Thursday, June 23, 2016

Towards a Shared Land Theology. A Palestinian Christian Reading of the Land Promises

Here is a video of a lecture I presented this April in China Graduate School of Theology. The lecture was about the theology of the Land.


Monday, May 23, 2016

How Theological Education Forms People For Ministry - A Palestinian Christian Perspective

I had the privilege of taking part in the first Global Forum of Theological Educators, which took place in May 16-20, 2016 at Dorfweil, Germany. We were 86 theological educators, and for the first time, key theological educators from the six major church confessional families—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal and Independent churches—came together in one united forum in order to learn from each other and to share about the current situation of theological education on a global scale.



I gave a talk on how theological education should form people for ministry. Here is the text of my talk. 

How Does Theological Education Form People For Ministry: A Palestinian Christian Perspective

I consider it a privilege to be with you and to share with you in this gathering. This presentation is mainly based on my experience as a Bible scholar and as the Academic dean of Bethlehem Bible College. I will also speak as a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem - a Middle Eastern, Arab, Palestinian Christian. 

The question we have is: “How should theological education form people for ministry?” To answer this question I will suggest four points. Theological education in the 21st century should be (1) relevant, (2) unifying, (3) missional and (4) global.



1- Relevant 
Being located in Bethlehem is a privilege. It is the place of the incarnation, where God became one of us. Today we continue the long heritage of Christianity in the land of Christ. If you have not visited before then you should! 

Yet living in Palestine does not come without its challenges. I am 37 years old, and I have already witnessed so many wars and uprisings that it will take me the whole 12 minutes just to recite them. Today our students have sometimes to fight tear gas canisters just to arrive to our campus. And it was on one of those days that it hit me: Are we preparing leaders to relate to and make sense of what is happening in the streets outside our classroom walls? We aspire to be experts in interpreting the biblical text and the context of biblical times, but what about interpreting the context we live in?

For those students struggling just to make it to the class, imagine them arriving to the class only to have a class on the documentary hypothesis or on the difference between infralapsarianism, sublapsarianism, and supralapsarianism? (These are things I studied about in seminary in USA!) My colleague pastor in Bethlehem Rev. Mitri Raheb always jokes that after he came back from Germany with a PhD in theology he had all the right answers, but he had the wrong questions! 

Are we relevant? Today I believe every seminary should have courses about interpreting the context, both locally and globally. We need to biblically tackle issues like poverty, religious extremism, peacemaking, the gap between rich and poor… etc. We need to talk about identity and nationality. We need to do social and political analysis from a Christian worldview. In Bethlehem Bible College today we speak about the need of bringing Christ in dialogue with the Checkpoint

Now, I am not talking about teaching these issues in a separate elective course (and bring the “lefty” professor in the seminary to teach them just to quite him/her)! These themes should be part of the class on Matthews, or the Pauline letters, or the Pentateuch, that is if we even want to stick to the classical way of structuring our curriculum. Let us reflect on this. 

2- Unifying  
My second point is that theological education should be unifying; it should take the ecumenical dimension very seriously. I will again bring an example from my personal experience. Two years ago I taught one of the most memorable classes in my teaching career: The Pentateuch. What made it memorable of course was not the content, but the students, and in particular their diversity. There were: Evangelicals, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Catholics, and even a student from a Muslim background, and then of course a Lutheran teacher. 

Having this diverse group is a reason to celebrate, but also to lament. I think of the history of divisions in the Holy Land. Today we are a small community, and a divided one. We carry on us the scars and wounds of centuries of church conflict. With the challenges facing Christians in the Middle East increasing by the day, the options facing us are simple: unite and work together, or perish! 

Jesus prayed in John 17 that we will be one, emphasising that our unity will be a sign to the world that the Father has sent the Son. I can never forget, however, what Dr. Manfred Kohl once said to me, and I am paraphrasing here: “Jesus commanded us to be one, but we build seminaries to teach that we are actually not one!” 

