“Hands Free” | Sermon by Alan Sherouse | Christmas Eve 2015
In Luke’s well known, well-read telling of the birth of Jesus, there is a single line that might just form the heart of the story. We read it right at the appearance of the angel, the first words spoken after the birth of Jesus. It’s the first public announcement of the gospel message itself and it comes with the words, “Fear Not.” If we hear nothing else they say, let us hear that: You don’t have to be afraid.
Many of us know this passage so well not only from hearing it or reading it in church, but because for 50 years we’ve heard Linus tell us what Christmas is all about in the heartwarming classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In the annual television tradition, Linus gathers the Peanuts gang and all of us watching at home and reads the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke chapter 2. Having heard it with the same cadence and inflection each year, some of us have it memorized. Still, familiar thought it is, perhaps you saw a recent article by writer and musician Jason Soroski that pointed out how for all these years there’s something we never noticed about that climactic scene. Right in the middle of reciting the story, Linus drops his blanket.
Linus is best know for his worn, blue security blanket. It’s a trademark. He’s never seen without it. Throughout the story of Peanuts, various characters work to separate Linus from his blanket, to no avail. He won’t give it up.
Except in this moment, when he just drops it.
Some of you know that cartoonist Charles Schultz – the genius behind the Peanuts comic strip – was a person of Christian faith. It’s fair to assume that this choice was deliberate. Especially when you consider exactly where the blanket is dropped. Linus recites v. 10: “And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear Not…'” And he drops it. Suddenly both hands are free. He’s animating the story with his motions and all of his energy and passion. The story of Jesus’ birth, you see, has separated him from this fear.
And that’s where the Christmas story begins. Not with hope and joy, peace and love flickering in a sanctuary. The Christmas story begins with fear.
Again and again we see it in the story of Christ come to earth. The angel appears to Zechariah – husband to Elizabeth and father to John – and fear overwhelms him. He is terrified. “Do not fear” the angel says.
Mary the mother of Jesus is greeted by the angel with the same words, ”Do not fear…”
To Joseph – planning to divorce his pregnant fiancée – in a dream the words come “Do not be afraid…”
And then to these shepherds, trembling under the deep blue of midnight with their flocks, “Fear not…”
Before the angels ever startled them, those who found their way around the manger knew fear. It was the fear brought on by living in such a tenuous social-political time. The fear that comes from living out on the margins– feeling far off on the edges of God’s activity, tending sheep outside a backwater town out in the elements where who knows what could happen. The fear that comes from living under the control of a mad, murderous king who sends people on the run, fearing for the lives of their children. The fear that comes from believing that nothing will really change.
They knew fear. In fact, more than fearful, the traditional translation says they were “sore afraid.” They “feared with a great fear,” Luke says literally, using an idiom almost as though he’s translating something a thunderstruck speaker had reported down through the years.
For surely these shepherds, so greatly afraid, had learned to steel themselves against the threats of their world. They had wrapped themselves in all measures of security. They carried whatever they could to defend themselves against an animal attacker or a well-armed thief. And all while monitoring their hopes and dreams – keeping them a realistic size – so as not to face deflation or disappointment.
But then they hear the song of the angel, and they drop it all. Arms and bodies are free to run with abandon – “with haste” – to see what they’ve heard about. And then having seen for themselves, they use those same empty hands and freed limbs to take the story on in their own bodies, and with their full range of movement tell it passionately to all those they see.
No one could have faulted these shepherds – so sore afraid – if they had stayed in the fields tending their flocks, blanketed in what they had always known. For that’s what we do, so often, isn’t it? That’s where the story finds us. We might not have been startled by an angel. But we know the fear.
The words of the poet, Wendell Berry, so often echo in my head: “I awake in the night at the least sound for fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be…” (1)
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University once reported that 50 years ago, the greatest fears of grade school children were: (1) Animals, (2) Being in a dark room, (3) High places, (4) Strangers, (5) Loud noises. (2)
What do our children fear today? What do we fear for them? And how much of it originates with our own fear to begin with?
If fear suggests violence, anxiety, fractured relationships, then we know fear.
If fear suggests suspicion, conflict, division, then we are sore afraid.
If fear comes from having seen tragedy and loss and beginning to monitor our own hopes accordingly, then we have feared a great fear.
Fear is what we read about. What our news reports are filled up with. Fear is what many of our prayers are about if we are people who pray. And if we are people who have ceased to pray, chances are that fear is part of what has kept us from believing it makes any difference.
It’s almost a trademark. We’re rarely seen without it.
When you’re that afraid, you can invent any number of measures to secure yourself. Wrap yourself tightly. Protect yourself. Insulate yourself, doing all you can to keep others at a distance and looking pityingly at those who fail to take the necessary precautions.
But before you do that, you might ask where that kind of fear comes from. Where does that kind of fear come from? Does it come – as mine so often does – from what Fyodor Dostoevsky is talking about when, in his epic novel The Brothers Karamazov, he writes this: “Fear is the consequence of every lie.”
For what the angels announce that night in the fields long ago – to those just as sore afraid as us – is that you are not meant to live this way. You will not be left afraid and limited and believing that ultimate lie that this world just can’t seem to set down: that this is the way things are and will always be. The light shines in the darkness of our midnight revealing something so much more vivid, more true, more elegant for us. Yet we still act as though what we see is what we get, what is experienced is what is final, and that this is the way it is and will always be.
We wrap ourselves in it. And we can’t run with that fear blanketing our shoulders. We are slowed down when our hands are clutching and grasping every measure of security. We can’t animate the story with our own lives as we are intended if we’re holding on to our protective measures. We can’t take on its motions and movements if we’re too fixed and unwilling to follow in the way of vulnerability and love.
That’s what the baby in the manger grows to tell us about and to make known to us. Another way.
In fact, much later in the story when he sends out his disciples to follow in his way, he tells them to free their hands. Don’t take a staff. Set down the money in your purse. Don’t take a cloak or a blanket. Leave your shoes. Go out vulnerable, without the usual precautions.
And with your hands free, you can learn to welcome the stranger in your midst.
With no staff to protect yourself or ward off what approaches, you’re less likely to live with suspicion of what’s up ahead.
Without your sandals, you’ll remember what it is to walk free and uninhibited through this earth.
Leave the bag. Without it you’ll learn that while you can carry a lot of provisions and precautions, you can never carry enough.
And take no copper in your purse. Leave it. Without it jingling around you’re less likely to believe you’re self-made, and more likely to look around and remember that I am you and you are me in this web of mutuality.
See, with our bodies free, we can run with abandon, and announce with passion that this is how Jesus Christ came, and this is why he came. Without protection or position. Without so much as a cradle. Coming instead vulnerable. That’s how God’s love is born into the world
And what have we heard about love? 1 John 4: “Perfect love drives out fear.”
In other words, drop the blanket.
(1) From “The Peace of Wild Things”
(2) Back to the Bible Today, Summer, 1990, p. 5