Fear: Do not be afraid.
by Jack Wald | November 27th, 2016

Luke 2:8-20

When I was a young pastor, Annie and I took one of the best vacations we have ever had. My parents had invited us to come with them to the British Virgin Islands. We left Newark, New Jersey in a snow storm, handed our winter coats to my sister who had driven us to the airport, flew to Miami, took another flight to the island of St. Thomas, drove to the harbor where we were picked up by the couple on whose sailing boat we would live for the next week, and motored out to the boat – a beautiful wooden sailing boat that had been built in New Zealand and had sailed around the world to get to the Virgin Islands. We were instantly in paradise.

Each morning we woke up to the sounds of the sea and I dove overboard to wake up, swimming laps around the boat. The food prepared by Celeste, the captain’s wife, was amazingly delicious. We sailed around the islands and explored interesting spots on shore and then anchored in some bay for the evening and went to sleep looking up at the stars.

One day, just before the sun was setting, I was snorkeling and a school of dolphins came into the bay. About six or eight of them. I became very excited and tried to swim toward them. As they played, I prayed that God would bring them close to me. At one point, two of them passed about four to five meters underneath me, rolling around to look at me as they went by. It is one of the highlights of my life.

I was so excited and yet as I prayed they would come up to me, I knew that if one of them actually came up behind me and touched me, I would likely be so scared I would wet my pants – not that that would be such a big deal in the ocean.

I wanted to be close to the dolphins who if they came up behind me would terrify me. What I longed for, if it came to be, would terrify me.

That is a little bit of what went on in the Christmas story in the Gospels. What happened was certainly good news. In fact, it was news for which people had been longing. For over 400 years the people of Israel had been waiting for the coming of the promised Messiah and now the Messiah had finally come (albeit in a fashion they had not anticipated and did not fully understand). But as you read through the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, one word which keeps popping up is fear. Why does fear belong in a story of such good news?

The events in the Christmas story are familiar to us. We have heard them, many of us, from our childhood on. The angel appearing to Zechariah, Gabriel appearing to Mary, the shepherds being visited by angels in the night. We have Christmas story books and creches and ornaments of these people we hang on our Christmas trees. They are wonderful and cute and bring us a feeling of warmth when we hear the stories.

But that is not how the participants in the Christmas story reacted. The events of the Christmas story were not cute and cuddly to the participants. They were fear producing, terrifying. Let’s take a quick look.

Zechariah was a priest who was chosen by lot to offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel in the inner sanctuary of the Temple. A priest was permitted to do this only once in his lifetime and many priests were never given this honor. Zechariah’s emotions were already on high alert because of the honor of this once-in-a-lifetime privilege that was his when he received a once-in-a-lifetime shock. (Luke 1:11-13)
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.  13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.

Zechariah and his wife were childless and “well along in years” so this was wonderful news – news he had longed to hear for many years and news he had almost given up hoping he would ever hear. But what was his reaction to this angelic messenger? Fear. He was “startled and gripped with fear.”

Mary was a young woman, probably a young teenager, who received a most unusual visitor. (Luke 1:26–31)
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

A glorious visit and what is Mary’s response? She was “greatly troubled.” The Greek word used here is used elsewhere, always with the sense of deep emotional disturbance, fear.

The shepherds were out tending their flock, sometime in the spring. They were doing what they did every night. Keeping an eye out for predators, keeping the flock together and looking at the sky. In the days before electricity, the sky was a much more important part of life. We rarely stare up at the sky for more than a few seconds. Most of us would have difficulty identifying the various constellations in the sky. In the days before television, the sky was entertainment. Meteors and comets were the highlights, but there were also the different constellations at play, moving through the sky from month to month and stories were told about the interactions of these constellations. But this night the shepherds saw a show above and beyond anything they had ever before seen. (Luke 2:8–15)
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

The shepherds saw the show of shows that night and how did they react? They were terrified. The Greek construction uses three words to signify the extent of their terror. Literally they “feared fear greatly.”

It was not only these Christmas participants who reacted to the supernatural this way. In Mark’s Gospel, the same three-word Greek construction is used to describe the fear the disciples had when Jesus calmed the Sea of Galilee. (Mark 4:35–41)
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Jesus revealed his authority over the wind and sea and the disciples feared fear greatly.

In Luke 8 Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac. This man who was chained and out of his mind now was found to be dressed and in his right mind. How did the people of the area respond to this miraculous demonstration of Jesus’ love for the man who was healed and his power over demons? (Luke 8:37)
Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

In Acts 10, a Roman centurion named Cornelius had a vision.(Acts 10:3-4)
One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.