Today more than ever, unity is no longer a luxury. It is a demand for the survival of the church. The church is losing its credibility among young people because of this issue. Here is my point: It begins in the seminary! Consider for a moment our Church history classes, or the Systematic Theology classes. Can we teach about church conflicts in history with humility? Can we teach the diversity in theological views in a respectful and thoughtful way? I strong recommend to you as an example of this a document recently prepared by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation called From Conflict to Communion. It talks about the conflict between the two churches and the disagreements in theology in a very respectable and Christ-honouring way, and how the two communities are now on the road to communion again! It can be done!

This semester I am teaching a course on worship and liturgy. Again, I have students from different background, and we are enjoying learning the liturgy of the different church families in our land. It is really an amazing class, as every student shares about worship from her/his own church family. Our diversity has become a reason to celebrate.

3- Missional  
Third, theological education should be missional. We have a message to the world. Today more than ever this message is crucial and desperately needed. It is the message of the cross. It is the message of grace; the unmerited love of God. We have a message and forgiveness and mercy. We have a message that loving God and loving neighbour are an expression of one another. We have a radical message with radical implications about loving the enemy. The Middle East and indeed the world need to hear this message and need to see it embodied in us.   

Yet here is the challenge: How do we witness about Jesus, the crucified Son of God and the way to God, in a context on extremism and fundamentalism? How do we make exclusive claims about Jesus while being humble and at the same time open to God’s mercy and mysterious ways? I believe that naive universalism where “anything goes” is not the answer! Mission has to begin with the conviction that in Jesus and the cross we have answers, specially when it comes to reconciliation with God and fellow man. 

To do so we must look to people of other faiths as neighbours. So many times we emphasise the great commission, yet we forget the great commandment of love to neighbour. As such it begins with our message to our own people, and how we define mission in our theological education. It has to do with how we relate to people of other faiths. For example, do we dismiss and dehumanise peoples, faiths, and whole civilisations in our apologetics? 
Mission should not about converting the other where is the other is a “project”: but as witnessing, loving, sacrificial serving, and even advocating. It is about loving relationships. Let us plant the seed of this love in our students. And it begins with how we talk about “the other”. 

How do we relate in our seminaries with the communities around us? In Bethlehem we live among a majority of Muslims, and so what is our message to them? How do they see us? Do we really know them? In our extension in Nazareth we live among a majority of Jews and the same questions apply. Are we, through our theological education, wall builders, or bridge builders? 

In theological education in the Middle East today we are talking about integrating Islam into our curriculum and relate the Bible to the context of Islam. This is not about giving a course on Islam. Rather, for example, when we talk about the figure of Abraham, or the doctrine of the trinity, we should do so in dialogue with Islamic teachings about these things. It does not make sense to me that we talk in our seminaries today about different beliefs about the divinity of Jesus in the 4th and 5th century, yet have no idea what 2 billion Muslims believe about this today! We study Abraham in his ANE perspective, yet not how he is perceived in the Quran! 

4- Global Theology 
My fourth and final point is that theological education should be global. I thought about calling it “theology from the margins”; theology that gives voice to the global south perspective and challenges the monopoly of the West on theology. Some call it “post-colonial theology”. You see for many, when we from the south write theology, it is contextual theology, but if Bob Smith writes it, or Carl Schmidt, it is proper theology. We need to challenge this notion. 

Another story to illustrate. As academic dean in Bethlehem, I always receive emails from people who offer to come and teach in our college - basically wanting to come and “educate us”, assuming that we do not have people who know theology or the Bible. I must admit that these emails are beginning to make me angry. In particular there was this email I received from someone who works in an organisation in Canada that speaks about the persecution of Christians, and he was taking a sabbatical, and offered to spend it in our college and teach us a course on how to respond to persecution! I could not believe it! A Canadian in a sabbatical offering to teach Palestinians on persecution. I responded politely by inviting him to come and learn from us about persecution! 

