Do Not Be Afraid: A Christmas Sermon

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).

Annunciation the Shepherds, Adam Pynacker, 1640

Welcome Everyone.  Welcome to those who are sitting in darkness and to those who have seen that great light.  No matter where your heart is this Christmas, welcome to this celebration of our dear Savior’s birth.  Welcome to the commencement of this holiest of holy nights.  Welcome to the sneak peak of the stable scene with that babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

But before I move ahead in my own merriment, before I continue in my own celebration, I have a Christmas confession to make. I must admit to y’all that I have been perhaps one of the biggest worriers you have ever witnessed this holiday season. I agonized over what photo to put on my Christmas card this year.  I doubted whether or not there would be any Christmas trees left in the Raley’s parking lot this past Wednesday.  And I also stressed over every detail for our Christmas worship services.  Thank  you to the altar guild, and the choir, and Clare, and to every individual who kept me sane during my first holiday season at St. Patrick’s.  I could not have done it without you.

And now that you know a little about my uneasiness this holiday season, I ask you: What are your fears this evening?  Maybe you can identify with some of my apprehension.  Or perhaps you are struggling with another insecurity.  Perhaps it is stress about your relationship with your significant other, or dread over test results from your doctor, or panic at attempting to make ends meet at the close of this year.

Yet in the middle of all of this worry, in the midst of all of this angst, in the seeming isolation of all of this stress, I kept hearing over and over again in my head the lines of our Sacred Scripture.  I kept imagining tonight’s miraculous moment, the proclamation of God’s heavenly messengers to some lowly shepherds that night and to us here on earth today. Those words written on our hearts probably since childhood Christmas’ of old: “Do not be afraid.”

My friends, I don’t know about you, but I have needed to hear this kind of good news, this, “Do not be afraid,” more than once in my life and multiple times in this past year that has been full of what seems like anything but good tidings of great joy.  For our human reality is filled with fear.  And our Scriptures are saturated with individuals, with communities, with entire countries just like us, who are immobilized by anxiety and despair.

As the ancient Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, they were so afraid of what lay ahead that they begged God to send them back into the hands of their slave masters in Egypt instead of risking the uncharted territory of the Sinai desert.  In the process denying the liberation their Lord had just provided.  Or flash forward five hundred years in history, and consider our reading from the Old Testament this evening—the passage from the prophet Isaiah.  The backstory of these words of hope is that the people of Israel and Judah are horrified at the hoards of the Assyrian army that is quickly encroaching and systematically conquering the entire region.  Or jump ahead another seven hundred years on the timeline, and contemplate tonight’s Gospel passage from Luke that we just heard proclaimed so beautifully.  The people of Israel are now oppressed my another foreign power—the Roman Empire.  It is a government that will massacre their first-born infant sons; that will crucify those who fight back on wooden crosses; that will eventually burn down their temple—the place where the Israelites “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Ps 96:9).

And yet, despite their doubt; despite their dismay; despite their despair, God does not abandon them for God is with them.  Instead God’s command, no God’s calling throughout sacred Scripture is, “Do not be afraid.”  In fact, “Do not be afraid,” and its derivatives, “Fear not,” and, “Do not fear,” are found over one hundred times in the Bible.  And usually, if God says something more than once, I find it is something I might want to listen to.

This divine calling does not negate the human reality that there will indeed be moments of trepidation in our lives, but instead it directs us to choose something different, to choose something freeing, to choose something life-giving instead of being completely beholden to our fear.  This is the choice of faith.  This Christmas is the chance to confront our fears.

We are not alone in this struggle.  Already in Luke’s Gospel Mary is most likely overcome by her own fears.  I can imagine that she is terrified about how her parents, about how Joseph, about how her society might respond to the news that she is to be a teenage, unwed mother.  I can imagine that she is concerned about her condition, knowing full well that more often than not, mother and infant could in fact die during childbirth.  Yet the Angel Gabriel has called Mary not to succumb to her own suspicion, but to believe in the gift, in the joy of a child God will bestow upon her in the wee hours of the Bethlehem morn.  The Divine calls out to Mary through the angelic messenger, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:30-31).

And on that first Christmas Eve—in the midst of the darkness of the bleak midwinter—another angel joins in on the Divine calling.  Greeting those terrified shepherds in the field keeping watch over their flocks by night.  Yeah, if I was them, I would be terrified too—this freaky flying thing called an angel appearing to be more like a giant nightmare than a delightful dream. Then asking the shepherds to leave the rural countryside they have known for a far off foreign city? To abandon their livelihood to pursue a heavenly hunch? To go to see a newborn king who probably wouldn’t want to host some smelly shepherds anyways?  Fearing rejection from their own Lord.  Yet that freaky flying thing, that angelic being proclaims to this motley crew:

Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger (Luke 2:10-12).

And tonight—almost two thousand years after the birth of the Christ child—we again have the choice to respond to the Divine calling—a calling proclaimed from the mouths of babes during the pageant earlier this evening; sung in joy and exaltation as we serenade one another with our favorite carols; and whispered in simple words and actions of love for one another in a season that seems to bring out the best in humankind.  Our choice, our calling on this Christmas Eve is, “Do not be afraid.”  And why should we defer to our doubts on this day that dispels all despair?

Do not be afraid, for Emmanuel, God is with us.  Do not be afraid, for those who have walked in darkness will see a great light.  Do not be afraid, for tonight the Holy One brings us good tidings of great joy not for some, not for a chosen few, but for all people.

Do not be afraid my friends, no matter what fear you have been beholden to—whether it is anxiety over people judging you for your preparations this holiday season; or worry about a relative, whether a parent or child who is far away from home tonight; or dread over a decision you have to make to move elsewhere from the people or place you love, or to change careers, or to deal with disease or depression that is overcoming your physical or emotional health.  No matter what fear you are beholden to, this holy night God is calling you, God is calling us to make a choice to not be afraid.

Because we believe in a God who became incarnate, who took on human flesh in the form of Jesus Christ.  We believe in a God who stood beside us in our suffering even to the point of death on a cross.  We believe in a God who chose freedom over captivity and faced down those same human fears to which we subjugate ourselves.

This night divine could be that moment when God subtly breaks back into your life, when the deep darkness seems to abate—not in a brilliant flash but in the flicker of a tiny flame, in a seemingly minute miracle, in the smile of a small child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This night when Christ was born, let us respond to God’s calling with, “yes, absolutely!”  Let us go to Bethlehem with haste.  Let us not be afraid.  But let us joyously greet our God who was, and is, and always shall be Emmanuel, God with us.

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