Of hopes and fears
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Those words written by Phillips Brooks in the 19th century capture so well the drama of what transpired not only on that night so long ago but also the drama that would ensue in the coming months and years.
A new year is soon upon us. For some of us the coming year promises to be one filled with hope and promise and we expectantly await what it will bring while for others of us the coming year may hold fear – fear of what the people of this world will do to others or even to us, fear for our safety, the safety of our children and other loved ones; perhaps fear over the course of the economy and what its effect might be upon us. But whatever the New Year holds it will bring changes.
The birth of God in the person we know as Jesus heralded a new beginning in the history of the world and its people. That birth was heralded by angels bringing a message of salvation, hope, peace and good will from God to a struggling people. That birth also was marked by a star – a super nova – that took Magi on a trek from the east that would lead them to find one they knew was to be a king. Exactly what his kingdom would be they did not know but they did know that he would be king of the Jews. And so, as the shepherds had come that first evening to see for themselves this child born to be the Saviour of the people, the Magi came in due time to find the child and bring to him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And while the shepherds may have had some idea of what this coming of God in Jesus meant; the Magi were not sure what Jesus would mean to the Jewish people, but they did know that he was to be their king. Yet as much as they followed the star they needed the assistance of those who they felt would have an even better idea of where exactly they could find this new king. Herod’s advisors knew the prophecy, but they had not yet heard that the event had come to pass. The arrival of the Magi confirmed his advisors’ information and so they told the Magi where they might find the child. And as much as we have the Magi appear at the stable at the same time as the shepherds the reality is that it may have been up to two years later. But no matter where the child and his parents were at the time of their arrival, it is clear that they found the child and that they gave him the gifts they brought and that their message about the child made a deep impression on Mary. Their words filled her with hope for while the gifts revealed that a great darkness would come to the child later in life; they also revealed richness and a comfort. For Mary the visit of the Magi brought both hope and fear.
But it was not only Mary and Joseph who were touched with mixed feelings of both hope and fear. Herod – who had seemed so anxious to know if the prophecy about the child had been fulfilled – was filled not with hope but with fear. He believed the birth of the child to be a threat to his own kingship in Judea and his mind turned to a plan to eliminate this threat. Once the Magi returned with confirmation, he would act quickly and decisively to eliminate the child. However, the Magi are warned in a dream about the real motive of Herod’s great interest in the child and so they avoid returning to him.
Upon discovering that they will not be returning with the information he so desperately needs; he takes what is to him the only reasonable course of action. He will kill every male child under the age of 2 in Bethlehem in order that he may not let the one child he desires to be dead slip through his hands. The great fear of Herod that he would lose his position, his power, and his prestige drives him to commit an atrocity that will forever be remembered as the Slaughter of the Innocents. But Herod is thwarted twice in his efforts to preserve his future for Joseph also receives a warning and takes Mary and the baby to Egypt. Herod eventually dies and this becomes the opportunity for the family to return but being afraid of Herod’s son, Joseph takes the family north to the district of Galilee to the town called Nazareth.
There he hopes for a peaceful life for this child and the others who will become part of their family in the years to come. There is peace for several years until the time comes when Mary’s nephew John begins to preach a baptism for the repentance of sins and Jesus goes to be baptized by John. It will begin for Joseph and, especially Mary, journeys that will bring them great hope but also great fear. Mary will feel the pain and sorrow most intently as she sees both the miracle of healing and the pain of torture and death. Of course, we know that the story ultimately has a happy ending for in the end all fear is overcome and what is left is hope – the hope for eternity with God, the hope for an eternal peace, an eternal healing with no more tears.
And so, we look to this new beginning in our time. As ever it will be a time of change, but also a time of hope and no doubt a time of fear. As people of faith we will find ourselves in a place where hope and fear will meet. But what will mark our lives in 2020 and beyond? Will it be the overwhelming fear that gripped Herod who saw only his own position and power, or will it be the new hope that encouraged the shepherds, inspired the Magi and led Mary throughout her life? Do we fear the changes that the future may bring or are we prepared to hope for a future with God who has promised to be with us to the very end?
What happened in Bethlehem changed the world forever and because of that night hope will ever overcome fear. So, let us remember the promise of Jesus: “Peace I give unto you, not as the world gives, give I unto you; so, let not your hearts be troubled neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)