In this season of Pentecost, we need to listen to the Spirit, and acknowledge the shift that is taking place in Christianity today, a shift towards the global south. It is a good shift. It is not a historical coincidence. I believe it is the work of Spirit. 

I long therefore for the day where the theological books we read in our seminaries come from Latin America, Asia or Africa. This is no longer the future of Christianity, but the present. These voices should play a key role in shaping the way we think about God and the way we interpret Scripture, and how we respond to the challenges facing our world today. This is not simply an “interesting cool” perspective or reading of Scripture. And for those of us from the global south, are we too dependant on the north? Do we have to reference Smith or Schmidt to be legit? 


Relevant, unifying, missional and global! This is my simple contribution for this gathering as to how theological education should form people for ministry today. God bless you! 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

المبادلة الرائعة - الجمعة العظيمة



المبادلة الرائعة – 2 كورنثوس 14:5-21

لأَنَّ مَحَبَّةَ الْمَسِيحِ تَحْصُرُنَا. إِذْ نَحْنُ نَحْسِبُ هذَا: أَنَّهُ إِنْ كَانَ وَاحِدٌ قَدْ مَاتَ لأَجْلِ الْجَمِيعِ، فَالْجَمِيعُ إِذًا مَاتُوا. وَهُوَ مَاتَ لأَجْلِ الْجَمِيعِ كَيْ يَعِيشَ الأَحْيَاءُ فِيمَا بَعْدُ لاَ لأَنْفُسِهِمْ، بَلْ لِلَّذِي مَاتَ لأَجْلِهِمْ وَقَامَ... وَلكِنَّ الْكُلَّ مِنَ اللهِ، الَّذِي صَالَحَنَا لِنَفْسِهِ بِيَسُوعَ الْمَسِيحِ، وَأَعْطَانَا خِدْمَةَ الْمُصَالَحَةِ، أَيْ إِنَّ اللهَ كَانَ فِي الْمَسِيحِ مُصَالِحًا الْعَالَمَ لِنَفْسِهِ، غَيْرَ حَاسِبٍ لَهُمْ خَطَايَاهُمْ، وَوَاضِعًا فِينَا كَلِمَةَ الْمُصَالَحَةِ. إِذًا نَسْعَى كَسُفَرَاءَ عَنِ الْمَسِيحِ، كَأَنَّ اللهَ يَعِظُ بِنَا. نَطْلُبُ عَنِ الْمَسِيحِ: تَصَالَحُوا مَعَ اللهِ. لأَنَّهُ جَعَلَ الَّذِي لَمْ يَعْرِفْ خَطِيَّةً، خَطِيَّةً لأَجْلِنَا، لِنَصِيرَ نَحْنُ بِرَّ اللهِ فِيهِ 
.
تحتوي هذه الآيات على جوهر إيماننا الإنجيلي. صالحنا الله لنفسه بموت المسيح على الصليب. بينما كنا في خطايانا أرسل الله ابنه ليموت عنا نحن الخطاة. صليب المسيح هو خلاصنا وهو فدائنا. وبعمل المسيح على الصليب أصبحنا أبراراً. نعم لقد بررنا الله نحن الخطاة. أعطانا برّ المسيح. "لأَنَّهُ قَدْ أَلْبَسَنِي ثِيَابَ الْخَلاَصِ. كَسَانِي رِدَاءَ الْبِرِّ" (أشعياء 10:61). صار لنا في المسيح برّ المسيح. الله ينظر إلينا اليوم في المسيح، فيرى المسيح فينا ويتغاضى عن خطايانا. وهكذا يقول بولس: "غَيْرَ حَاسِبٍ لَهُمْ خَطَايَاهُمْ". هذه هي النعمة! 

ولننتبه هنا أن الله هو من صالحنا. لاحظ لا يقول تصالح معنا، بل صالحنا معه. نحن المشكلة. نحن عادينا الله. نحن من كسرنا ويكسر العلاقة: بكبريائنا وتمردنا واستقلالنا عن الله. ورغم هذا الله هو من بادر في الحل وليس نحن. هذه هو الإنجيل. الله بحث عنا، وليس العكس. 

