Fear… not?

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, 
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Luke 2:8-11

The Christmas season is filled with moments of solemn reflection and joyous celebration as the hearts of Christians all over the world are drawn near to a simple manger in an obscure town where the “Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” was born over two millennia ago. The story of Jesus’ birth recorded in Matthew, Luke and John contains elements that are utterly captivating – the awe-inspiring angelic messengers, the miracle of the virgin birth, the mystery and wonder of the incarnation, the vivid image of wise men following a singular star. And why shouldn’t this story be captivating. It is, after all, the story of stories about the coming of the King of kings! To quote someone who knew a thing or two about incredible stories, C.S. Lewis said:

“Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.”

What could be more marvelous than the birth of the promised Messiah, the Savior, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29)?”

And yet, amidst all the spectacular events in the Christmas story that inspire genuine awe and wonder, there is a thread of common human experience that roots the narrative in earthly reality… fear. As I read the accounts in Matthew and Luke, I can’t help but notice that the central characters are routinely faced with circumstances that produce fear.

First, there is the unique kind of shocking fear that is induced when Heaven comes to earth. Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the chosen shepherd-witnesses were all struck with great fear on the occasion of their angelic visitations. “Fear not,” and “Do not be afraid,” are the repeated opening lines of the angels because this is the natural human response to sudden heavenly glory. But there is more.

We also observe the kind of common fear that can grip a human soul when real-life circumstances become overwhelming. Matthew chronicles Joseph’s deep fear as he considered the scorn and shame that would come if he actually took the expectant Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:18-21). Similarly, Luke opens a window into the fearful hearts of the temple priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. Prior to receiving the angel, Gabriel’s news that they would soon bear a son who would become the forerunner of the Messiah, they had endured the cultural burden of Elizabeth’s barren womb and feared they would never have a child (Luke 1:5-25).

Then, there is Mary, the humble, young virgin, chosen to bear and deliver the promised Savior-King who would ultimately bear the sins of man and deliver God’s people from eternal judgement. While we can only imagine the fear and uncertainty she must have wrestled with through her unique ordeal, we do get an actual glimpse of what initially troubled her. When Gabriel appeared to her and said,

“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

Luke tells us she was “greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be (Luke 1:26-29).” While the text of Scripture doesn’t provide any more detail than this, it seems reasonable to infer that Mary’s trouble centered around her own sense of unworthiness to receive such favor. There is a kind of fear of inadequacy that is rooted in genuine humility. This fear, of course, did not paralyze Mary and cause her to reject God’s grace. Rather, it stimulated profound gratitude and comprehensive dependence upon the Lord (Luke 1:46-55).

Finally, there is a more sinister root of fear that is clearly observed in the record of King Herod. Upon hearing from the wise men that “the king of the Jews” had been born, Herod’s consuming fear of loosing his seat of power drove him to the mass murder of all male children under two years of age born in the region of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-18)!

What we see in the Christmas story is what we know from our own experience:  fear comes in a variety of “shapes and sizes.” What we also see is that fear can lead to heartfelt worship and obedience. On the other hand, it might also result in paralyzing doubt and distrust, or unabashed wickedness on a grand scale.

How we identify and deal with fear in our lives, and how we help our children deal with the fear in their lives, is of paramount importance. Here at Family Matters, we will attempt to tackle this subject in a series of articles next month.

But for now, let’s celebrate Christmas by heeding the wonderful message of the angels:

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Luke 2:8-11