Cheer or Fear?

December 23, 2012

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Earlier this year someone emailed me a list of church bulletin announcements that didn’t quite communicate what was intended.  Here are a few that I especially enjoyed.  These are actual announcements from church bulletins:

For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

The church will host an evening of fine dining, super entertainment and gracious hostility.

Potluck supper this Sunday at 5:00 PM – prayer and medication to follow.

Who knows?  Maybe some of you will need some “prayer and medication” to get through the holidays…J.

One of my favorite TV shows is The Office, and each year they have a hilarious Christmas episode.  This year’s episode featured Dwight Shrute playing the role of Belsnickle at the annual Christmas party.

I had never heard of Belsnickle, but apparently Belsnickle is a mythical figure akin to Santa Claus that has roots in German tradition and is still remembered today in the Pennsylvania Dutch community.  According to Wickipedia, the ultimate source for reliable information, Belsnickle is a “crotchety, fur-clad Christmas figure (who) shows up at houses 1-2 weeks before Christmas.  He is typically very ragged and mean looking.  He wears torn, tattered, and dirty clothes, and he carries a switch in his hand with which to beat bad children.  The children escape unharmed, but they are scared into being good so that Santa will bring them presents on Christmas.”

In The Office episode Dwight Shrute shows up at the Christmas party dressed as Belsnickle and one at a time greets each person with these words: “Cheer or fear?  Belsnickle is here!  I judge your year as…impish or admirable!”

Dwight judged some of his co-workers as admirable and gave them a present, but alas, he judged some of them as impish and gave them a few lashings from his switch.  It was absolutely hysterical.

“Cheer or fear?  Belsnickle is here!”

When it comes to how people think God sees them, Belsnickle’s questions actually hit a nerve.  Does God judge me as impish or admirable?  Will God give me presents or lashings from his switch?  Cheer or fear?

The short answer on this Fourth Sunday of Advent is that the gospel is about cheer, not fear.

The lesson for today from Luke’s account of the gospel includes one of the most beautiful and profound passages in all of Scripture, Mary’s song known as The Magnificat.  Today I am preaching on just one verse from The Magnificat, a verse that evokes cheer, not fear: “(the Lord) has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:48).

“(The Lord) has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Mary is teenager from an obscure family in an obscure town, and yet Almighty God chose her to bare Jesus, his Son.  As the girl playing Mary in the powerful Christmas pageant here last week put it, “I was a nobody and God chose me.”

“(The Lord) has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  Mary’s words not only apply to her, but also apply to all of us, universally and individually.

The phrase “looked with favor” could also be translated as “shown special attention to;” and the word “lowliness” could also be translated as “humiliation.”  In other words, when it comes to your life, God has shown special attention to the times when you have experienced humiliation.  God has looked with favor on the lowliness of your life.

In fact, Jesus describes himself as “lowly,” just like the “lowliness” of Mary.  At the end of the eleventh chapter of Matthew Jesus comforts his listeners with these words, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest for your souls” (11:28-29, KJV).

Being looked upon with favor can make all the difference in your life.

It is vitally important for kids to sense their parents looking with favor upon them.  This was even the case with Jesus, as God the Father spoke out of heaven at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

On the flipside, not receiving such favor from one’s parents can leave internal scars.  I’ve been reading Peter Ames Carlin’s fascinating new biography on Bruce Springsteen, and he describes the lack of “being looked with favor upon” that Bruce experienced from his father, Doug:

“It was all but impossible for Doug to connect with Bruce in a meaningful way.  So it wasn’t the lectures, criticisms, and occasionally heated arguments that cut into Bruce’s skin.  It was the vacancy that swam into his father’s eyes whenever he came into the room.  When Bruce turned toward his father hoping to see something—a spark of affection, pride, a glimmer of love, a nod of recognition, even—only emptiness stared back.  ‘It wasn’t in the doing; it was in the not doing,’ Bruce says, ‘It was in the complete withholding of acknowledgment.  It was in the vacantness’” (Bruce, p 32-33).

Sometimes married people do not feel looked upon with favor by their spouse, or sometimes not really looked upon by their spouse at all.  Roger Hodgson of the band Supertramp sings about this in their song, “Take the Long Way Home” from their classic 1979 album Breakfast in America:

There are times that you feel you’re part of the scenery

All the greenery is comin’ down boy
Then your wife seems to think you’re part of the furniture

Oh it’s peculiar

She used to be so nice
Lonely days turn to lonely nights

You take a trip to the city lights
And take the long way home, take the long way home

Some people have a hard time looking with favor upon themselves.  They are their own worst enemy.  This can even be the case with “highly successful” people.   Last week I watched a fascinating documentary on Charles Dickens, arguably the most accomplished and famous English writer of the 19th century, whose novella A Christmas Carol has become a regular part of the Christmas season for millions of people.  Listen to what he wrote about himself in 1856 at the height of his fame and fortune:

“I want to escape from myself.  For when I do start up and stare at myself seedily in the face, my blankness is inconceivable, indescribable, and my misery amazing.”

