“Do Not Be Afraid”
December 24, 2019
“Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” I’m going to stop there, and guess that this may not describe Christmas Eve in your home today. This day can be filled with much activity: preparing for guests; baking; last minute gifts and wrapping; finishing with work; or getting together with others. This very service may even be a cause of tension; we want to be here, but can easily perceive it as one more thing to get through. In light of all that can fill a day like today, I want to offer one simple word of advice on this Christmas Eve: BREATHE!
Some of you may be here tonight at the urging of a friend or family member. Some of you may be here because this service is a Christmas tradition you wouldn’t miss. Some of you may not be sure why you’re here tonight. I love what James Boice once wrote about Christmas: “Do you want to celebrate Christmas? Then be amazed at it. Allow it to stretch your mind.” Whatever brings us all here this evening, let’s allow this story of Christmas to stretch us in new ways.
Luke, the gospel writer whom we read earlier, describes a setting that is similar to our opening poem. Shepherds were settling in for a night of sleep, and not a creature was stirring, not even a sheep. When suddenly, there rose such a clatter, and the shepherds, startled awake, wondered what was the matter. And much to their amazement and fear, what broke the night’s lull, standing in front of them was an angel. The shepherds were greatly dismayed, but the angel responded: “Do not be afraid.”
Well, that’s about the extent of my poetic ability so you’ll have to forgive me that I couldn’t make the rest of my sermon rhyme, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Luke paints a scene for us where shepherds are tending their flocks by night when suddenly an angel appears to them and they are struck with great fear. But the angel says to them: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.”
As a kid when I heard this story, I always assumed the shepherds were terrified of the angel’s appearance because it was almost like a jump-scare in a horror movie. One moment the shepherds are tending sheep and the next *BOOM* an angel appears out of midair, startling them. That would terrify me. But there’s actually something more going on here than a jump-scare.
Now, if you’re familiar with the Bible, you might notice that the angel’s reply, “Do not be afraid” is one of the most common one-liners in all of Scripture. Every time God or an angel of God appears on the scene they begin with the words, “Do not be afraid.” Have you ever wondered why this would be the first and most-repeated phrase whenever an angel or God shows up? This is because for most of human history God was not a likeable, much less a loveable character. It’s because people have always been afraid of God.
When God appeared on the scene it was not felt to be good news by most people; it usually meant bad news. The sense was: “Who has to die now? Who’s going to be punished now? What is the price I have to pay for this?” Most people do not realize that humanity did not, by and large, expect love from God before Jesus (Richard Rohr). Gods like Zeus, Mars and Ares – gods who threw lightning bolts, incited war, brought famine and punished humans – were what most people thought of when they thought of God. God was someone to be appeased so as to prevent his wrath.
And yet even today most people still feel that God’s love must be earned and that we are one wrong step away from receiving God’s wrath. We are afraid we are no better than sinners in the hands of an angry God. Most religion still revolves around placating God and making sure not to poke the beast. We anxiously try to check all the boxes to prove to ourselves and to God that we are good Christians, deserving of God’s love. Read my Bible, check. Pray, check. Go to church on Christmas Eve, check. Don’t step out of line or disobey or you might meet God’s monster-side, or worse, you’ll face torture for eternity in hell.
Not much has changed in two thousand years; most people still only know a God of fear, a God who is waiting to punish you once you mess up, a God who would only love you as long as you obey. I wonder if God were to show up on the scene right now, how many people would think it could only mean bad news. We can understand why the shepherds would be terrified at the arrival of God’s messenger. They are bracing for bad news. They fear what God will do to them. But in a startling turn of expectations, the angel does not bring bad news.
There’s a story of a boy who played the role of the angel in the church Christmas pageant. He had only one line: “Behold, I bring you good tidings.” The boy wasn’t sure what a tiding was; when he asked, he was told it meant “news.” The night of the pageant arrived, and reached the time of his entrance—and wouldn’t you know, he forgot his line! There was a long silence, and then he blurted out to the shepherds, “Boy, have I got news for you!” That’s essentially what this angel’s words to the shepherds would have sounded like.
“Don’t be afraid, because boy have I got good news for you!” This would’ve puzzled the shepherds. We can imagine them thinking, “What? You mean God entered our world because he loves us?” “You mean God has come down to earth as a vulnerable baby rather than an angry warrior?” “God wants to give us joy rather than fear?” “Wow, this is good news!”
For a messenger of God to appear before the shepherds proclaiming the good news that God has not come to smite them, but to dwell with them, would’ve been unbelievably astonishing.
And this plot twist reveals a God who is different than we expected, and better than we feared. The shepherds realize that God’s coming into the world was indeed good news! The God they went to visit in a manger they realized, is not a God of fear, of wrath or of punishment, but is a God of love. Because any God who is willing to step down from a heavenly throne to put on flesh and become like us, and to suffer with us in order to redeem us can only be a God who deeply loves us.
Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard once told a story of a great king, who found himself with a dilemma. He had fallen in love with one of his subjects, a peasant girl. The king wasn’t sure how to express his love to her. He knew he could have her brought to the castle, have a crown placed on her head, and ask her to be his wife—and she couldn’t refuse. But the king realized he would never know if she was his wife out of love or because of his power. He also knew he could be taken in his carriage to her humble cottage, and there announce his love for her in her territory—but he realized that even then, they would still not be equals.
As the king thought, day after day, he finally came up with a solution: he would step down from his throne. He would give up his reign and become just like her, so he could profess his love for her and seek to win her love for him. The rest of Kierkegaard’s story went unfinished; that’s because we, the ones loved by our King, determine what happens next. That brings us to this moment on Christmas Eve.
God’s love for us is constant and irrevocable; our part is to be open to it and let it transform us. Fear does not transform, but love does. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more than God already does; and there is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. We are stuck with it! The only difference is between those who allow themselves to be transformed by God’s love and those who don’t, but they are both equally and objectively God’s beloved.
Some of us have perhaps spent most of our lives being afraid of God or anxiously trying to earn God’s love. But the astonishingly good news of the Christmas story is that this God who put on flesh to be born in a manger is a God we do not need to be afraid of. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise has not met Jesus and has not known the depths of his love for us.
In a passage I preached on Sunday, the apostle John writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” God’s love is demonstrated by the lengths he would go to get to us. He stepped down from his throne, became like us, and eventually suffered and died for us. We are dearly loved and when you experience the vastness, the bottomlessness of God’s love for you, fear evaporates and you are left with nothing but overflowing love. The hands of God are not hurling lightning bolts. The hands of God have scars that bear the marks of his love for us.
In a moment we’ll light candles to acknowledge Jesus is the light of the world. As we do so, let’s make this more than just a sentimental moment during a couple familiar songs. Allow it to be an encounter with our God who loves us enough to come dwell with us. We do not worship out of fear, but because of God’s great love for us. Fear does not have the power to transform our world, but love does. Let us celebrate this good news of great joy for all people.
It’s Christmas Eve! Let’s encounter our loving God who sent Jesus for us.