The first words that announced the birth of Jesus were not words that expressed great joy and glory. They were not the words, “Behold, a Child is born this day…” they weren’t “Peace be with you” either.
The Bible makes it clear that the first words that announced the birth of the baby Jesus were, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus birth occurred during a time when there was great persecution and threats to the Jewish people. It was a time when people lived in great fear because of the Roman occupation and oppression. There was much more than just the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire… many feared the census that was decreed by the Emperor, Augustus and his authority granted by the Empire. Still others feared for their lives, wondering when they would eat their next meal. Fear for their family, despairing over the future and whether their children would have a life of fullness and meaning.
And not only that, there were many skeptics’ who spoke out regarding the established order of the Jewish society.
All this fear and anxiety makes its way into the story of Christmas through what was perhaps the most vulnerable people of the day – those who shepherd the livestock. The shepherds, undoubted, were afraid of the sudden appearance of the angels and the glory of the Lord that shone around them. Then, as it is now, such appearances of angelic beings are not every day events.
That– seemingly ordinary night– there upon a Galilean hillside, the shepherds kept watch over their flocks. We can’t know what was in their hearts and thoughts, but can only imagine that there had to be something more to life. Fears and anxiety about being in the wilderness alone, about personal safety, economic safety, societal safety. Perhaps, just when they may have had enough fear, then the angelic hosts come and heap yet another layer of fear upon them. “Don’t be afraid.”
And with those words, then the announcement comes that there will be great joy for people of the world. Born is the messiah, the Christ. And, at least for the shepherds, the even greater news that he is one of them… He was born in a manger and wrapped up in scraps of cloth from what was found lying around.
The bible says, the shepherds when from their hillside position and traveled to Bethlehem to see the baby and his parents. When they say for themselves, they made know all that they had seen. In this baby, Jesus, there was a source of great hope. Perhaps the message of the angels and the sight of the baby Jesus lessened their fear and anxiety of things to come.
Most of the fears that were around in ancient times have not been erased in our day. Countless numbers of people still struggle for daily bread and the uncertainty of work; we worry about our children, families and for safety; we fear the unknown.
And in many cases, the fear has only intensified over the past two thousand years since the first Christmas. This past decade has a host of founded and unfounded fears and threats for those of us who are Americans. The threats and fears of terrorism, immigration, economic uncertainty, and a changing climate are real. Our public discourse mirrors our fear, often degenerating into rage and putting down others who disagree with us. Yes, we still have much to fear.
Fear, in many cases, is a natural and necessary instinct. But when it traps us into believing that the best has already come, it prevents us from the seeing a vision of the glorious and forthcoming Light that is trying to break into this old hurt and broken world.
This Christmas, as it was for the shepherds, Jesus comes to the world not eliminate our fear and anxieties, but to enable us to a more life-giving response to what is happening in the world around us. Let us not be naïve to believe that the shepherds fear melted away when they heard the angelic pronouncement of the birth of Jesus proclaiming, “Do not be afraid.” But these shepherds after hearing these words, did not flee the scene, run and through their necks in the sand and hid; instead they “went with haste” the things that had taken place and to tell others what had taken place.
This witness of the shepherds leads us to consider our own fears. What are they? And how might we respond to the fears we all face? How can we respond not with a “flight or fight” response, but with (and out of a place of) love? As the one who are called to share the Good News of the birth of the Prince of Peace, we also proclaim that no matter what the future may hold, our fear does not get the last world.
The angelic host announcement still abides. “Do not be afraid.” Later in the story of Jesus, at an empty tomb, to women who visit a tomb they believed to hold the dead body of this baby we celebrate this night, we hear again the words, “Do not be afraid… He is not here, for he has been raised.”
Hear again those great words of wisdom and hope… “Do not be afraid.” Spoken from a voice that brings us great hope and liberation, but also a voice that starts in the dark of night by meeting the shepherds (and us) in our darkness and addressing our fears.
May the shepherd’s words be enough for us this Christmas as they announce God’s better way in Jesus Christ. For the angel comes here, too, to stand among us. “Don’t be afraid,” they say.
God is with you, so, for God’s sake, do not be afraid.
Peace, blessings and joy for a most wonderful and merry Christmas. Amen.