The Eve of the Nativity

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The Eve of the Nativity

Sermon Date:December 24, 2016

Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2: 1-20

Liturgy Calendar: Christmas Eve


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“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

I’ve talked about Father Damien before, but because he is such a shining example of great light in the darkness, I wanted to remember him again tonight on this Christmas Eve, when we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

If ever a group of people felt that they lived in a land of deep darkness, it would have been those suffering from what was then known as leprosy, who were exiled to Kalaupapa,  a flat leaf shaped peninsula stretching out below the world’s highest sea cliffs on the island of Molokai, today one of the islands in the state of Hawaii. 

As leprosy, now knowns as Hansen’s Disease, crept through the population and spread with it fear and loathing for those who had it, the government decided that in order to stop the its spread, everyone who had the disease would be banished to this island.

And so, after receiving a positive diagnosis, these unfortunate people were loaded onto boats which set sail for Molokai.  If bad weather did not permit the boat to land, the people were thrown overboard and had to swim for shore.  In good weather, those who refused to disembark were also tossed overboard. 

The earliest arrivals found nothing on the peninsula.  The had to sleep in huts that they built out of sticks and leaves, or in caves or stone enclosures.  There was no medical care.  They had to grow their own food.  When they died, they were left unburied, or thrown into pits to rot. 

After seven years, Father Damien, age 33, a Catholic priest from Belgium, arrived and found that conditions for the patients were still abysmal, in spite of the efforts of many people who had come to Kalaupapa to help the lepers.     

For the next fifteen years, Damien not only provided spiritual care for the residents of the colony, but he also provided medical care, built houses, expanded the church, made sure that each person who died had a coffin that he built himself and a proper burial.   He brought the plight of these people to the attention of the world, and obtained much needed funding for the colony.  Eventually he was joined by Joseph Dutton from the United States mainland, and Mother Marianne, a German born American nun, both of whom also devoted their lives to the care of these people.

These three people, along with many others who came to help, brought a great light into what was a land of deep darkness—and light shone on the people doomed to live out their lives in the Kalaupapa colony on Molokai.  As the National Park Service website puts it, “slowly Kalaupapa became a place to live rather than to die.”

Fr Damien’s life radiated light because he modeled his own life on the life of Jesus.

Jesus, who from his humble birth in a stable, grew up into a humble servant for all the world, firmly believed that the kingdom of God on earth would be a reign of peace, mercy,  compassion, and love, and so he lived according to that belief in God’s reign of peace.   

This reign of God was the world that Jesus actually inhabited by creating it around him, and he invited others to join him. 

"The Angel Appearing before the Shepherds" -Thomas Read (1870)

And the first invitation into that reign of peace began at his birth, issued by God’s messenger to the shepherds.

The angel says to the shepherds, “do not fear.” 

The angel meant that the shepherds should not fear the incredible majesty, light, power and awe provoking properties of the angel himself—wouldn’t you be scared and believe that you were losing your mind if you saw something like this?

So the angel asks them to move past their fear of the messenger and to hear the message that the angel is bringing—they have to set aside their fear so that they can hear that the angel is bringing good tidings of great joy for all people.

As people have throughout history, we have much to fear in our own times.  Fear is an important emotion, because it warns us to be careful, to protect ourselves.   Ultimately, though, fear can turn out to be what the writer of Titus might call “a worldly passion”  because giving into fear limits our ability to live in God’s reign of love, peace, mercy and compassion. 

So this opening line from the angel is particularly important. 

“Do not fear.”

Once we have examined the fear, then the fear must be set aside so that we can act as servants of the Lord.

Jesus must have felt fear as the temple authorities closed in on him. 

Father Damien must have felt fear as he witnessed the horrible deaths of the people around him.  Although the disease was not highly contagious, he was constantly exposed to it. 

But both of these men set aside their fears and then did what they needed to do based on their belief in God’s reign of peace, mercy, compassion and love. They lived in this reign of love through their actions.   They both knew that that living in this reign of God in the midst of the world’s darkness can bring suffering and even death. 

As he was being crucified, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

Jesus, through his life, crucifixion, death and resurrection, opened the way for us to eternal life in the reign of God, beginning here and now on this earth, in this moment. 

As Father Damien died of leprosy, he said “I am gently going to my grave….I thank God very much for letting me die of the same disease and in the same way as my lepers.  I am very satisfied, and very happy.”  https://www.nps.gov/kala/learn/historyculture/damien.htm 

Damien’s fear of the disease had not kept him from carrying God’s love, peace, mercy and compassion to thousands of lepers over a fifteen year ministry in Kalaupapa.  He helped them experience the reign of God even through their disease and their exile. 

Our own fears are numerous.

And this story about the birth of Jesus reminds us that we have choices to make, even as the world around us seems to be in deep darkness.

Setting aside our fears, as real and as important as they are, allows us to hear and see, over and over in scripture, and over and over in the lives of the unsung saints around us, the incredible lifechanging power of living fearless lives. 

The shepherds could have huddled together, told one another that they were crazy, and gone back to keeping their sheep. 

Instead, they decided not to fear.  They listened to the message of the angel.

“Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.  For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.”

And then they acted.  They went to see for themselves. 

They found that God’s messenger had told them the truth.

And so they became the very first evangelists.  They went back to their sheep, but now they were glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, and everyone who heard what they had to say was amazed.  The shepherds, by sharing this good news,  had cracked open a door into the darkness, and the light of God’s reign of love and peace came pouring through into the darkness for all who heard and  listened to their words that night.

Mary, meanwhile, treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  In doing so, Mary reminds us that even as we make the decision to set aside our fears and to act as those who live in God’s reign of love, we gain strength and shape our own actions and decisions by treasuring and pondering  the words of scripture that invite us to live and move and have our being in God’s reign of love.

May these words of the Christmas story, bring us, on this night, to see for ourselves this baby in a manger, who will grow up to be Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father,and  the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Savior.    

And may we set aside our fears, and choose to live as people of mercy, compassion, peace and love, in this world and in the world to come. 

Amen. 

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