Follow the Star: Be Not Afraid – Sunday January 15, 2023

Scripture: Matthew 2:3-6, 13-18; John 14:25-27

Seven years ago, when I moved to Nebraska, I felt so excited that the parsonage (church owned house) had a big long covered front porch. I envisioned myself drinking coffee, watching the sunrise, waving at neighbors, and turning it into this beautiful outdoor area. Which, for me, meant it needed flowers and herbs. I got hanging baskets of petunias, I had basil, rosemary, oregano, and lavender. I got colorful flowers and a couple of big lush green plants. And, in my infinite wisdom at the time, I decided to experiment and have a container with a beautiful statement flower, a yellow dahlia, and an herb that would just gently spill around and fill things out. What was that herb? Mint. For those of y’all who know some gardening, mint is highly invasive and very sturdy. I could keep it in check, I thought, just keep pruning it, keep a good eye on it. Oh no. It overtook my Dahlia and, somehow, almost even spread beyond its container. It just got out of control so quickly.

During the advent and Christmas seasons, we journey with Mary and Joseph and shepherds and attempt to experience hope, peace, joy, and love alongside them. We also make time to name the more difficult emotions the season can bring up. How sorrows, pain, and struggles can feel more pointed and present. There has also been another companion on our journey. A companion not unlike that growing, spreading mint . In fact, it is one of the only things that appears in scripture in every perspective on the birth of Christ. Fear. We encounter it when the angel tells Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Fear is there with Mary when the angel Gabriel tells her, do not be afraid Mary for you have found favor with God. It’s there with the shepherds when the angels tell them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” And in every instance, the people are able to move through their fear into healthier spaces of trust, curiosity, and hope. In every instance those people become life-giving parts of the Christmas story. Well, every instance except for one.

 

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” From there, rooted in fear, Herod tries to use the magi to get information about Jesus to destroy him. Jesus’ family then has to flee Herod’s persecution and they become refugees in Egypt. And when Herod can’t reach Jesus himself, he decides to cast a wide net and orders the destruction of every child around Jesus’ possible age.

 

Reading those later verses in Matthew, ones we don’t talk about a lot, it’s like encountering some twisted, upside down version of the Christmas story. They show us the trail of tragedy that Herod’s fear leaves in its wake. Herod was in a position of leadership and could have been such a life-giving part of the Christmas story, but fear is subtle and powerful. Herod’s fear did not stay contained just to him but instead tapped into the individual fears of all the people and it spread and grew. Instead of life-giving and joyful, Herod’s part in the Christmas story is pain, manipulation, and suffering. Inside Herod’s heart and out among the the people, fear twisted and corroded and spread. And fear, well, it hasn’t changed too much in 2000 years.

 

On the one hand, fear is a part of life. It is a feeling, emotion, experience, we all have to deal with in one way or another. It was a companion in the stories of Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and is a companion in our stories. On the other hand, fear all too easily becomes the main character. Without realizing it, fear creeps into our decision making, impacting our choices, the choices we make for our family, employees, organizations, how we interact with friends and coworkers. Fear of loss, disappointment, rejection, confrontation. Fear of the “what if’s,” fear of the worst possible scenarios we play out in our heads, fear that the past will repeat itself. Fear is a part of life. It is a part of our story but it doesn’t have to take a leading role.

 

My mint plant didn’t have to overcome my Dahlia. I knew how much mint could grow. My friend I lived with in seminary, her house had mint in the front. And I mean, it was all mint because it wouldn’t let anything else grow. But for my containers I thought, it’s just a little bit of mint. It looks so pretty next to my Dahlia, I can keep it in check, I can do it. And I ignored the little voice in my head that said, don’t underestimate it, give it boundaries and put the mint in its own pot.

 

While not easy, when we recognize the presence of fear, we can move through it. We can pause, breathe, and name it. We can recognize that fear, at its core, simply tries to protect us from what it perceives as a physical, mental, or emotional threat. Fear served a purpose for survival back in the day, out in the wild, and even in small doses. And we can also say no, this fear, in this way, in this situation, is not helping, it is hurting my life, and we can redirect our focus with tangible, every day tools.

We can pull attention away from the fear by saying the Lord’s Prayer.

We can, in the moment we feel afraid, name something for which we are thankful.

We can have scripture at the ready for us to turn to. You can have one memorized, have a list, or even a passage or two physically on a note card in your wallet or on a sticky note in your car or on your fridge. The goal is not to eliminate all fear, but instead to stop fear from going that far, from taking over, from causing harm.

In the gospel of John, Christ knows the disciples will have all sorts of feelings after he leaves them for the last time. So Christ offers them comfort and hope and says, my peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. As we head into the coming week, may we feel that peace and comfort and hope. May we recognize that while fear is a companion in all of our stories it does not have to shape our stories. May we hear God calling to us with the same words the angels called out 2000 years ago, be not afraid. Amen.

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