اليوم وفي ذكرى الجمعة العظيمة نتذكر كم كلّفت هذه المصالحة المسيح. نعم ألبسنا ثياب البرّ ولكنه اضطر أن ينزع هذا الثوب عن نفسه وأيضاً أن يلبس ثوب الخطية. خطيتنا. نعم أصبح هو الخطية. الآية في 2 كورنثوس 21:5 من أصعب الآيات في الكتاب المقدس: "لأَنَّهُ جَعَلَ الَّذِي لَمْ يَعْرِفْ خَطِيَّةً، خَطِيَّةً" – ما أقسى هذه الكلمات. ابن الله البريء القدوس الذي بلا خطية، المسيح أصبح هو خطية! 

هذا ما رآه أشعياء عن الصليب قبل الصلب بمئات السنين عندما قال: :لاَ صُورَةَ لَهُ وَلاَ جَمَالَ فَنَنْظُرَ إِلَيْهِ، وَلاَ مَنْظَرَ فَنَشْتَهِيَهُ. مُحْتَقَرٌ وَمَخْذُولٌ مِنَ النَّاسِ، رَجُلُ أَوْجَاعٍ وَمُخْتَبِرُ الْحَزَنِ، وَكَمُسَتَّرٍ عَنْهُ وُجُوهُنَا، مُحْتَقَرٌ فَلَمْ نَعْتَدَّ بِهِ" (أش 2:53-3).  
هذه المبادلة العظيمة. المبادلة الرائعة كما سماها مارتن لوثر: "هذا هو السرّ الغنيّ بالنعمة الإلهية للخطاة: في هذه المبادلة الرائعة لم تعد خطايانا لنا بل أصبحت للمسيح، ولم يعد برّ المسيح له بل أصبح لنا. لقد أخلى نفسه من البرّ ليلبسنا إياه، ويملأنا منه".  

هذه الآيات في كورنثوس تركتني حزيناً فرحاً. هناك صراع في داخلي. من ناحية، فرحت إذ قد نجونا من الموت بفعل هذه المبادلة. المسيح فدانا وأخذ مكاننا. هذا هو الإنجيل. هذه هي الأخبار السارة. هذه الأمور حقيقية وليست أوهام أو كلام. لا نخاف الموت أو العقاب. نتذكر كلام الكتاب: "لا دينونة على الذين هم في المسيح يسوع" (رومية 1:8). نعم لا دينونة. ليس لأننا لا نخطئ، بل لأن المسيح أخذ العقاب عنا. لأجل هذا لنا سلام مع الله. "فإذ قد تبررنا بالإيمان لنا سلام مع الله بربنا يسوع المسيح" (رومية 1:5). لأجل هذا لا يعذبنا ضميرنا. لا حاجة لذبائح. لا خوف بعد الآن.لا حاجة لأعمال تكفيرية. يسوع أكمل العمل عنّا.

من ناحية أخرى، أحزن إذ أتذكر أن المسيح دفع ثمناً غالياً...بسببي. نعم بسببي تألم المسيح ولاقى أقسى أنواع العذاب. بسببي من هو أبرع جمالاً من بني البشر أصبح "لا صورة له ولا منظر فنشتهيه". نحن من صلبنا المسيح بخطايانا. تقول الترنيمة:
يدك المثقوبةُ ربي تَسبيني... تشعِل فيّ أشواقي و حنيني...
وتذكرني بأنك في يومٍ... من أجلي قاسيت لكي لا تُشقيني...
وخلاصي من الموت بسببٍ... أنك ضحيتَ كيما تنجيني...
لم يُثنِك موتٌ أو ألمٌ ... كنتَ مشغولَا بأنيني...
لم يرهِبكَ هولُ العارِ... مجروحٌ حتى تشفيني...

