Fear or Faith?
Of all the events that make no sense in the Christmas story, this is one that has always snagged my attention: And Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod, the ruler over all Judea. Herod, the man who to most ordinary people in Jesus’ day would seem to have infinite power. Why in the world was Herod troubled about a birth? Even if there was a portent attached to it?
Perhaps Herod was troubled because fear ruled his life. And when fear is your dominant emotion, your world gets smaller and smaller because your every thought, your every action, is turning in on yourself. When fear dominates, you get so closed in that there is no room in your life for possibilities, no room for a bright future, no room for hope.
Herod had lived a lifetime dominated by fear. By this point, he is near the end of his life, and it’s a life littered with murders. Because when you’re ruled by fear, everyone you encounter is a threat. When fear is in charge, everyone is a possible rival. Over the years Herod has ordered the deaths of his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, and his wife. And just a few years before this moment in today’s reading, he became convinced that his sons were plotting against him, so he ordered them strangled.
Because that’s what you do when fear is in charge. Everywhere Herod looks, he sees trouble. Darkness. Nothing matters more to him than keeping his grip on the throne. What’s one more murder?
Running parallel to this ruler are the Wise Men, and the contrast is extraordinary. Here are men whose actions make even less sense than that of Herod, if that’s possible. They would be Persian court officials, highly regarded, the most senior individuals in the administration below the actual king. Magi in those days were astrologers, at a time when that was a respected science. Their job was to take the temperature of the kingdom, put forth trial balloons and gauge the responses, and read the stars. By following the patterns of the stars, they could tell the king how the crops would do and whether a storm was coming, but because they had years of diligent practice in reading the stars, they could do more than that.
They were familiar with patterns. They knew the constellations and the movements of the planets. And when something appeared that they had never seen before, because they were versed in the heavens and the readings of the ancient prophets, they could see the star in the sky and know what it meant. They could put the pieces together.
But following it – that was a different story. They had good jobs, comfortable lives, respect, nice work if you can get it. There was no reason for them to pack up and spend a year or more hiking across the deserts, crossing a good chunk of the known world, to see a baby.
But they did. And I suspect that they set out because, unlike Herod, their lives were ruled by faith. They believed the prophets whose wisdom they studied. They believed the stars whose patterns they knew. As much as it might seem a crazy idea to us, once they saw that star it would have been obvious to them that they had to follow it. To make the journey and to take all the risks and unknown factors and possible dangers along with it. To leave their comfortable sinecures for blazing heat and freezing cold and a year on a camel’s back. To risk everything. Because that’s what happens when faith is in charge and not fear.
When fear calls the shots, everything is much too risky and every person is a threat. When fear is in charge, your world gets increasingly smaller as you close in on yourself and keep everyone and everything out.
But when faith leads the way, it’s astonishing how large the world becomes. When faith invites, and you and I respond, we are called outside ourselves. Our beliefs are challenged. Our familiar routines are disrupted. New people come into our lives, and we participate in new events, and instead of focusing on how this will affect me, we discover that we have become a part of something larger than ourselves. Where fear narrows, faith broadens.
So when faith and fear collide, the wise men state their intentions simply, unafraid of what might result. We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him. They have seen the star, and they have responded in faith. Trapped by fear, thinking only of what this means for Herod, the king trembles, and all Jerusalem with him.
Fear and faith collided. And the wise men followed the star in faith, and the whole world broadened, because the star showed us the savior of us all. The wise men were led by faith, and so now can we all be. Herod, meanwhile, continued to be ruled by fear, ordering the slaughter of every male child under the age of two. And yet chaos and tension continued as the Roman Empire held a fragile and unstable peace over the Jews, because Herod and his successors continued to let fear lead the way.
But when fear and faith collided – faith emerged victorious. Even amid the chaos and the danger, Jesus spread the word. And his disciples, who could legitimately fear for their lives, went forth and spread the word. Faith made their worlds so much larger, and in turn, down through the centuries, has broadened our world as well. Even when fear has a mighty grip, the light of faith continues to shine, and the darkness does not overcome it.
In our world today, there are still things that scare and trouble us. There are still things that cause our president to be troubled, and all America with him. The threat of radical terrorism. The increasing power of China and Russia in world affairs. New threats to civil liberties and worries about equality and inclusion. Growing national debt and consumer debt. A seemingly intractable conflict in Syria that involves so many different factions, it’s nearly impossible to figure out who is fighting with whom and for what; but no matter which faction is winning, the people always seem to be losing. Central Americans leaving everything behind and fleeing for their lives. There are reasons to be afraid. There are real threats in our world.
But in the midst of our fears, I wonder where God is working right now, unbeknownst to us, bringing about something good out of chaos. When our history is written, where will future generations see the hand of God at work to bring grace and peace where we, caught in the midst of it, can see only threat, trouble, and tragedy? And when God’s work becomes clear, will we have been a part of it? Will we have been working along with God, even in the face of danger, even in the face of anxiety, to bring about a greater good? Or will we have been with those who feared the worst and only made things more terrible? I pray that we will find ourselves working against the common wisdom, in the places where God’s most exciting work is being done; searching for light in darkness, searching for hope in uncertainty, searching for the movement of God’s Spirit in our world. Fear or faith? Which one will you and I choose to rule our lives this year?