Fear was the reaction of Abraham when God appeared to him to make a covenant with him. Fear was the reaction of Moses when he met God in the burning bush. Fear was the reaction of Daniel when he received a vision from God.

The Biblical record is quite clear. We are terrified of the supernatural. That is our legitimate response to an event that so overpowers us. Abraham, Moses, Daniel and the participants in the Christmas story were not weak in faith or piety. They were not timid followers of God. If I have never been terrified in my experience as a Christian, it is only because I have never had an angel visit me. If a dolphin coming up behind me in a bay in the Carribean sea would create fear in me, what would the visitation of an angel do to me?

In this sermon I am not talking about “the fear of God,” a phrase found over and over in the Bible. That fear describes an attitude we are encouraged to have toward God, an attitude of awe and respect that causes us to seek him and obey him.

The fear I am talking about in this sermon is fear as in being frightened or scared. In the Bible, I do not find those who come in contact with the supernatural taking that contact for granted or being casual about that contact. People are nerve-wrackingly, terrifyingly, out-of-their-skins afraid.

But there is not only fear in these encounters with the supernatural. Notice that in each of the Christmas appearances, the one whose appearance caused fear also gave a message. In each case it was the same message. People were trembling, terrified, in great fear and they heard these words:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah
“Do not be afraid, Mary
“Do not be afraid. [shepherds] I bring you good news of great joy

It is legitimate and appropriate for us to be scared when we are confronted by something so much out of the ordinary and it reveals the deep love God has for us that the heavenly response to our natural feeling of being scared is that we are assured and comforted with these words, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

This is interesting, but what does it have to do with us? I have not been visited by an angel thus far in my Christian life and it is doubtful that I will have that experience in the remainder of my life. So what difference does it make to know this?

At the core of Christian faith is the historical reality that God was born as a man. His promise to send a Messiah was fulfilled when Jesus the Messiah lived among us, died on the cross and rose from the dead. We now await his return which he promised.

Given that it has been almost 2,000 years since Jesus promised to return, the odds of my being alive when he returns are not great. So again I need to ask, what does all this have to do with us?

We may or may not be living on planet earth when Jesus returns, but for two thousand years, Christians have died and met Jesus. For all those Christians who have died, their moment of response has come. So whether we are living on planet earth when Jesus returns or we die our physical death before that time, we will similarly be brought into the presence of Christ.

When Jesus returns or when we die and meet Jesus, how will we respond? Will we be filled with excitement? Eagerness? Joy? Not having experienced the return of Christ, I don’t know for sure. But from the Biblical record, I suspect we will be filled with fear. The question then is what will follow the fear of the moment. Will we be told, “Do not be afraid?” or will we continue in our fear?

There is the way of Herod. Herod heard news that the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem and what was his response? He was disturbed. He had the same response as recorded of Mary. He had a deep emotional response of fear.

How did he deal with that fear? He did what he always did. He took action to conquer that which made him fear. Herod was at the end of his reign and the end of his life when Jesus was born. He died just a year or so after the birth of Jesus. By this time, in order to protect his throne, he had killed 45 Sadducean aristocracy to bring that Jewish body under his control. He had executed multiple rivals, two of his sons and their mother, his wife. When he was near death, he ordered notable Jews from Judea to come to Jerusalem where he had them imprisoned with orders to kill them when he died. This would ensure that there would be national mourning and not a festival when he died.

So ordering the slaughter of all male babies two years old or younger in order to get rid of this threat to his kingdom was his standard operating procedure, his way of dealing with life.

This is how Herod responded to news of the supernatural. How did Herod deal with the supernatural after his physical death? Believe it or not, there is a hint of this in Revelation. (Revelation 6:15–17)
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

Even the rich and powerful who are used to dealing with the events of life on their own terms, eventually come to a point where they cannot any longer be in control.

The supernatural world came to Herod when he died and although I don’t know, I suspect he did not hear those words of comfort, “Do not be afraid.”

There is the way of Herod but there is also the way God longs for it to be with each of us. God longs to say to us, “Do not be afraid.” Those words, “Do not be afraid,” make all the difference in the world.

Herod had the opportunity to be one who would hear those words, but rejected that opportunity. How is it that we can be among those who will hear, “Do not be afraid?”

