The warmest possible welcome to one and all this Christmas Eve! It’s time to hear once again the message of the angel to the shepherds who were “sore afraid” – “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.”
Fear not. Christmas intentionally falls on one of the longest, darkest night of the year, when our fears have ample time to haunt us. People used to tell Ghost Stories at Christmas although we don’t do this much anymore. I did notice, however, at our children’s Christmas Pageant one of the angels had smuggled in a set of fangs usually worn at Halloween. She was on the front row, holding the fangs in her hand like a ventriloquist, belting out “Joy To World, the Lord has come!” like Count Dracula. Her parents were not as amused as I was by the Christmas Fangs, but their angel carried on tradition of “scary ghost stories of Christmas’ long, long ago.” So in that spirit, I’ll begin this short sermon with my own kind of ghost story.
On the second Sunday of Advent, I preached a sermon extolling the virtues of Love, Grace, and Mercy, which I think was well received by the kind congregation. Feeling slightly self-satisfied, I came home and found a domestic situation involving idle children paying rapt attention to smart phones and laptops and Xboxes, while no attention was being paid to dishes undone, or the clothes and other miscellany strewn about every room of the house.
I became hot under the clerical collar, and delivered a high volume lecture to my unsuspecting offspring. It’s a good thing my children hadn’t heard the sermon I had just preached. Christie had heard it, and left the ridiculous scene to go feed the chickens. It was that bad. Even I, in mid-rant, was aware of my own profound hypocrisy. Nonetheless, I enforced child labor under the threat of the removal of all electronics. Having upset everyone, I then sat down to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
If I did not fully identify with Ebenezer Scrooge that afternoon, then I certainly did the next evening. As daylight faded and a dark, spooky fog rolled in, I walked by the church kitchen and heard a loud banging noise. I thought someone was there and I was sore afraid. This church is big and scary at night when you’re alone! I heard a clanking noise near the stove – it was the Jacob Marley rattle of chains! I can’t claim to have seen a phantom, but I’m sure I was visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past to address my wrongs. All the best Ghost Stories involve ghosts coming back to rectify some wrong done. I was Ebenezer.
I would guess that I’m not the only Ebenezer here, am I? You know a Scrooge. You might be sitting next to one. But, isn’t the Scrooge sitting next to you is also sitting next to a Scrooge? We all relate to him. Author Margaret Atwood asks, “Why should this be? Let me consult my own model of that favorite Dickensian repository of infallible knowledge – ‘The Human Heart.’” All of us are not Scrooge all the time. But, surely all of us are Scrooge some of the time. Ebenezer is Everyman.
In our human hearts, we all have the capacity to be scrooge-like: miserly with our means and our mercy, especially to the people we are closest to. This inner sense of wrongdoing can lead to fear: the fear of come-uppance, the fear of retribution, the fear of being found out, the fear of loss.
This starts early. Seminary friends tell the story of their 5 year- old son, Jack. They walked by his door and heard him praying out loud by himself. Isn’t that nice, they said – we must be doing something right. Then they listened to Jack’s prayer – “Please, please, please… dear Santa, I’ll get better! I promise! Please, please bring me presents! I’m afraid I won’t have any presents! Santa, please!”
In the Bible, the universal reaction to being in God’s holy presence is fear. “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” You’ve come here on this long, dark night of the year with your own fears. That’s why we resonate with A Charlie Brown Christmas by Charles Schultz. A depressed Charlie seeks help psychiatric help from Lucy. It’s Christmas, he says, and he should be happy, but he’s not.
Recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it, Lucy says. She lists common fears hoping to find the source of Charlie’s depression. “Are you afraid of stairs? If so, you may have climacophobia. Or maybe you’re afraid of cats. You could have ailurophobia.” Finally, she says, “’Or maybe you have pantaphobia. Do you have pantaphobia?’ `What’s pantaphobia?“The fear of everything.“THAT’S IT!!'”
Lucy diagnoses Charlie’s fear, but he needs more help. “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus then delivers his “lights please” message. “Fear not: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.” There is a subtle but profound detail in that scene. The only time Linus ever drops his security blanket is the exact moment his says, “Fear not.” For, now that our Savior is here, there is nothing to fear.
Charles Schultz may have also hidden a theological Christmas gift in his story. Pantaphobia, Charlie’s diagnosis, is not the fear of everything. Panphobia is. Pantaphobia means absolute fearlessness – the fear of nothing. “Fear not,” says the angel, who, by the way, has no fangs. Fear not, for God comes to you as a forgiving savior who will not withhold his gifts from us. Fear not, for Perfect Love is born in the city of David, and perfect love casts out fear. Fear not, you can drop your blanket. Fear not, for the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.
This message has the power to move the scroogiest of us to say with a new born Ebenezer on Christmas morning, after all the Ghosts had gone, “I’m as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody!” Amen to that. And fear not, for God has blessed us, everyone.