المحزن أيضاً أنه فوق كل هذا، ورغم كل هذه المحبة وكل هذه التضحية، ما زال المسيح اليوم يطلب ويسعى وكأنه يترجانا: تصالحوا مع الله! ما زال هو من يسعى وراء البشر وليس العكس! صعب هذا الأمر ومحزن. ما أقسانا نحن البشر. فعلاً نحن لا نستحق رحمة الله. أحزن عندما أدرك أن الله اليوم ما زال هو من يسعى نحونا، هو من يبحث عن الإنسان وليس العكس. أسمعه اليوم يقول:
اتركوا الشهوة والطمع... اتركوا الخصام...
اتركوا القتل والانتقام والسرقة ... أراضي فلسطين ما زالت تصرخ...
اتركوا التطرف والعنف... كم من قتيل ولاجئ ومشرد...
اتركوا حبّ المال... كم من عائلة تفتتت من وراء حب المال... 

تصالحوا مع الله! اقبلوا عمل المسيح على الصليب. آمنوا اليوم، فالله قادر أن يحرر من عبودية الشر والشهوة والكراهية. يسوع اليوم يصرخ: تعالوا إليّ فأعطيكم الحياة.

ليتنا نقول اليوم: اتبعك ربّي ومسيحي. أنا لك. أومن بك. أقبل صليبك. أمسك بصليبك فهو نجاتي. ومع اللصّ لنصرخ: "اذكرني يا ربّ متى جئت في ملكوتك... اذكرني يا ربّ متى جئت في ملكوتك..." 


Friday, January 8, 2016

كلمة القس منذر اسحق في خدمة الرسامة





رسامتي لخدمة القسوسية
كنيسة الفادي الإنجيلية اللوثرية – القدس
3-1-2016
نعمةٌ لكم وسلامٌ من الله أبينا ومن ربّنا يسوعَ المسيح.
قبل حوالي 8 سنوات كنت أواعد من أصبحت لاحقاً زوجتي وشريكة حياتي – ردينة. قالت لي حينها: كشرط للخطوبة، عدني أنك لن تصبح يوماً قسيساً. أذكر أنني أجبتها حينها بكل ثقة: "لا تخافي يا حبيبتي، هذا آخر ما أفكر به".

وها أنا الآن! أقفُ أمامكم وقد كرّستُ نفسي وعائلتي لخدمة اللهِ والكنيسةِ والمجتمع. فعندما يدعو الله، يسمعُ الإنسانُ ويستجيب. لقد تغيّرت حياتُنا بالكامل عندَ إنهاءِ دراستي في انجلترا قبلَ حوالي عامينِ ونصف. عُدنا عندها إلى البلاد وعاهدنا اللهَ أن نخدمهُ كما يُريد. صلاتُنا كانت بسيطةً: مهما تطلب منّا، سنفعل!

أذكرُ حينها، وعندما طُرحَ أمامنا موضوع الرسامة في الكنيسة الإنجيلية اللوثرية، أننا قرأنا وصلينا الآية من متى 28:14 – وهي حادثةُ مشي بطرس على الماء. هناك قالَ بطرس قبل أن مشى على الماء: "يَا سَيِّدُ، إِنْ كُنْتَ أَنْتَ هُوَ، فَمُرْني أَنْ آتِيَ إِلَيْكَ عَلَى الْمَاءِ". كانت رغبةُ قلب بطرس أن يتبعَ سيّده ويمشي على الماء، وسط العاصفة، ولكنه أصرّ أن تأتي الدعوةُ من المسيحِ أولاً! وكأنه يقول: "أريدُ أن آتي إليك، ولكن مُرني أنتَ أن آتيَ إليك. لا أريدُ أن آتي من ذاتي أو بمبادرةٍ مني. ادعني أنت. يَا سَيِّدُ، إِنْ كُنْتَ أَنْتَ هُوَ، فَمُرْني أَنْ آتِيَ إِلَيْكَ." 

