Do you ever get scared? I get scared sometimes. I get scared of all kinds of things:
What if I get sick? What if we run out of money? What if I lose my job? What if my marriage falls apart? What if something happens to one of my kids?
What if this election doesn’t turn out the way I think it should? What if the stock market crashes again? What if essential relief and education programs get their funding cut by policy makers?
We live lives surrounded by fear. The famous philosopher (and sometimes crankyperson) David Hume once went on a rant about all the things in this world that scare us. First, he said, there are our natural enemies: those things that threaten our physical existence (i.e. predators, disasters, diseases). Then there are our societal enemies: tyranny, oppression, injustice, inequality, violent rebellion. Next you have our internal enemies: guilt, shame, fear. Finally, as if all that weren’t enough, we have our own imaginary enemies that we make up ourselves: superstitions, taboos, mythical monsters.
Surrounded by so many enemies and things to be scared of on all sides, life hardly seems worth living, says Hume. Why then do we go on? Why don’t we just end it all? Well, says Hume, because we’re scared of that too. Death is the ultimate enemy to fear because no one knows for sure what lies on the other side of it. And so, because we are ultimately afraid of death, Hume says, “We are terrified, not bribed, into the continuance of our existence.”
Now, this is a pretty dark portrayal of reality (David Hume was kind of famous for that), but I think he has a point in noticing that we live our lives surrounded by fear. There’s always something to be worried about or afraid of. This is the way it’s always been.
Way back in the 8th century BCE, there was a Jewish king named Ahaz who had a lot to be scared of. His reign had been fraught with constant conflict. Two of his enemies, the Ephraimites and the Arameans, had joined forces and were threatening to lay siege to the city of Jerusalem. Ahaz was understandably scared out of his gourd. The most sensible thing he could think of to do was to seek out support from a bigger, meaner bully down the block. Back then, the biggest, meanest kid in town was the Assyrian Empire.
This, by the way, is the same rationale that leads some people, especially teenagers and young adults, to join gangs: they’re looking to garner a sense of safety when they feel like no one else cares about them. But, as is so often the case with these kinds of things, there is a hefty price to pay and very little safety after all. In King Ahaz’s case, he and his people would pay dearly for whatever protection they received from Assyria. Having sacrificed freedom for security, they were no longer in charge of their own house. The people of Judah paid tribute to the Assyrians and owed them allegiance, even to the point of worshiping Assyrian deities in the place of the Jewish God. Because of fear, Ahaz lost sight of who he was and what he was supposed to stand for in the world.
It didn’t have to be this way. Isaiah the prophet, who was a pretty insightful dude, saw the bad end coming and tried to warn Ahaz. He said, “These troubles are only temporary. It’s not worth selling your soul in order to ensure your survival. Have a little faith!” He pointed to a pregnant woman and said, “You see this young woman? By the time her baby grows up and is old enough to walk and talk, these conflicts will be nothing more than a distant memory. Look at this woman and remember her. Let her baby be a sign to you that God is with you, therefore you don’t need to be afraid.”
This was a powerful message. And it’s one that has endured for thousands of years, even though its intended audience didn’t listen to a word of it. Isaiah told Ahaz to look for God, not in grandiose displays of power or guarantees of success, but in the little things of this world. The sign of God’s presence was that little baby, whose name would be Immanuel, which is Hebrew for “God is with us.”
Over seven hundred years after Isaiah first spoke these words, the early Christians would look back at them and say, “Hey, you know what? Isaiah’s prophecy kind of reminds us of Jesus! He wasn’t very powerful or successful by this world’s standards, but when we looked at him, we got that hunch that maybe “God is with us.” Besides, Jesus taught us to look for God in the little things as well: in the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, in farmers sowing seeds and bakers baking bread. Jesus got us looking at all those little things in life that most people never pay attention to. Because of him, we know that God is with us, just like Isaiah tried to tell Ahaz with that little boy Immanuel.”
I love that. God is with us in the little things. As we live our lives, surrounded and overwhelmed by fear, we often forget to pay attention to those little, everyday signs that God is with us. Like Ahaz, we can sometimes be quick to lose sight of who we are and what’s really important, especially when we’re afraid. It’s in those moments of overwhelming anxiety that we most need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and look… really look at ourselves, our lives, and our world. We need to pay attention to those little things, the things we’re too busy for, the boring, ordinary things that happen every day, the things that don’t seem all that important: babies, bread, birds, flowers, seeds… because those places are the places where God meets us.
There may be no grandiose sign, no light from heaven, no singing angels. There will be no guarantees of security or success. Just the little things, little signs of Immanuel, that God is with us. All we are promised from these encounters is a renewed perspective on who we are what life is all about. The strength we find in these encounters is the strength to stand by our core values and central beliefs, come what may. God is with us in the little things of this world to remind us that some things in life are more important than success or survival, therefore we don’t need to live in fear. Fear is not the foundation of reality. Deeper than fear, deeper still than the natural, societal, internal, and imaginary enemies who surround us on every side, at the very heart of reality, we have a friend who is always with us… a love that will not let us go. My esteemed, late colleague, the Rev. Fred Rogers (host of the children’s TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said it best:
“I believe that at the center of the universe there dwells a loving spirit who longs for all that’s best in all of creation, a spirit who knows the great potential of each planet as well as each person, and little by little will love us into being more than we ever dreamed possible. That loving spirit would rather die than give up on any one of us.”
With a God like this on our side, what do we have to be afraid of?
Immanuel, God is with us, even (especially) in the little things. This is the message that Isaiah tried to deliver to King Ahaz, although Ahaz wasn’t willing to hear it. This is the message we are meant to take with us from the Christmas season. The question for us is: are we willing to listen?
Immanuel, God is with us. Do not be afraid.