Paul writes this in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:12–16)
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

This is the way of those who have been blessed by accepting the gift of salvation offered by God. We who have been blessed in this way have received the spirit of sonship which is to say that we have become his adopted children and are able to call him “Abba, Father.” We have been drawn into an intimate relationship with him as his children, that will allow us at the point of death when we are face-to-face with the supernatural world, to hear those words, “Do not be afraid.”

Fear is one of the words of the Christmas story and the antidote for this fear is that phrase, “Do not be afraid.”

Do you have an intimate relationship with Jesus that allows you to hear those words of comfort, “Do not be afraid?” If not and you would like to have that kind of relationship with Jesus, speak with me after the service. Jesus longs to give you that gift this Christmas. Be filled with his peace he offers us.

Let me point out a couple other applications of this message. When we know we are loved and are in an intimate relationship with God, we become liberated in the present because we realize that death is no longer our enemy. Fear needs no longer be our response to death. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians quotes the prophets Isaiah and Hosea (I Corinthians 15:54-55)
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The writer of Hebrews speaks also to this: (Hebrews 2:14–15)
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

There are people who pay to have their bodies crogenically frozen to preserve their bodies until one day a cure for what caused them to die is discovered. This will then, they hope, allow themselves to live again. The fear of death takes people to great extremes. If this life is all there is, then perhaps this makes sense. But we know that there is eternal life that awaits us after we die our physical death.

This is liberating to us now. Knowing that we will hear those words, “Do not be afraid,” allows us to live life more fully in the present and hear those words now, “Do not be afraid.” When we face uncertainty, illness or death, we face it with the assurance that we are loved and cared for by the one who tells us, “Do not be afraid.”

There is one more application of this message. We live in a world where people seem increasingly dominated by fear. The riches of the world seem more difficult to amass. As technology shrinks our world, we have more people from the countries of the world living near to us.

We who live in Morocco and worship at RIC know that this is a good thing. Part of the richness we experience in our community of faith comes from the fact that we have over forty nations at a time who worship together on Sunday morning. God delights in diversity and we have the privilege of enjoying that diversity when we meet.

But there are people in our home countries who do not have the same experience. They do not understand the blessing of living in a diverse community. So they are fearful of strangers. They are fearful of Muslims. They are fearful of immigrants. These people are viewed as threats to their standard of living which is already under attack.

Paul Simon wrote a song titled, “Have a Good Time,” that has this lyric:
So God bless the goods we was given
And God bless the U.S. of A.
And God bless our standard of livin’
Let’s keep it that way
And we’ll all have a good time

Fear makes us look at our possessions, our jobs, our bank accounts and worry about who will come and take them away.

But God tells us, “Do not be afraid.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us, (Matthew 6:31–34)
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.

People in the world are making decisions based on fear. I have relatives who have been trained by ex-Israeli soldiers on how to use guns to defend themselves. They are not alone in the US. People worry that the government will take their money, thieves will take their money, immigrants will take their jobs, terrorists will take their lives.

There is reason for fear. When someone stands at an airport line to check their baggage and a terrorist blows himself up, it is not unreasonable to be afraid. But we are not to act out of fear. We are to make choices and decisions based on our faith in God, not on our survival instincts.

The world is telling us to pull in, keep out, defend ourselves and protect our standard of living. What is God telling us to do?

When Jesus was asked, (Matthew 22:36–40)
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

We are to love God and we are to love our neighbor. Who is our neighbor? When Jesus was asked this question, he answered with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The answer is that the people we encounter in the world are our neighbor. How are we to treat them?

Jesus answered this question in another parable, the Sheep and the Goats. At the Last Judgment Jesus will act as judge, separating the sheep from the goats and (Matthew 25:34–40)
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

When we love and care for people in the world, we love and care for Jesus. This is not an isolated teaching. The Bible expresses God’s concern for people he loves from Genesis to Revelation.

(Hebrews 13:2)
2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.

(Zechariah 7:9–10)
9 “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

(1 Peter 4:7–9)
7 The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. 8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

We are to make decisions based on what God tells us to do in the Bible, not out of our fears.

In this Advent we celebrate the birth of Jesus who told us, “Do not be afraid.” Leave your fear behind and follow Jesus. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow take care of itself. Enjoy this day God has given you. Enjoy this day the people God has blessed you with. Love the people God brings to you. Do not be afraid.

We don’t know the details of what will happen tomorrow but we know the one who will be with us and comforting us, “Do not be afraid.”