Do not be afraid
Sermon preached at Enmore, Christmas Eve 2017
Reading: Luke 2. 8-20
I suspect that for most of us fear is not an emotion we normally associate with Christmas: mild dread perhaps at the thought of the credit card bill that will arrive at the end of January, or slight apprehension at the prospect of the big family Christmas party but not fear. Fear is a strong emotion that we associate with bad news from the doctor, or the loss of our job or some other catastrophe. So we may find it surprising that the first words to the startled shepherds on that first Christmas night were, “Do not be afraid.” Their fear was induced by the appearance of an angel of the Lord and angelic appearances weren’t part of their usual evening’s entertainment. In fact, in first century Palestine, shepherds were among the poorest in the land and were not regarded very highly. Living in the open most of the time meant that they couldn’t keep the ritual purity laws and they didn’t turn up to the synagogue too frequently. Furthermore they had a reputation for dishonesty and thieving and their testimony was not recognised in court. These were about the last people on earth to expect a heavenly visitation so naturally they were afraid.
But the shepherds were not the only ones who were given the message, ‘Do not be afraid’. In the previous chapter of Luke’s Gospel we have the story of the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary with the astonishing news that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary’s initial response is fear and perplexity and she is told, “Do not be afraid Mary for you have found favour with God.” A quick survey of divine encounters in the Scriptures will reveal that the most typical response is one of fear. It starts way back in Genesis. In Genesis chapter 3, Adam and Eve have just eaten the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – the only tree in their rich and abundant garden that they were specifically commanded not to eat. For the first time they are experiencing guilt. At that moment they hear a voice calling them and they recognise it is God’s voice. They are afraid and they hide themselves. The Adam and Eve story in Genesis gives us a picture of what is wrong with our relationship with God. When we encounter God we expect judgement and condemnation because we are aware that in the words of the old Prayer Book ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep…we have left undone those things that we ought to have done and have done those things that we ought not to have done and there is no health in us.’
God’s desire is that we should not live with fear. Throughout the Bible the words, ‘Do not be afraid’ occur 365 times- one for every day of the year. His desire is that we should enjoy friendship with him. The story of the Bible is the story of God’s troubled relationship with his creation. Humanity was created in order to enjoy a harmonious relationship with the creator. We were created in God’s image. Our problem has been that we insist on living life on our terms and not God’s. Throughout the Old Testament God sent prophets to bring his wandering people back to him but too often God’s messengers were either politely ignored or openly resisted. In the face of this resistance God showed extraordinary persistence. He refused to give up on his stubborn people. In one of the most powerful images in the Hebrew Scriptures, God declared that he had ‘branded’ or ‘engraved’ them on the palms of his hands. Finally, God had only one option left, he decided to join us, to come among us in the person of his Son, Jesus.
So that brings us back to the shepherds. The angel told them not to be afraid because he was bringing them good news of great joy to all people – “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This angel had done her homework. The message echoes the language the Roman assembly had used to celebrate the birthday of Caesar Augustus. The Romans had greeted ‘the most divine Caesar’ with ‘good tidings for the whole world’. Romans called Caesar ‘a saviour who put an end to war’, born for the common good of all. The angel gives the newborn cradled in a manger in Bethlehem on the fringes of the Roman Empire, a birth announcement to rival the emperor. Unlike the Roman Emperor, this child born in the humblest circumstances, would never carry a sword or lead an army yet today millions throughout the world celebrate his birth and call him Lord.
In the message of the angel we see three reasons why we and the shepherds should not be afraid. First the message was for all people. The world of the first century was a world of deep divisions: divisions of race, gender and class. Everyone belonged in a great procession: the most honoured at the top and the least honoured at the bottom. One’s place in that procession was determined almost exclusively by the status of your father and the status of your tribe and family. Each person was expected to act in ways appropriate to their status. Shepherds as we have already noted were pretty low on the list so it was no accident that the news of the birth of the Messiah should be given to them first. The message that Jesus proclaimed challenged the whole structure of that society. So the Apostle Paul could write: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” – an incredibly radical statement, the implications of which the Church has not always lived up to. But the record of the early church was pretty good, so that Celsus, the 2nd Century critic of Christianity could exclaim, ‘Why would you wish to join an organisation that welcomes women and slaves?’ During his earthly ministry Jesus showed his willingness to embrace all people irrespective of their status in society and in defiance of the purity laws. He reached out literally and touched the unclean, the leprous and the rejected. So, in a world which still has many divisions based on gender, race, and economic status it is good to be reminded that the coming of the Christ child was for the blessing of all people everywhere without distinction.
Secondly, we like the shepherds, should not be afraid for the coming of the Saviour tells us that we are loved. In John’s Gospel we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The birth of Jesus was God’s greatest sign of his love and his determination to restore the broken relationship between God and humanity. The inclusive nature of God’s love was, and continues to be, a stumbling block for some. We would perhaps be more comfortable with a God who only loved people like us- but that is not the God revealed in the person of Jesus. Jesus’ love was shown to penny-less beggars, rich tax collectors, self-righteous religious leaders and grumpy disciples. None are excluded from God’s embrace – each one of us here this night from the youngest to the oldest is valued and loved by God.
The final reason we should not be afraid is that in the coming of the Saviour God has given us hope for the future. With the birth of Jesus, God and humanity became eternally linked. In what we call the incarnation, i.e. God taking on human flesh, God has shown that he will not be without us. In the words of Rowan Williams, “he binds his divine life to human nature.” We live in a world of great uncertainties- the scientists tell us that our planet is endangered, the economists tell us that the world could be facing another financial crisis, and we never know what a new year will bring. The story of the Nativity is not just about an event which took place in a remote corner of the Roman Empire some 2000 years ago but rather it declares that God is present in his world today and he invites us into relationship with him and to trust him as our Lord and Saviour. If God is with us we can face whatever the future holds with confidence. May each one of us experience God’s love this Christmas.