of change, signs of hope for liberation.  And so the birth of a child in a “nowhere” town to a couple of no reputation should have gone unnoticed and yet, it becomes a sign of trouble to Caesar and a sign of hope to the oppressed as the story unfolded over the years.

Those Magi, who were in the business of ‘signs and wonders’ were the ones to share this news about the birth of a King as they make this journey to pay reverence to a King.  They were astrologers (considered a science at the time) who paid attention to these things. Astrology not only notices the stars and planetary bodies, but assigns meaning to them. A “sign” was something to pay attention to because it was a form of guidance in the quest for truth and knowledge about the future. The star that appeared was so significant that they traveled to investigate it, a clue to us that they considered this something of a sign that would guide them to an important discovery.

When they approached Herod, who was an agent of Caesar, the Gospel of Matthew described their question this way, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” We might imagine how Herod heard that news… they are seeking a king, disturbing news indeed.

It made Herod afraid. Tyranny only works when you have all the power over a people. Tyrants carry such fear of losing power that they must remain vigilant to ward off threats to that power. When power becomes a god, you fear losing it. When you reign by fear, you live by fear.  It is perhaps true that the opposite of fear is not simply “calm,” but rather it is hope. Hope serves as defiance against despair. Hope is our focus for this week.

“If people can’t access their hope, they live by their fear,” one commentator observed.

Sometimes we do get caught up in fear. It can paralyze us; it can blind us to the hope that still exists. We come to believe that the only way to stay safe is to constantly be on the defense, to protect “our own.” When a people lose hope, they are more easily swayed by fear. But living in fear sadly helps enable those in power. Is it possible instead to follow a sign of hope illuminating the way to a better way of being together?  Perhaps the calm that comes with hope may provide us with the ability, the time to listen to one another, to help the story unfold in a different way, to watch a new reign of peace and justice mature, grow and change us into the sorts of persons we want to have sharing this world.

Fear comes in many forms. For some, it comes from material want; for others it may come from the need for perfectionism, upward mobility. For some it is the tyranny of an abusive spouse, an unforgiving relationship, the rejection of family. For others it is addiction to things in an attempt to numb the fear. The “empire” that we resist has many faces. The light of God’s guiding star shining in the sky and in our hearts may remind us of the deep hope we all possess to live in peace, to be surrounded with love, to care for one another and discover moments of justice and moments of joy in our lives and in those of one another.

We know the outcome of this great Biblical story of the life of Christ; we know what ends up being true: death does not have the last word. Love is and always has been stronger than the forces of hate, the forces of oppression, the forces of fear. Because of this, we choose to live with hope as our guiding star. And that star leads us to each other… to listen to God’s cry in the silent night, to get out of our trenches, as those soldiers did a century ago, and then to repair and build up God’s reign.

I mentioned watching the Year in Review on the news earlier this week.  I watched that in the midst of a busy week, when I had the great privilege of joining folks at this church as we made preparations for the Saco Meals holiday party.  I was able to work side by side with the amazing volunteers from our church as well as the regular and deeply committed folks who work at the program.  I then traveled to Seeds of Hope where I dropped off some toys and donations.  As we walked upstairs to the darkened church, I found a group of volunteers carefully sorting the toys to make it possible for some children, those most in need, to have some of the joy of the season on Christmas morning.  I’m sure we all have heard from dear friends and family in recent days as cards and wishes arrive in the mail.  How blessed are we to know such fine people, across the country, across the globe.  Each of these experiences was for me the great antidote to the helplessness I felt as I watched the year in  review. Fear was replaced by hope as I reflected upon all the quiet heroes doing the Good Work, living the Good News, and as I connected once again with old  and dear friends this season,  all those  who I know are trying to live good and decent lives, doing what they can to make the world a better place, trying to follow the teachings of their faith traditions, committed to peace, to  justice,  and to mercy.  And so, let us raise our voices and proclaim that we are a people of hope; we are a people who look to the light in the midst of darkness; we are a people who continue to believe that a small infant born so many years ago, grew up to help spread the word of God’s Kingdom of mercy, of love, and yes of hope.  Let us live into the hope and share it whenever and wherever we can.  That will indeed serve to make the message of Christmas realized once again in our midst.