Scripture – Matthew 3:1-12, Isaiah 11:1-10 – Second Sunday of Advent – December 4, 2016
It’s that time of year again! The American Heritage Dictionary has published its list of new words for this year along with new additional usages for existing words and newly accepted alternative pronunciations. In years past at this time we have lifted up here new words like “unfriend” which we agreed God would never do and you might remember the addition of “selfie” back in 2013 which still sounds a little un-Christian. A couple worth noting this year:
• glamping – is camping in luxurious or glamorous surroundings – might be your kind of camping…
• journal is now accepted as a verb – we now can journal in our journals
• brick – brick is still a noun but its new additional meaning refers to a smartphone or tablet that connects to the internet that is inoperable – a brick.
• Here’s the additional accepted pronunciation of an existing word: the unreasonable fear, distrust, or hatred of strangers, foreigners, or anything perceived as foreign or different can now be pronounced either “zeenophobia” or “zenophobia”.
Although not officially stated on the American Heritage Dictionary website, the guest representative on NPR this week agreed with the host that for 2016 “xenophobia” might just be the word of the year. Fear of foreigners the word of the year. A sobering thought given our prayers for peace this morning.
We arrived at our 2016 Advent theme of “be not afraid” long before November 8 but, in hindsight, it may be more apropos now than originally conceived. The images from the centuries-old paintings we see during this season depict well the fear in the hearts of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. Throughout the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke the angels come and seriously startle the recipients of their messages. Do not be afraid, Mary. You will be the mother of the Son of the Most High. Do not be afraid, Joseph. Yes, your betrothed is pregnant already but she is carrying the Son of God and you will name him Jesus. Do not be afraid, shepherds tending your flocks in the middle of the night, I bring you news of great joy. If we were to step into the shoes of any one of those people, I can imagine the response to “be not afraid” sounding like, “Easy for you to say, Angel of the Lord, you won’t be the one trudging from Nazareth to Bethlehem, or fleeing to Egypt, or trying to tell your disbelieving friends what you just saw in a stable.” Easy for you to say not to be afraid.
It is easy for us to say “do not be afraid” to someone else when we’re not the ones living with cancer or unemployed just in time for the holidays or parenting a troubled child. I am still realizing how easy it is for many of us to say “do not be afraid” when we’re not Muslim or people of color or committed in a same-sex marriage or teenagers who came here when we were two or fleeing from a country ravaged by horrific unspeakable violence. Easy for us to say “do not be afraid”. But I pray, my friends, that once we realize the position from which we speak, we can take on some of the burden of that fear and make it our own and work to eradicate its causes. It just got easier to pronounce xenophobia and that makes me more fearful than the additions of “unfriending” or “selfies” ever did.
Simply hearing “be not afraid” does little to diminish our own fear, whatever the cause, so it is useful and inspiring to look more closely at the acceptance of their messages by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. We would do well to have the depth of faith and trust in God that Mary and Joseph had: the faith and trust that enabled them to say “yes” to the unknown, to become co-creators with God in the Divine’s coming to dwell among us, to come to consistently rely upon the providence of God at every difficult turn, from losing their twelve-year old on a family Passover trip all the way to Mary’s watching their Bethlehem baby hang on a cross atop Calvary. Joseph and Mary had plenty to fear and yet they had the faith to stick with the promise of a Messiah until Mary’s finally witnessing the unexpected miraculous glory of the Resurrection.
From the shepherds’ “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” to the apostles’ emptying out from their hiding place to proclaim the good news and beyond, we are the heirs, we are the beneficiaries, of the deep faith of not only those first witnesses, but the faith of Mary and Joseph who left their fear behind to partner with God with nothing to go on but the promising words of angels.
It is because of them and the long line of witnesses who followed them that we can read the words of Isaiah this morning and imagine what it will look like when fear finally disappears. When wolves and lambs and leopards and kids and calves and lions and bears and cows all lie down and graze together, when children are free and unharmed and innocence leads. When words like wisdom and righteousness and equity and faithfulness replace hurt and destruction… and peace becomes the word of the year every year.
“Be not afraid” can mean little more than three words strung together, especially when they roll off the tongue without true empathy, but when those words are based in the knowledge of the power of God and responded to in faith, they may be the most powerful words we have, no matter how we pronounce them.
As we begin a brand new liturgical year with the dawn of this Advent season, may God grant us the courage we need to stare down fear and the faith we need to strike it from our vocabulary. Amen.