Perhaps you have experienced one of these dynamics.  Perhaps you rarely or never felt favor from your parents, or your spouse, or perhaps even yourself.  The good news is that God looks favorably on you, that as he did with Mary, God has “looked with favor” on your lowliness.

And what a difference that can make.

I came across a powerful image of this in The New York Times Magazine in September.  There was an article about singer-songwriter and rock icon Neil Young.  David Carr, the writer of this article, had the opportunity to watch Neil Young and his band, Crazy Horse, perform in concert.  Listen to how he describes Neil’s relationship with his son, Ben:

“While Young played, I stood stage right with his son, Ben, a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy who is unable to speak.  When he was born, Young and his wife, Pegi, a singer and musician, put everything else aside to help him develop his motor skills.  Now 34, Ben goes on every tour.  ‘He’s our spiritual leader in that way,’ Young says, ‘We take him everywhere, and he’s like a measuring stick for what’s going on’… Ben Young, which is how his father often refers to him, was bundled against the chill and surrounded by friends.  He looked over at me at one point, and I found myself wishing I knew what he was thought about the proceedings.  ‘I tell Ben everything,’ Neil told me, ‘and he listens’” (9/23/12, p. 50).

Sometimes people go through seasons of lowliness or humiliation, seasons when more than any other time, they need to know that God looks favorably on them.

Each and every year at Christmastime I watch my all-time favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), starring Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey.  The movie is permeated through and through with the gospel.  You probably know the story—George Bailey is running a struggling building-and-loan company in the town of Bedford Falls and one of his employees, Uncle Billy, while at the bank to deposit $8,000 for the building-and-loan company, accidentally gives the money to the evil Mr. Potter.  Mr. Potter is fully aware of what has happened, but he refuses to return the money.

The bank examiner arrives, a warrant is sworn out for George’s arrest, and he is faced with the dire prospect of losing everything—his family, his business, his reputation, all of it—and going to prison.  George goes home and vents his anger on his family, yelling at his wife and kids, destroying things in their home.  He is so desperate he even goes to Mr. Potter for help, and he takes full responsibility for Uncle Billy’s losing the money upon himself.  Mr. Potter refuses to help and tells George he is worth more dead than alive.

George then stumbles to a bar and, literally trembling with stress, prays the following honest and direct prayer:

“Oh God, oh God, dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way.  I’m at the end of my rope.  Show me the way, oh God.”

God looked with favor upon the lowliness of George Bailey, and with the help of his guardian angel, Clarence, answers his prayer.

The one who in essentially caused the lowliness in George’s life, Mr. Potter, never changed.  He never returned the $8,000, but it didn’t matter, because the grace shown George from everyone else in Bedford Falls more than made up for the lowliness caused by Mr. Potter.

At the end of the film George returns home and soon is inundated with friends who give money to help.  The $8,000 is more than covered, the warrant for his arrest is literally torn to pieces and discarded, and everyone sings, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”  And the bells ring.  And Clarence gets his wings.

Every single year I watch it, and every single year I get choked up, because It’s a Wonderful Life is pure gospel, a picture of what it looks like that God has looked with favor upon our lowliness.

And of course, the phrase “looked with favor” refers to the heart of the gospel: grace.  God gives grace to all of us—to those who do not get grace from their parents, those who feel like they’re part of the furniture, those whose misery is amazing, those who find themselves at the end of their rope.

Unlike Belsnickle, Jesus did not come to judge the world as impish or admirable, or to scare people into being good so that God would give them presents.  Instead, beholding our lowliness, Jesus put everything aside, even his divinity, and took full responsibility for the impishness of the world.  He took the lowliness of your life and my life, upon himself.

Jesus did not come to punish the impish by beating them with a switch, but was beaten himself by the Roman soldiers before being nailed to a cross, where he would experience unspeakable lowliness and humiliation.

And on the cross Jesus died to atone for all your sins, for all the impishness of your life.  On the cross the warrant for your arrest was torn to pieces and discarded.

And one day this same Jesus will return to raise the world from the lowliness of sin and decay to the glory of new and unending life, which is why, as we pray in the Advent preface during Holy Communion, “when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing” (BCP 345).

Regardless of how impish or admirable your life has been, regardless of the unchanging Mr. Potter’s in your life, God has looked with favor upon your lowliness.

Jesus has come to bring you cheer, not fear.

Amen.

Bible References

  • Luke 1:48 - 48