The beginning chapters of Luke- the stories around the birth of Jesus- are filled with fear. Chapter 1- Zechariah, an old priest, is in the Temple in Jerusalem doing his priestly duties. He and his wife have no children; they are barren. Their deepest desire has been denied them. But then, there in the Temple, an angel of God comes to him and said, “Do not be afraid.” The angel said this because Zechariah was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. “Be not afraid, Zechariah, for your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son… who will be great in the eyes of the Lord…” Be not afraid, Zechariah, for God is doing a new thing.
Seventeen verses later, a young woman named Mary hears this same angel: “Be not afraid, Mary.” She is, of course afraid, especially when she hears what the angel has to say.“You who have never slept with a man will bear a Son… He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…” Be not afraid, Mary, for God is doing a new thing.
One chapter later, the shepherds are watching their sheep, and suddenly the angel of the Lord shines around them, terrifying them. And the angel says to them, “Be not afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people…”Be not afraid, shepherds, for God is doing a new thing.
It’s amazing how many times in scripture the phrase “Be not afraid” shows up. “Love one another” shows up 19 times in the Greek and Hebrew scriptures. “Love God” shows up 72 times. “Fear not” shows up 144 times- the most of any commandment.
In scripture, people are afraid a lot of the time. And the fear so often shows up when God is in the midst of doing a new thing. The world is changing; we’re not in control; we don’t know what our world turn into when this new thing happens. Be not afraid! Be not afraid! We don’t say that unless the person in front of us is quaking.
How about us? What makes us fear? Three of us are unemployed right now; that’s a good cause for some dread.
A number of us live in constant pain; that’s a good cause for some dread. Climate change, political turmoil, civic unrest- all good causes for fear.
And people do fearful things when they live in fear. They react as if they have to save themselves, for fear arises when we feel that everything depends on us. Fear stems from our inability to trust that our basic needs will be met.
But what if it does not all depend on us? What if there is a Power greater than us who has our back. In the words of Rev. Paul Washington at the ordination of Barbara Harris, the first African-American woman bishop, “Don’t fear the difficulty of the task before you; just remember the power behind you.”
I think that’s what the Angel of the Lord was trying to tell Zechariah, and Mary, and the Shepherds. Something wonderful is coming, and it will demand a great deal from you. Your life will change, and the things you count on today will not be there tomorrow. But know that I am here- to comfort you, yes; but even more to give you courage to face the future.
When Jesus was grown, and was well into his teaching career, He said, “In this world, you will have trouble, but take heart. Fear not, for I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
What do you fear most in the world? If you were to think of it, and not bury it deep within you, what would keep you up at night? For me, it would be the death of those I love. Falling into despair, and not being able to climb back out. That’s what I dread. How about you? What is it that you dread most? …
Now I have to ask, where is God is the midst of our fear? Where is God, when we are enshrouded in dread, and can’t imagine being able to pull ourselves out of it? Where is God?
Perhaps God is beside us. Perhaps God is drawing us into that place that we cannot even begin to imagine. Perhaps God is creating a new thing, if we will but offer our fear to God, and accept the death of something certain and known, in order to step into a new creation.
Be not afraid, Zechariah, Mary, Shepherds.
Be not afraid, for I am doing a new thing.
Be not afraid, for I have overcome the world.
And Mary said, “Let it be to me according to Your will.” Let it be.
In the Name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
At that time, Augustus Caesar sent an order to all people in the countries that were under Roman rule. The order said that they must list their names in a register. This was the first registration taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to their own towns to be registered.
So Joseph left Nazareth, a town in Galilee. He went to the town of Bethlehem in Judea. This town was known as the town of David. Joseph went there because he was from the family of David. Joseph registered with Mary because she was engaged to marry him. (Mary was now pregnant.) While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have the baby. She gave birth to her first son. There were no rooms left in the inn. So she wrapped the baby with cloths and laid him in a box where animals are fed.
That night, some shepherds were in the fields nearby watching their sheep. An angel of the Lord stood before them. The glory of the Lord was shining around them, and suddenly they became very frightened. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, because I am bringing you some good news. It will be a joy to all the people. Today your Savior was born in David’s town. He is Christ, the Lord. This is how you will know him: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a feeding box.”
Then a very large group of angels from heaven joined the first angel. All the angels were praising God, saying: “Give glory to God in heaven, and on earth let there be peace to the people who please God.” Then the angels left the shepherds and went back to heaven.
The shepherds said to each other, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened. We will see this thing the Lord told us about.” So the shepherds went quickly and found Mary and Joseph. And the shepherds saw the baby lying in a feeding box. Then they told what the angels had said about this child. Everyone was amazed when they heard what the shepherds said to them.
Mary hid these things in her heart; she continued to think about them. Then the shepherds went back to their sheep, praising God, and thanking God for everything that they had seen and heard. It was just as the angel had told them.