أقفُ أمامكم اليوم، ولسانُ حالي مثلَ بطرس – مؤمناً ومتمسكاً بدعوة المسيحِ لي لهذه الخدمةِ المقدسة، خدمة الكلمة وإقامة السّرين المقدسين – رَغم ضعفي وعدم استحقاقي. الأوقاتُ التي نمرّ فيها أوقاتٌ صعبة، ومليئةٌ بالتحديات علينا كشعب فلسطينيٍّ وكمسيحيين فلسطينيين بشكل خاص. إنها مثل العاصفة التي تضربُ القاربَ تارةً يميناً وتارةً شمالاً. فمن قسوة الاحتلال إلى التطرّف الديني إلى ابتعاد جزء كبير ممن تبقى من المسيحيين وخاصة الشباب عن الكنيسة – أمام هذه التحديات أقول: " يَا سَيِّدُ، إِنْ كُنْتَ أَنْتَ هُوَ، فَمُرْني أَنْ آتِيَ إِلَيْكَ". وأقف مدركاً أنني مثل بطرس، إن أزلتُ عينيَّ عن المسيحِ مُخلصي وفاديّ فإني سوف أغرق. فلا يمكن أن أسمحَ للعواصف أن تنسيني أن ربَّ السماء والأرض، من أسّسَ هذه الكنيسة في أرضنا هذه، من هذه المدينة المقدسة القدس، هو من دعاني لخدمته. 

وأمام هذه التحديات أومن أننا بحاجةٍ أكثر من أيّ وقتٍ مضى إلى العودةِ إلى جذورنا الإنجيلية، فنعيشَ ونعلنَ إنجيلَ المسيح الذي هو قوةُ الله للخلاصِ لكلّ من يؤمن. ونحن أيضاً بحاجة أكثر من أيّ وقتٍ مضى إلى وحدتنا كمسيحيين في هذه الأرض ومحبتنا الصادقة لبعضنا البعض ولوطننا. 

أودُ أن أذكرَ هنا فضلَ كل من ساعدني في الإيمان المسيحي وثبّتني في كلمة الله منذُ طفولتي حتى دراستي العليا. كما وأشكرُ بشكلٍ خاص سيادةَ المطران منيب يونان على دعمهِ لي واحتضاني في الكنيسة. لقد تعلمتُ الكثير منك في العامين الأخيرين، وأشكرك من أجل قيادتك الحكيمة لهذه الكنيسة. وأشكر الكنيسة اللوثرية (وخاصة في بيت ساحور وبيت لحم) وكل أعضائها وعمدها والمجمع على محبتهم لي. أشكرُ زملائي القسس في الكنيسة وعائلاتهم على دعمهم لي وفعلاً أشعر أننا من الآن عائلةٌ واحدة، وأتطلعُ لخدمةِ الإنجيل معكم في السنوات القادمة. وللقسيس متري الراهب أقول: أشكرك من أجل كل ما أعطيتني في العامين الأخيرين، ومن أجل ثقتك بي. أومن أن الله استخدمك في حياتي في توقيته – نحو حياةٍ أفضل، فشكراً.
أود أيضاً أن أشكرَ عائلتي على محبتهم ودعمهم غيرِ المشروط لي – أمي وأخي وأخواتي – ونتذكرُ معاً محبة أبي لنا وفضله علينا. 

وأيضاً أشكرُ عائلتي في كلية بيت لحم للكتاب المقدس حيث أخدمُ منذ أكثر من 10 سنوات في الحقل اللاهوتي والأكاديمي والمناصرة من أجل العدالة والحقّ، وأشكرهم لتفهمهم ودعمهم لي في سعيي نحو حقل الرعاية. 

