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The Spirit of Christmas: Do Not Be Afraid

Joy of Christmas – December 4, 2019

Steve Bahls, President of Augustana College

Before sharing a few thoughts with you this evening, I want to thank Pastor Richard Priggie for inviting me speak this evening. And permit me a point of personal privilege by noting that this year Pastor Priggie is completing his 20th and final year of ministry at Augustana College. Pastor, thank you for your leadership at Augustana evidenced by your steady hand, deep faith and most of all, your loving care of Augustana students.

My comments here today are to make the case to you that Christmas should not be a time either of wearing yourself out or of watering down your ambitions. Instead, let it be a time for learning not to be afraid and going after our calling in life with more resolve and determination. It is a time to become more resilient.

As I was thinking about resilience, I wondered what the first Christmas service was like in the Jenny Lind Chapel, across the street, 165 years ago. The pastor at the time was Lars Paul Esbjörn, who emigrated from Sweden in 1849. As those of you who belong to this congregation know well, Esbjörn was the founder and first president of Augustana College, which would be established a decade after the first services here in Andover.

Let me share a bit about those days for those of you unfamiliar with the story, which is told complete with letters and artifacts in the little museum in the basement of the chapel we’re soon to visit. Lars Paul Esbjörn paid a tremendous personal cost to get from Sweden to the New World. Two of his six children died during the journey to Andover. They say no one fully recovers from the loss of a child.

Still, he must have been pleased at the first celebration that the church was finally completed. It was considered a masterpiece. Construction began three years before the church opened in 1854. But there was tremendous hardship in those early days. More than 100 immigrants had accompanied Esbjörn from weden to Andover. The land agent in New York who sold them the land promised a location by a broad, navigable river. There was no such river — just a slow-moving creek. Shortages of food and lack of housing caused most of the faithful to scatter, leaving only a handful to build the church.

But the immigrants who stayed in Andover to help build the community and the church soon suffered an epidemic of deadly cholera. The basement of the unfinished church became a makeshift hospital. Hundreds of pioneers in the region died of the disease.

There was a stack of lumber paid for by famous Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, and what remained was intended for a steeple. But the surviving immigrants were forced to use that lumber to build coffins to bury those who succumbed to cholera. The church still does not have the intended steeple, and I think that’s a solemn and fitting tribute to those early pioneers who lost their lives.

The story of that first Christmas in the Jenny Lind Chapel down the road was a story of the perseverance and resiliency of this first congregation. They overcame the odds and celebrated their first Christmas in the sturdy new chapel, counting their good fortune even in the midst of incredible loss. They were resilient.

But little did they know what was ahead that would continue to test their stamina. The seeds of the Civil War were being sown. One of the most significant seeds was a lawsuit involving Davenport, Iowa. It was the Dred Scott case, wending its way to the United Stated Supreme Court. It was ultimately decided in 1857. Dred Scott, an enslaved man, who was considered the “property” of a physician on Arsenal Island, argued in the case that he should be free because he was in a free state. The United States Supreme Court ruled that he was still classified a slave. The court’s ruling further emboldened the cause of the abolitionists.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and the nation was in turmoil. Even then, here in Andover, Illinois, Lars Paul Esbjörn and his flock had a vision. They decided to open a college to meet the needs of immigrants who did not have higher education readily available. In 1860, the same year the nation was coming apart at the seams, they organized the little seminary that became Augustana College. It would have been easy to succumb to the fear of the nation splintering and postpone their dreams, but through their persistence and reilience, they didn’t delay or settle for something less. They didn’t become discouraged because the need was immediate.

That kind of resilience is what we see all over the story of Jesus’ birth. Think of Mary, an ordinary Jewish young woman, who had an extraordinary experience. The Gospel of Luke tells us that an angel appeared to her, imposing enough that his first words were, “Do not be afraid.” And the message was that she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and give birth to the Messiah. This announcement would have monumental consequences for Mary. But what she said was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your words to me be fulfilled?” Talk about resilience!

Then think about Joseph. According to Matthew, this man learned that his fiancé was pregnant, and he knew he wasn’t responsible. He had a right under the law to have her stoned to death. He was contemplating a quiet divorce instead. And then he had a dream, one that confirmed the outrageous story that Mary must have told him. And he switched gears to become her greatest support.

That was hard enough, but then a decree went out from the emperor that all the empire should be enrolled. This required Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, his ancestral home, taking his very pregnant wife with him. Travel was very hard in those days, and you couldn’t get on Expedia to reserve a room at the inn. When there was no room, they settled into a stable for the night. They were truly resilient in the face of adversity. They did not succumb to fear.

So let we take time this Christmas season to be resolved to be resilient and determined. Let us,too, fear not.

For many, Christmas is a time when it easy to be discouraged. We view Christmas as picture perfect, just like on the Christmas cards. But our hopes are often not fulfilled. Christmas is a lonely time for many with close friends and relatives facing illnesses, broken relationships, unemployment or other hardships. For college students, it can be a time of change, sometimes unsettling – the college years can be challenging with uncertainty about majors, careers, post-college plans and relationships. And it is a frightening time in our nation – the nation is as deeply divided as any time I remember. The courageous work of talking about problems and working together is often replaced by the fearful and less productive route of shame and blame.

But may we learn from Mary, Joseph and Esbjörn. May we fear not and move forward in the face the uncertainly. How did each overcome fear? It was through their faith. And for Esbjörn, it was through a faith community committed to working together for a better life.

Let’s make it a priority this Christmas season to find some time to reflect. May we deepen our faith and our faith communities through the Christmas story. May we take stock of our own challenges and recognize that with our faith, and the support of our communities, we will be resilient. Those of us at Augustana have an advantage here. We have the power of a liberal arts education that allow us to view our problems from different angle and different heights and, with the help of God, are equipped to find solutions within ourselves.

May we, in the face of adversity, be resolved to use our God-given talents for our communities. And may we invest our talents, energy and wisdom fully for the benefit of others. May we, this Christmas season, heed the advice of angels, heard dozens of times throughout scripture: Do not be afraid.