Summary: Four times in the Christmas Story we encounter fearful people of God: Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. In all cases, they are comforted by God’s angels. And they are told, “fear not”.
Christmas Eve message—the Original Christmas Emotion Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
If we were contestants on the game show Family Feud and were asked to list words associated with Christmas, we might include some of the following—joy, peace, goodwill, giving, family—among others. One word we don’t usually think of is actually the original feeling of Christmas: FEAR. You won’t see any decorations that convey this aspect of Christmas.
Some people add a little fear to the festivity: In Europe Saint Nicholas often arrives with a scary-looking helper, usually dressed in blue, who has coal and switches for those who have been naughty. In America it’s hardly Christmas without Dickens’ 3 ghosts and Jimmy Stewart’s troubled George Bailey. We harbor fear that the threat of war and terrorism may mar Christmas. In New York City a few weeks ago a 25-year old freshman art student’s project got him in jail for “reckless endangerment”. He distributed throughout the city in public places 37 black boxes with the word “fear” on them, which was supposed to make some kind of statement, but this “conceptual sculpture” instead incited panic, halted the subway, and brought out the bomb squad. The student spent the night in jail, and the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan got some unwanted notoriety for Christmas. Because of our hectic schedules and demands on our time, there’s always the fear that stress may ruin the festivities. Driving by the mall the other day, I noticed the long line of cars trying to get into the parking lot. Pretty stressful, and along with that, people fear how they’re going to pay for all their purchases! These various fears pale in comparison to the fear in Palestine at the time of our Lord’s birth.
First Century Israel was an occupied country, taken over by the oppressive Roman Empire. The might of Rome imposed tight control over the Jewish nation. There was ample reason to fear what Rome could do. Herod was a ruthless, vicious, unstable ruler, and the Roman army of occupation was not especially known for being nice to people. The slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem by Herod is but one example of his horrific tyranny. Herod himself was fearful, that the Christ Child, the “King of the Jews”, might usurp his power (no one came and comforted him).
Four times in the Christmas Story we encounter fearful people of God: Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. In all cases, they are comforted by God’s angels. And they are told, “fear not”, a phrase that appears over a hundred times in Scripture…
1. Zechariah the priest was preparing for his Temple duties when an angel appeared to him. Luke records that he “was startled and gripped with fear” (1:12). People often thought angels appeared primarily to bring death and destruction. Zechariah was assured, “Fear not, God has heard your prayer.” What prayer? To see the coming of the Messiah. Zechariah was told that he would be father to the forerunner and prophet, John the Baptist.
2. Mary had a lot to fear. She was told by the angel Gabriel that she was “highly favored”, a special object of grace. But think about it: here is a young Jewish girl facing the prospect of being an unwed mother, a possible divorce and public disgrace, and right in the middle of a mandatory government census requiring hazardous travel from Nazareth down to Bethlehem. We can count our fears, imagining all the terrible things that might happen…or we can trust God’s watchcare over us. Mary was about to enter unknown territory as the one chosen to bear the Son of God. But she was assured that God would keep her strong throughout.
3. Mary’s fiancé Joseph also needed reassurance. He feared public ridicule and criticism. What if the town assumed that this couple decided “not to wait”? How could he explain a virgin birth? An angel appeared to Joseph and said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins’" (Matthew 1:20-21).
4. The fourth is a group of people, shepherds managing their flocks in fields just outside of Bethlehem. They feared predators and thieves. They were anxious to keep their flock from disease. They remained with their sheep, out in the harsh elements…and it was there that the angels appeared. Their first thought may have been, “We’re being invaded!” They are reassured that this is a mission of peace, announcing the birth of the Prince of peace.
Here at Cliftondale Congregational, we may be fearful of the church window restoration we’ve undertaken; “jitters” often accompany major projects. We wonder how God will provide, and it’s tempting to give in to anxiety. Just contemplating the future, we sometimes fear what God may expect of us. Well, God doesn’t want us to remain insecure.