Text: Matthew 2:1-12
I imagine the name Robert Craig Knievel doesn’t ring a bell with most of you; maybe not any of you. But what about the name Evel Knievel? Ah, I imagine now, at the very least, those of us who grew up during the late 1960’s and 70’s riding motorcycles (or wanting to ride motorcycles) know exactly who I am talking about. And probably the rest of you who grew up during that era do, too. When I asked Nora if she knew who Evel Knievel was there was a blank stare before saying, “Uh, who?” And so, for the younger generation, Evel (spelled E-v-e-l) Knievel was an American daredevil and entertainer. Over his career, he attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps, and, in 1974, a canyon jump across Snake River Canyon in the Skycycle X-2, a steam-powered rocket. During his career he suffered more than 433 bone fractures, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of “most bones broken in a lifetime.”
I was eleven years old when Evel Knievel attempted his Snake River canyon jump. By that time in my life, I had been riding motorcycles for six years. Needless to say, Evel Knievel was like a super hero to me. And it was not only the daring jumps over rows of cars that fascinated me, it was also those white leather jumpsuits he wore with blue stars on the chest and red strips down the legs. Some, though not many, would say he gave Elvis a run for his money. As a young kid I was drawn to this daredevil for what seemed to be his life mantra: live fearless.
As an eleven year-old dreaming of living fearless like Evel Knievel, there was another reality swirling around in my adolescent life; and that reality was the fear I felt every day. The fear that my parents might get a divorce, and if they did, that it would be my fault. There was the fear that my alcoholic uncle might seriously hurt my father who would try to calm him down when he got drunk and out of control. There was the fear that if people really knew who I was on the inside, they wouldn’t like me. There was the fear of what would happen to the country I lived in as I watched a US President resign amidst a scandal. There was fear that my favorite uncle wouldn’t come home from the Vietnam War. And of course, growing up going to church for preaching every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday night there was always the fear that even the blood of Jesus couldn’t wash away my sins.
For much of my life, fear had a tight grip on how I lived. Fear that someone might discover that I was a fake. Fear that I wasn’t good enough. Fear that I wasn’t smart enough. Fear that I wouldn’t have enough or there wouldn’t be enough of whatever I needed or longed for. There was the fear of the world around me. Fear of those different from me. Fear that the world wasn’t a safe place. Fear that love couldn’t be trusted. Fear, fear, fear—it seemed to lurk around every corner and in the very soul of my being. And while there would be brief moments of letting go of the fear just long enough to consider some long-held dream, the fear would always return to dominate.
I would come to learn over time that life is lived in-between our hopes and dreams and our fears. Or to say that another way: life is lived in-between being gripped by our fears and of letting go of them. There are times, in all of our lives, when we allow our fears to control us. And then there are those other times when we find the courage and strength to live fearless. It is in that in-between place—between the fear that grips us and the letting go of such fear—that most of life is lived and decided. And yet, it is our faith and the primary message of this season of our faith narrative that invites us to consider what it means to live fearless. Again and again, the message is delivered, “Fear not!” “Do not be afraid,” the angel declared. Fear not! Live fearless.
Today, we read the story of the magi following the star carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn baby. “There is a wonder and magic about this story of wandering magi led to Jesus from the distant East by a star. We love this story in part because of the mystery these three distant and somewhat exotic guests introduce into the story, and in part because of the beauty and fittingness of their gifts, the source of all our gift-giving at Christmas.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
This week’s gospel story could easily focus our attention on the gifts of the kings and invite us to reflect on what gifts we might offer as well. But there is also another element to this story that often gets lost in the shuffle of our contemplation of stars and magi and gifts, and that’s the note of fear that Jesus’ birth elicits from the start. Herod, after all, does not greet the news of a newborn king with joy, nor does he search for a fit gift to present to him. Rather, he is afraid. And not just Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him.”
Fear is a powerful thing. For certain, there is a healthy kind of fear. But that is not the kind of fear that I speak of this morning nor the kind of fear in our gospel reading. I am speaking this morning of the Herod kind of fear— the kind of fear that seeks the love of power over the power of love. The kind of fear that causes us to act selfishly, to be destructive in our relationships, to hurt those whom we love, to respond with deceit and violence to changes in our world, to withdraw, to close our hearts and minds toward the needs of others, to not be our best selves. I am talking about the kind of fear that is gripping our country today, fueled by politicians who are drunk with the love of power rather than the power of love. Leaders whose vision for our country would have us building more gates and walls, buying more guns, and closing our hearts and minds to those who are different from us. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and elementary school and work place massacres, a world where innocents die every day to preventable illness and hunger. We know all too well just how powerful fear is and can be. So how do we, as people of faith, live counter to this fear?
In response to his fear, Herod, along with the chief priests and scribes, conspire to find the Messiah and kill him. And although they will not succeed this time, much later in the story there will again be an unholy alliance between the political and religious leaders of the day who will not only conspire against Jesus but this time capture and crucify him.” (David Lose, Working Preacher)
But as we also know from the story, fear does not have the last word. We also know that the incarnation—God in the flesh—announced that the world is changed, that God is among us, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God in the flesh. The first witnesses to “God in the flesh” heard clearly the proclamation, “Fear not!” and dared to live fearless. And ever since that time faithful seekers have dared to live fearless. Throughout history and today, in our nation and world, there are brave and courageous women and men, young and old who are living fearless. People like Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Malala Yousafzai, Nelson Mandela, and Barak Obama. People like Lili Elbe, the first recipient of sex reassignment surgery in 1931; and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, founders of Black Lives Matter; and Susan Collins, United States Senator from Maine and a member of the Republican Party who voted for gun control.
And it is not just famous people who live fearless. There are people in this very room who are living fearless. Each one of you who chooses to show compassion to a stranger when it would be more convenient to keep walking past—you are living fearless. Each one of you who has been hurt by love but are choosing to love anyway—you are living fearless. Each one of you who saw losses to your financial investments this past year but are choosing to increase your charitable giving—you are living fearless. Each one of you who risks your own power for the good of the whole—you are living fearless.
Matthew, in his story of Jesus’ birth, reminds us that within each of us there is a Herod—a fear that longs to control us and keep us living from a fearful place. But that is only one part of Matthew’s story. Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth also reminds us that we don’t have to travel the road of fear. Remember the last verse Rachel read: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another road.” There is another road home. It is the road that leads us to live fearless.
As you begin this new year I invite you to bear witness to your Herod. Pay attention to the places where fear is working in you. First, hold those places with compassion, not judgment – even Herod is loved by God! And then, allow yourself to play with the idea of what fearlessness would look like and feel like in those Herodian places. Think of where you might risk failure for the sake of something that makes your heart leap. Live with an open mind and heart to those things that seem different from you. Step outside your comfort zone to build new relationships. Let go of needing control. Trust that God became flesh not just in Jesus, but in you, too. Give permission to your inner Evel Knievel. Start small. Pop a few wheelies and see how that freedom feels. Make a run at jumping a car or two. And just maybe we can collectively work our way up to flying over a Canyon in 2016.
May your new year be a year of living fearless!