A Long Time Ago, in a Galilee Far, Far Away

A Christmas Eve Sermon from Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho



What’s your favorite Christmas movie?

I have a friend who is trying to convince the world that there are rules for what constitutes a Christmas movie. Here are Landon’s ‘guidelines’.
1.    It has to take place at Christmas time.
2.    The events of Christmas must drive the plot.
3.    It must celebrate the Spirit of Christmas.

What he really wants to do, I suspect, other than narrowly define (ruin) our fun, is to make sure people stop claiming Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

In this 1998 movie, Bruce Willis’ character saves people who are taken hostage at a Christmas party.  My friend is correct, I think, that Die Hard does not celebrate the Spirit of Christmas, (even if there is a woman named Holly and the terrorist shares a last name with the composer who wrote Silent Night. I might be changing my own mind).

For some people, it is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, or maybe “White Christmas”—the old classic movies.

I can’t really describe how much I want to have a dress like this.

For my family, it is likely to be Chevy Chase’s “Christmas Vacation” and the Lord of the Rings movies, which have nothing to do with Christmas other than the fact that it is over the holidays that we have time to watch really long movies together. Personally, I love “Elf” and “Love, Actually” at the holidays.

This year the Charlie Brown Christmas Special turned 50 years old. In this clip, Linus recites part of the Christmas story from Luke. And Linus is best known for his blanket that trails with him wherever he goes.

Because of my physical appearance, glasses, and name, I’m most often compared to Marci, Peppermint Patty’s side kick. Personality wise, people probably think I’m a less angry version of Lucy.  But Linus is my favorite Peanuts character because of his blanket.

I was a blanket kid too. Until after about 40 some years, it finally disappeared. I didn’t carry it around the way Linus did. But I slept with it at night. My parents once had to mail it overnight it to me at Girl Scout Camp. And I remember at least one time we had to drive back to a motel to retrieve it.

I’m not really sure what comfort it provided me. I wasn’t a particularly fearful kid, perhaps because I had that blanket. Who knows. My brother and sister were each given similar blankets and theirs are still in pristine, barely-been-used shape. My blanket was my companion.

Someone pointed out something I had never noticed before, in the many times I had watched the Peanuts Christmas Special. Pay attention to what Linus does with his blanket as he recites the gospel story of the angels’ message to the shepherd.

Linus drops his blanket at the moment the angel proclaims not to be afraid.

He picks it up again as he walks off stage and it remains his companion, presumably until sometime in his 40s when it dissolves into blanket dust. ahem.

But I invite you to hold that image of dropping your blanket when you remember the angel’s call not to be afraid.

It doesn’t mean you will never be afraid again.

It means that you can’t consider the birth of our savior from a place of fear.

If you want to be guided in the way of peace, as Zechariah prophesied a long time ago, in a temple far, far away, if you want to testify to what you have seen and heard, as the Shepherds did a long time ago, on a hillside far, far away, you have to drop your proverbial blanket so you can receive the message of the angels.

‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’.

The message of a child born to save the world is  delivered with a reminder not to be afraid.

We are at a time in our political and cultural life where we are told to fear, to be afraid—
of others,
of people who experience the world differently than we do
afraid of people we don’t understand.
Politicians are rising in the polls by playing to our fears.

And let’s be clear what Emperor Augustus would be saying today, were he on a debate stage. Augustus took the Roman throne at the end of a period of civil war, instituting the ‘pax romana’, an idealized era of peace and stability in the Roman empire. To do that, he sent 150,000 soldiers across the Empire. They were no longer needed to fight civil war, so he sent them to maintain order, which he called peace.

There is an ancient inscription from 9 B.C. called the Pyrine inscription, which described the birth of Emperor Augustus as “the beginning of good news for the world that came because of him.”

Let’s be clear about Augustus’ kind of ‘good news’. It was not a message of Good News as the angels described, it was the good news of no more civil war and of keeping an occupied people at “peace” because they feared the legions of Roman soldiers he sent to enforce it.

‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.’

Reading these texts this week, familiar as they are to me in my line of work, brought me great peace and hope that counteracted the news around us, of loss, and fear, and separation, and isolation, and anxiety.

If it is good news of great joy for all the people, then what role could fear have in our lives?

We know that politicians and emperors seem better at leading us to war than they are at guiding us in the ways of peace. And yet we keep looking to salvation from leaders, from nations and empires.

The message of the angel didn’t come to Emperor Augustus.

Quirinius the Governor didn’t get the memo.

The message came to shepherds, ignored on their hillside.

The angels sang for baby Jesus, not born in a palace, but born to people who would soon have to flee to another country, refugees to Egypt.

Za'Ki Baboun, Bethlehem 2007

Za’Ki Baboun, Bethlehem 2007

Why then, do we keep looking to emperors for answers? Why do we keep privileging people of power instead of claiming our role in a story that began a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away?

Meister Eckhart was a German mystic, theologian, and priest who lived about 900 years ago. Here’s something he said about the birth of Jesus:

“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?
This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

I’ve been pondering his words in my heart and thinking about all of the ways I’ve seen people overcome the message of fear and exclusion, so their feet could be guided in the way of peace, so Christ can be born in us today.

Max Wyatt, A 5 year old Boise kid was hit by a car this September while riding his bike home from school with his dad. He just got out of the hospital recently. The woman who hit Max is a Rwandan refugee. The Boise Bicycle Project bike gives away used and restored bikes to kids each year and they wanted to give one to Max. His mom had another idea. She suggested the kids of the woman who hit Max should get bikes. And so they did.  Here was her reasoning.

“Those first few weeks that we were in the hospital with Max . . you go through the whole range of emotion,” Wyatt says. “And there was anger at times. But, I found myself trying to put myself in her shoes. Back in September when this happened I remember thinking, ‘I love our country. I think it’s amazing that we live in this wonderful place where we can help other people who are faced with atrocities in their homelands, things we don’t even imagine, things we don’t have to worry about here. And it can’t be easy for them to leave their life and what they know and come here and try to integrate into our society where we rely on vehicles to get everywhere.’ I just didn’t see it being her fault, you know.”

Do not be afraid. Be born in us today.

There will always be news that scares us.  Bad things will happen—car accidents and violence and loss. There will always be people who try to fan the flames of our fear. If we have eyes to see it, though, there will also always be stories where fear doesn’t drive the plot. The announcement of the angels is our reminder to not be afraid, to let Christ’s love be born in us today.

This past week, there was an attempted terror attack in Kenya, when al-shabab terrorists tried to separate passengers on a bus, so they could kill the Christian passengers. The Muslim passengers refused to self identify.

Abdi Mohamud Abdi, a Muslim passenger, told Reuters:

“We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear in the bus so that they would not be identified easily. We stuck together tightly. The militants threatened to shoot us but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back.”

Do not be afraid. Be born in us today.

A blogger I follow named Glennon Melton, and some of her friends decided that the refugee crisis out of Syria needed their attention. Because this is the biggest refugee crisis since World War 2, with more than 13 million people in Syria needing humanitarian assistance. Over 4 million Syrians have fled the country, seeking refuge in other countries. Over 6 million are displaced within Syria itself. Over half are children.

So they asked their readers, their followers, their friends, to each give $25 or whatever they could give in a program called the Compassion Collective. In just over a day, 40,000 people donated to raise over $1 million dollars to feed, clothe, and shelter refugees.

Do not be afraid. Be born in us today.

A long time ago, in a Galilee, far, far away, a child was born, good news of great joy for all people. May he be born in us today as well, because the world still needs a peace that is stronger than fear and a hope that is stronger than despair. Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

May it be Good News of great joy for all the people.


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