by Ellen Sims
text: Luke 2

This line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” keeps playing in my head:

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How strange that one town (Bethlehem) and one child (Jesus) can be thought of as simultaneously bearing all our hopes and causing all our fears. From his birth until his death, Jesus was polarizing—drawing adoring crowds as well as angry mobs, praised as a healer and prophet while also despised as a trouble maker and iconoclast.

Christian scriptures and the religion that eventually coalesced around stories about Jesus point to him as the world’s greatest hope. We, in fact, name him as Savior. But if we’d lived when he walked the earth, we might have found him threatening.

We have only to reflect on the recent presidential election to see how modern personalities can be viewed as the answer to our prayers by some—and the ruin of our nation by others. We have only to consider the ravaged city of Aleppo to see an example of a people pitied by some who wish to give them refuge, yet a people feared by others who would refuse them sanctuary.

In Luke’s nativity story, the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, which is the first announcement of Jesus’s purpose to a group, anticipates the possibility that his birth will arouse fear, not hope. The angel greets the shepherds with “Do not be afraid”–as if anticipating their response will be fear–before immediately explaining that his message intends to be one of hope:

“For see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

This conflict of emotions can be experienced within an individual. Think about times in your life when fears and hopes collide. Think about how you happily anticipated your marriage—but may have had occasional “jitters” about making such a commitment before you reached the altar—if you had a grain of sense. Think about the joyful expectation of a baby’s birth—and the understandable fears that event also engenders. Heading off to college or making a career change or moving to a new city can be exciting and scary at the same time.

Now imagine how Jesus’s contemporaries heard his world-altering message—with both fear and hope.

Jesus was not a one-dimensional, non-offensive character. Not even as a newborn.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

From the beginning he was called “Savior.” But what my childhood church called his “free gift of salvation” is not without its risks to us. If you look in Luke just prior to the nativity story, you see how the God of Jesus “saves.” Mary invokes this God of justice after hearing the first angelic announcement of the son she’ll bear. She rejoices he will be used by the God of her ancestors, who “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts” and “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” and “filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Indeed, the adult Jesus we learn about later in Luke’s gospel seems focused on saving the folks who are lowly, poor, and on the margins—which does not sit well with those in power. Mary’s song is one of hope for the disempowered. It would have sounded fearsome for those exploiting them. No wonder Luke’s birth story emphasizes that Jesus birth was attended by the disreputable shepherds. In Luke, no kings or magi from afar came to lay treasures at his feet.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Many churches on Christmas Eve reenact a lovely Nativity scene—with shepherds in bathrobes, angels with tinsel halos askew, and a six-year-old Mary holding a doll—a heartwarming tableau.

But the nativity story in Luke is one we need to live, not merely dramatize. Our very lives can enact the love of God at work in Jesus’s nativity and ministry. Living the Jesus story can save us, can save our self-destructing world. The nativity characters who welcome the Christ child and are welcomed by the holy family teach us much about Jesus’s saving ways of love.

Consider that the nativity scene, a picture of God’s realm, centers on a poor Middle Eastern family—soon to be refugees fleeing a hostile ruler—surrounded by rough shepherds. Eventually, according to Matthew’s Gospel, came the astrologers from foreign lands speaking other languages and worshiping other gods. Don’t forget the animals– and angels—all there to see what new thing God was bringing to the earth. This group of strangers cared for one another. All welcomed the child—and all were welcomed.

The Christmas story, as some of the earliest Jesus followers imagined it, is one of welcome. We welcome the Christ Child when we welcome those whom others scorn.

We ARE the Christmas story when we welcome people fleeing hostile lands. We welcome the Christ child when we befriend and learn from people of other races and religions. We love Jesus by doing justice so that the poor and those sick in body and mind can receive what they need to flourish. We embody the Gospel story when we love and affirm our gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender friends and family.

December 25th is a somewhat arbitrary date on which to recall this beautiful story of God’s extravagant welcome. Let me now give you another date to put on a calendar way out into the future: a date we should welcome, although many will anticipate it with dread. Modern-day “prophets” at the U. S. Census Bureau, cited by Jim Wallis, have announced a turning point in history in the year 2045. Twenty-nine years from now our nation will no longer have a majority of white people. Anglos will become a minority—whether we decide to welcome other ethnicities or not. After that, for at least a century, mainstream American culture will be multi-ethnic. If we ever become a country with an ethnic majority again, it will be Latinos who rise to power. Caucasian children will soon drop to minority status, maybe as early as 2020, but finally by 2045, whites will be a minority in America. Forever.

It’s unlikely I’ll live until 2045. But my newborn granddaughter will, I do hope. And she is already preregistered for a day care in Nashville where only a small minority of the children are white. Most of Molly’s playmates will be from low income families. Molly’s parents value and sought out that diverse environment for her.

Changes in our culture bring fear to some, hope to others. Demographic shifts are going to give us more opportunities live out the nativity story—and be saved by what we learn from those on the margins and shaped and healed with diverse relationships. That’s how we’ll learn to listen to the God of self-giving love. That’s how we’ll be able to reject those foolish self-promotional kings and respect the gentler voices who intercede for the disregarded peoples and for the Earth herself.

When you picture that nativity scene, watch the wise ones welcoming a poor baby from another culture to honor the earth-saving perspective of someone on the margins. This is how Jesus saves us, saves us still. The first visitors to the Christ Child rolled out the welcome mat to him. Later others heard salvation in the words he preached and all that he would do and all whom he would love. The new ones, the different ones, the ones who’ve been left behind—are the very ones who can save us.

The Standing Rock tribe protesting the dangerous Dakota Access Pipeline may be saving us from ourselves. Let us listen.

The Black Lives Matter movement that feels threatening to some—is offering us a saving word about authentic community. Let us listen.

The child born long ago to a nontraditional family (a virgin mother!?) who fled a ruler so egocentric and petty that he felt threatened by a baby shows us that God sides with the powerless, and that vulnerability can save us. Let us listen to him and live his way.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

The Christ Child provokes both love and contempt, both hope and fear. His way is to welcome the last and the least. That, say the Christian Gospel writers, is the way of salvation. That is how this old world will be saved. And a little child will lead us.

Some are still waiting for a mighty ruler to save this world. Some are still waiting for the return of Christ (as if the Spirit of Christ ever left this earth). Some are still waiting for the Advent of a God who has one narrow path to salvation that includes some and excludes others. But Rabbi Jesus demonstrated what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recommends: that we “honor the dignity of difference” and in doing one can “understand one’s self to be enlarged rather than threatened by religious others.”

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Maybe our world will be saved when appreciation for difference teaches us peace and a deeper wisdom. Maybe the differences we fear will ultimately offer our planet our best hope. Let us walk in that welcoming way.

Prayer: O God, each year during Advent we make a pretense of waiting for you to come to us. Because we live as if you have not. Help us recognize in Jesus the Way you have shown us that honors those who have been dishonored, that loves those on the margins, that lifts up the vulnerable. We thank you for the stories of Jesus that point us to a hopeful way.

Category diversity, Nativity Story
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