لزوجتي ردينة أقول: نحنُ في هذا القارب معاً. لقد اختارك الله لي، ولا أقدرُ أن أتخيل حياتي وخدمتي في الكنيسة مع غيرك. صلّوا لأجلنا ولأجل كرم وزيد كي يقود الله خطواتنا ويكون هو مرشدنا وعوننا. من الآن أقول: سامحوني إن ارتكبت الأخطاء، فأنا إنسانٌ ضعيفٌ وخاطئ. صلوا معي كي يستخدمني الروحُ القدس ويقدسني ويمتلكني لأعلنَ الحقَّ بجرأةٍ ووداعة. صلوا لي إذ أسعى فوق كلّ شيء أن أحبَ الله وكنيسَتَهُ وقريبي الإنسان من كُل قلبي وفكري وقدرتي. 

ثُمَّ سَمِعْتُ صَوْتَ السَّيِّدِ قَائِلاً: «مَنْ أُرْسِلُ؟ وَمَنْ يَذْهَبُ مِنْ أَجْلِنَا؟» فَقُلْتُ: «هأَنَذَا أَرْسِلْنِي».

ولله الآب والابن والروح القدس الإله الواحد المجد – كل المجد – من الآن وإلى الأبد، آمين. 


 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

رسامتي قسيساً في الكنيسة الانجيلية اللوثرية في الأردن والأراضي المقدسة



تقرير مصوّر عن رسامتي قسيساً في الكنيسة الانجيلية اللوثرية في الأردن والأراضي المقدسة. أشكر المركز المسيحي للاعلام على هذا العمل. 


Thursday, December 24, 2015

From Fear to Joy! A Savior is Born



From Fear to Joy! A Savior is Born
The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church
Christmas Eve 24-12-2015

The sermon this evening is taken from Luke 2:10-11: And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Have you ever been so afraid – so terrified – of something? Like being in the wrong place in the wrong time? I remember as a kid I was once caught in the line of fire during a demonstration and it was so terrifying! 

What is worst is living in a constant state of fear! Fear of a nearby danger. Fear of the future. Fear of the unknown. Or even being afraid of a perceived terrifying and unmerciful god.

As I thought of what I will preach on this evening, the words of the angels to the shepherds kept ringing in my mind: Fear not… Fear not… Maybe it is because fear seems to be everywhere around us these day. 

In the Christmas narrative we read about the fear of the shepherds. They were terrified when the angels appeared, and we can of course understand that. Just imagine the scene how in the silence and darkness of the night they saw this glorious yet sudden vision. They were naturally afraid. There is the surprise element. There is the darkness. They were simply afraid.

Yet I wonder if Luke was eluding to a more general fear that was prevalent in Palestine in Biblical times. We read in his introduction to the birth narrative in Luke 1 many references to the yearnings and expectations of Israel. There was a reality of fear. We see this in the hymn of Zacharias in Luke 1:
“…That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers… to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear”

It is safe to say that fear maybe even anxiety were common in the days when Jesus was born. The people of the land were afraid… of their occupiers… of the unknown… afraid that God has forgotten them… They were afraid, and where there is fear, there is despair and slavery. You see when we are afraid , we become prisoners to our fears, chained in despair and hopelessness. 

I see this reality of fear in our world today. Here in Palestine we live under military occupation. Years of conflict and violence has created a reality of fear and despair.  
Today in Palestine many are afraid of the future. Young people have lost hope in any promising future here. People leave looking for a better future – a more safe one. They are afraid of the unknown. Today the headline in BBC fittingly  reads: “Christmas in Bethlehem: Hopes and fears for the future”.
 
And maybe as a Christian community here, there is another dimension of fear. Our numbers are small. We are literally a little flock. There is a lot of talk today about the future of Christianity in the Middle East. Every Christmas I read articles about this, yet we are here. We did not go anywhere. 

But in places like Iraq and Syria – that might be true. The threat is so real and evil. The ones remaining live in fear and anxiety. The prayer of Zachariah is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago: “…grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear”.

