THE HOPES AND FEARS OF ALL THE YEARS
Matthew 1: 18-25
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
December 24, 2018
Hopes and fears—Phillips Brooks knew all too well what those words meant when he stood at the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem. It was Christmas Eve, 1865. The previous April, Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Just five days later Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington—hopes for peace; fears of violence.
If you think this is a chaotic time; if you are stressed out over the emotional debates we experience in Washington and in our neighborhoods and in our churches; you are not alone. We are all, every one of us, a mixture of both hopes and fears.
Phillips Brooks had traveled by horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem that Christmas Eve. It must have been a strong horse! He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed 300 pounds. That Christmas Eve in Bethlehem had a powerful influence on him. Two years later, as he prepared for the Christmas season of 1867, he wanted to compose a Christmas carol for the Sunday School children to sing at their annual pageant. Remembering that night in Bethlehem, he wrote a poem and handed it to his organist, Lewis Redner. He said, “Lewis, why not write a new tune for this poem? If you do, I’ll name it St. Lewis in your honor.”
Phillips Brooks was so pleased with the tune that he did indeed name it “St. Louis,” but he changed the spelling of his organist’s name from “Lewis” to “Louis” so as not to embarrass his friend.
But back to that familiar line: the hopes and fears of all the years…. Think of all the hopes that have accumulated in all the years of history. Think of all the parents who have had great hopes for their children, all the young people who looked to their futures with hope, all the aged who faced illness and impending death with hope, all the longing and vision of people who have worked for peace.
But along with all the hopes of all the years, there are the fears of all the years. It is no accident that Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. The early church chose this time, not because they had the slightest idea when Jesus was born, but because they wanted to say that the birth of Jesus brought light to the darkest times of life. The “Light of the World” was born in the darkest time of the year.
Every generation has known fear. In 1943, when war was raging in Europe, the Saturday Evening Post published Norman Rockwell’s painting entitled “Freedom from Fear.” It depicted children resting safely in their beds, unaware of the perils of this world. Their mother is tucking them in, while their father is holding a newspaper describing the horrors of war. It expressed the fears of every age. Maybe you have seen the original oil painting at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
The hopes and fears of all the years are held up in the carol we sing. Which will be the stronger? The hopes or the fears? Which will win out in the world? Which of the two will win out in our lives? Hopes or fears?
Phillips Brooks wrote that these two great emotions meet in the birth of Jesus. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. They converge, and lying between them is a little baby in a manger. How could such a child gather in all the hopes and fears of all the years?
That seems to be what the birth stories are struggling with as we read them in Matthew and Luke. Of the two gospels, we like Luke’s account the best. It’s largely about hope, and it sounds best in the 17th century English of the King James Version, where there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the angel tells them about good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.
But Matthew gives a darker picture of the birth, and you could say that while Luke reflects the hopes of Christmas, Matthew reflects the fears of Christmas. Matthew’s gospel describes the terrible wrath of King Herod. How do you describe the evil, the terror, the heartache, the helplessness, the horror of such a massacre in Bethlehem? We could ask that of the parents of the 20 children who died in Sandy Hook Elementary School six years ago this month. They would affirm that you don’t ever heal from such grief; you try to live with it. It never goes away.
Matthew describes it by quoting a text from the prophet Jeremiah: In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, for they were not. It is the wailing of desperate people who have experienced the terror and lost all hope. But a glimmer of hope is kept alive as the Christ child survives and is whisked off to Egypt by his parents, and later returns after Herod has died. Luke and Matthew—hopes and fears—the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. Phillips Brooks had it just right.
Few people would deny that we live in a dark and dangerous world. But there is something I want to point out about the Christmas story as presented by Matthew’s gospel. When the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, he tells Joseph that the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, clearly not a very scientific statement, but one that is trying to offer a theological truth: namely, that when the Holy Spirit is at work, powerful things happen.
Mary and Joseph are given two names for this child who will be born: Jesus and Emmanuel. You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people. The name Jesus is the verb “save.” Imagine that we have a baby named Save! The second name that the angel gives is Emmanuel, which means God Is With Us.
This is the faith that the church proclaims at Christmas. No matter how dark and dangerous is the world out there, the Holy Spirit of God is working, and wherever Jesus is in the world, he is in the business of saving. He saves from despair and hopelessness. The other name given by the angel, Emmanuel, proclaims that no matter how dark and dangerous the world, God is with us!
Notice that the story does not ask us to do anything. It only invites us to be dazzled by the reality that God really is with us! We need not feel abandoned! No matter how dark and chaotic your life may be, here is a baby named God Is With Us!
The task of the church in this season is to awaken that hope found in the Christ child, to live that hope, and to tell that marvelous story over and over again until the hope within the story becomes part of our being. Then we can sing from the heart the last two lines that Phillips Brooks wrote:
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord, Emmanuel.