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All I Want For Christmas Is Courage

✠ I find it notable that people involved in the birth of Christ have to continually be told to not be afraid.

Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah, goes into the inner room of the Temple to pray. An angel appears to him and says, “Do not be afraid.”

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her, “Do not be afraid” before telling her that she is going to give birth to the Son of God.

After Joseph learns that his fiancé is pregnant, and knowing they have not been together, an angel tells Joseph in a dream to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

An angel appears to shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem and tells them, “Do not be afraid.”

After Jesus was born, certainly Mary and Joseph were fearful as King Herod went on a killing spree of infants in Bethlehem. When Joseph brought the family back to Israel after Herod’s death, he heard that the new king, Archelaus, was just as bad as his father. And it says he was afraid to go to Judea so he took the family to Galilee. That is where Jesus was raised. In some ways, Jesus home was found as a result of fear.

There is a lot of fear in what we call the Christmas story. I think it gives us permission to be afraid. God knows this about our existence. We get afraid.

It’s also a story about world rulers who get upset and go on rampages, common people who get caught in the circumstances of power, taxes, people who have to flee and become refugees, senseless mass killings, and deep hope for better things to come. Any of that sound familiar?

There is a lot of fear these days. There is fear about what could happen to us. There is fear about COVID-19, fear about a vaccine – being able to get it or fear about getting it, fear of people who don’t look like us and don’t share our values, fear about the state of the world in general.

Then, there is fear that is more personal. There is the fear of having to leave a home and losing independence. There is the fear of medical test results and treatments. The fear of not being able to pay bills and heavy financial burdens. There is fear about the discord and division that can exist in a family. The fear of losing someone. There is fear for our children.

When our oldest daughter was very, very young, she used to come into our bedroom at night, very upset and often in tears. She couldn’t sleep, and would say, “I’m scared about something but I don’t know what it is.”

A lot of us could say that. Sometimes we are scared and we aren’t even sure what the fear is about. It’s like when the music in a movie becomes dissonant and foreboding, and we know something potentially bad is lurking. We just don’t know what it is, yet.

With all that has gone on in 2020, there is this fear that seems to be just underneath the surface that is causing an anxiety in many, many people.

Which is why we might want courage for Christmas. The thing about courage is, you can’t get it until you are afraid. We can’t show courage until we face fear.

Courage isn’t needed just for the big things in life. We need courage in some of the most basic and ordinary things as well.

Somedays just getting up and taking that next step is an act of courage. We are fearful of what awaits in the office or with that person. We can be frightened by the ordinary things of life.

If you saw the recent documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns, you might have heard Tim O ‘Brien. Tim O’Brien is a novelist whose most acclaimed book is “The Things They Carried” which is a series of short stories of his experience in the Vietnam War.

O’Brien was drafted into the army and spent two years in Vietnam. He was part of the 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment. He was engaged in some very heavy fighting.

O’Brien was interviewed for the documentary, and I was struck when he was describing his experience of needing the courage just to walk. Literally, just to walk. He said there were days when just to take one step took huge courage because he never knew if he would be shot, if he would step on a land mine, or what would come. Can you imagine being scared of just taking a step?

I’ve stood with people who couldn’t hardly take that step into that hospital room, that funeral home, or out of their own house.

Sometimes it takes tremendous courage just to take one step, and it is enough for us.

✠ Psalm 27 is a psalm about courage. Fear is mentioned three times in the first three verses. But David, the king of Israel who writes this psalm, says he will not fear or be afraid because the Lord is his light and his salvation. The Lord is the stronghold of his life. Strongholds were caves and shelters that provided protection from danger. If you know anything about David’s life, he had to do a lot of hiding.

In Psalm 27 David says even though an army comes against him, even though war breaks out, he will not fear. When you are king those are the kinds of things you have to deal with. Your problems might be different.

But the point of the psalm is that through all the turmoil, danger, attacks, and amidst enemies, David will still be confident. His confidence is not in himself, in his own smarts, or his own power. His confidence in the face of fear is in the Lord.

Read Psalm 27 and you find these affirmations: The Lord is our light and our salvation. The Lord is our stronghold. The Lord keeps us safe. The Lord hides us. The Lord hears us when we pray to him. The Lord takes us up when others forsake us. The Lord teaches us his way.