But not only that. I look around the world and fear is everywhere. Most notably is the fear of Muslims and Islam – Islamophobia. Politicians are utilizing and encouraging this fear for selfish evil reasons. Because of this fear many Christians are not willing to serve and embrace refugees, which is as close a thing to being Christ-like and following Jesus’ teaching as you could get! Fear is causing many Christians to reject and in some cases hate others! Fear is a reality that is crippling our world today. It is a reality that is damaging our Christian witness to the world. 

Today maybe more than ever we need to hear and embrace the words of the angels: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” 

There are at least three things concerning fear that the Gospel is telling us today:

First, we fear not, because Jesus is born. The message of Christmas should drive fear away. The message that God sent his Son to be born here, to become one of us, to feel our pain and sorrows, and to ultimately carry our sins upon himself on the cross – this message should drive fear away. 

Notice here: “Fear Not”, but not because your circumstances will change. “Fear Not”, but not because you should trust in yourself. This is not “self-help”. The message is not to simply have courage. “Fear Not”, because of what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. Hope and salvation come from without, not from within. “My help comes from above, from the Lord”. 

This is not statement that the current political reality will change. Rather, a new kingdom reality is breaking through! A dawn of a new era is appearing. Interestingly, a similar statement with almost the same Greek words and sentence structure like the one we find in Luke 2:11 was known in Jesus’ times about the birth of Augustus. Was Luke alluding to this? “Fear Not”! The new king is born. It is not Caesar, but Jesus. And his kingdom of love and joy challenges the kingdoms of the fear that dominate our world today. 

Those who really understand who the baby is, and what his kingdom is about – should know no fear. We fear no power or political reality. We do not live as prisoners. We may be occupied, yet we are free of fear. We may be feared and seen as a threat, but we know that we are loved and remembered by our God. The baby of Bethlehem drives away all of our fears.  

Second, what is really interesting in the words of the angel is that fear is replaced with Joy – the joy of the Gospel. This is amazing! The opposite of fear is not security… but joy! Actually we see the same pattern of joy replacing fear in both Luke 1:13, 1:30. It is like a theme in Luke.

Joy – not security – replaces fear. The promise of Christmas is not of security, wealth or comfort. In fact the baby of Bethlehem and the holy family embody this: they were poor, powerless, and without a place to stay. Yet I bet that they were more than thrilled when Jesus was born. In the midst of hardship and anxiety – joy is born in Jesus. 

Yet this is not any joy, but the joy of the Gospel! The joy of knowing that God dealt with our sins and failures. The joy of realizing that God has remembered his covenant; of realizing that we are not forgotten. The joy of knowing that the baby of Bethlehem is the prince of peace and also the one who “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

Today we can have this joy. Today you should leave Bethlehem with this joy. This evening God wants to replace our fears with joy! 

Thirdly and finally, this is not a passive or naïve joy. This is not escapism. Joy is active and transformative. The joy of Christmas should transform our world and reality and cause us to be ourselves agents of transformation and change. The shepherds received this joyful news of Jesus’ birth and went to Bethlehem and met Jesus and the family, and then returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them”. Today we are invited to do the same. 

Because Jesus is born we are now free to love, serve and worship him. Because he is born we are no longer slaves to our fears. We “fear not”… and with joy we love and serve the world. You see many worship and serve God out of fear. This does not work. This becomes a burden. No one wins. But when we serve with joy – when we are liberated from fear, only then we are able to love and embrace God and others. 

I pray tonight that as we are set free of our fears – that the joy of the Christmas story challenges us to love and serve the God of Christmas For Palestinian Christians: I pray that we are set free of our fears and instead to stay in this land with joy and confidence. I pray that we look at people around us  – our neighbors – though the eyes of love, not fear.
 I pray for the church around the world to overcome its ungodly fears and suspicions and instead to love and embrace the refugees and the needy. Let us remember the words of 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”. In this sense with can replace fear with service and love – indeed with Evangelism! 

Sisters and brothers: in this Christmas evening, hear the words of the Gospel of our Lord: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.