Read it and you find those affirmations.

The psalm ends with David saying, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” – Psalm 27:14

“Take heart” is another way of saying “courage.” The idea bethind that word “wait” is to look in dependence and trust in the Lord. It is not a passive “wait” where we just sit back, throw up our hands, and do nothing. The Hebrew translation reads, “Look to the Lord.” And as we look to him, we find strength and courage in him.

The Message version of the Bible reads, “Stay with God! Take heart. Don’t quit. I’ll say it again: Stay with God.”

✠ In Matthew we read the story of how Jesus comes to those scared disciples who are in a boat, being battered by the waves, with the wind against them. He comes because he knows where they are and what is happening. Jesus has been up on a mountain, alone, praying. It seems like Jesus is off doing his thing, and the disciples are in their bind. But Jesus locates them and comes to them. I think Jesus knows where we are and what we are going through more than we know. We doubt him, but he knows.

But seeing a figure walking on the troubled sea is a terrifying thing, and the disciples are afraid. And so Jesus immediately speaks to them saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

Literally, “It is I” reads “I AM.” When Moses asked the Lord who should he say is sending him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, the Lord said, “Tell them “I AM” sent you.” I AM is the name of God.

In Isaiah, the LORD says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…For I am the LORD your God…Do not fear, for I am with you…” And now Jesus says this to his terrified disciples as they are on troubled waters.

Jesus’ words to the disciples on that sea are, “Courage! I am! Don’t be afraid!” In other words, Jesus said, “Look at me. Keep focused on me. I am the LORD. Here I am and I am with you. Don’t look at your strength and will power. It can fail. Look to me.”

That phrase for “take heart” or “courage” has a sense of “dare” to it. To be courageous takes a little daring. Dare to believe the Lord. Dare to act in faith in a way you never have. Dare to commit your life to Christ. Dare to trust the Lord even though the circumstances seem against you.

That is one of the reasons Peter answers by asking Jesus to call him out on the waters. Talk about taking a step. And when Peter is caught by Jesus, and the winds die down, the disciples all believe that truly Jesus is the Son of God.

Isn’t that the heart of the message we celebrate at Christmas: that I AM has come? That God is with us? That God came to us in human flesh, in Jesus Christ? Truly he is the Son of God?

We didn’t find him. He came to us. The Word – the eternal and world-creating power of God – became flesh and lived with us. And he comes to us even amidst the wind and the waves.

Psalm 27 said “The Lord is my light.” Jesus is called the light of the world. In Advent we light candles, and often hear the words from the beginning of the Gospel of John that the light, who is Jesus Christ, shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Psalm 27 says “The Lord is my salvation.” Jesus’ very name means “The Lord is salvation.” Therefore, we will not fear.

We need courage. Because it takes courage to live.

It takes courage to keep trusting God even when the circumstances don’t change.

It takes courage to wait for the Lord and look to him when everything around us seems to be out of control.

It takes courage to believe that things won’t always be like this, and though we may have to walk through a certain amount of darkness, the Lord is our light.

It takes courage to keep trusting. It takes courage to keep hoping.

It takes courage to go through that surgery, that test, that procedure.

It takes courage to make that commitment.

It takes courage to be generous and give it away.

It takes courage to forgive and let go of bitterness and resentment.

It takes courage to raise kids.

It takes courage to grow old.

It takes courage to take on injustice, maybe more so in the face of a comment made at a family dinner table than in a mass march in the streets.

It takes courage to stand alone.

It takes courage to be that kid who doesn’t fit in.

It takes courage to hang in there.

It takes courage to be willing to change.

It takes courage to forgive.

Prayer is an act of courage.

It takes courage to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It takes courage to trust that God “knows why you are where you are and that he knows where you are going even when you cannot see.”

✠ There is a poem written by John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic priest and Cardinal, called “Lead, Kindly Light”. By the way these words I am going to read were found in the journals of Mother Teresa.

Here is the first verse of this poem:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home –

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene – one step enough for me.

We live in a tough world. Darkness is all around. It is OK to be afraid. One step might be enough for you and me.

But courage, people. The Lord is our light and salvation. He is with us.

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