First Mennonite Church
November 29, 2015
Do Not Be Afraid
Text: Luke 2:1-20
Advent begins today, according to the church year or liturgical calendar. Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent recalls the time of waiting and expectation before the birth of Jesus Christ. Although we all know that Jesus has been born so long ago, we can take these four Sundays to reflect on the meanings, various implications and benefits his birth has for us. Today, we want to reflect on the repeated phrase we find in the gospel according to Luke: do not be afraid! This phrase in the context of the birth of Jesus was accompanied by another phrase: for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy!
Today, more than ever we need to hear the message, “Do not be afraid,” to ring loud and clear. These words echo a message our world desperately needs to hear today. Today, our world lives under great fear. Fear feeds on many sources: violence, racism, injustice, illness, insecurity of many kinds. But fear is also the source of oppression, violence, discrimination and many other social illnesses that plague our neighborhoods, cities and the world. It is therefore of great importance that we hear the message of the angels to the shepherd, “Do not be afraid, for see I bring to you good news of great joy that is for all people.”
Let us read the passage for today.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, 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.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
When the gospel writer Luke put down his version of the life of Jesus, he did not use esoteric nor lofty language intelligible only to the experts. His words were simple and his narrative style clear enough for the common person to understand, even though it is said Luke wrote in the best Koine Greek. Therefore, when Luke narrates the birth of Jesus he does so with economy of words and space. He tells the most amazing and unequaled story in just twenty verses. But even when it is a simple story, the birth story itself is more special than any other because it is the story of God’s greatest attempt to insert himself into our human history. The birth of Jesus is a story in which God began a new order of relationship between the Divine and human and among humans. It is a story in which human life was given a radically new possibility that even the people of Israel up to that point in time had not been able to experience. From the birth of Jesus on, humanity was given a new possibility to live in close relationship with God. To all of us was given the possibility to receive God’s salvation, to live free from the power of sin and death. But we were also given a new possibility of human relationship. The potential of human capacity to love broke the boundary lines. As Jesus later explained to his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5 43-44). Human compassion was given the potential to be extended to strangers as Jesus shows in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We also have been given the possibility to live without fear even “though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:2).
The story of God inserting himself in human history is framed in the context of well-known rulers and geo-political realities attested to in history. The Judean people had been living under the watchful eyes of a foreign power. Their leaders were in many cases puppets to the foreign power; it is the reality of many peoples around the world, even today.
The Jews in Jesus’ time were filled with fear. There were many reasons why. In the first place they were under Roman occupation. There were Roman soldiers all around and many times Jesus’ countrymen were subjected to abuse and humiliation. Taxes were levied on everything: the land, the harvest, livestock, and even on attendance at the synagogue. People were losing their properties due to inability to pay their taxes. People were fearful that just at any time revolts and riots could happen. And as the very Gospel of Matthew attests, no one was exempt from danger. Even babies were in danger. Herod killed babies for fear that a new king would rise and depose him (Matthew 2:16-18). My dear friends, the people at the time of Jesus’ birth were afraid for many reasons.
There is a whole lot of similarity between the social, economic and political reality of the shepherds and ours. There is widespread fear. People are constantly struggling to make ends meet. People are constantly worried about events happening around the world. The key sources of fear today are: terrorism, plagues, natural disasters, deportation, and all kinds of personal insecurities.
And for the shepherds there was the appearance of the angels to add to their fear. Therefore, in order to subdue the shepherds’ already fearful hearts, the angel commanded them, “Do not be afraid.”
It is interesting that throughout the gospel according to Luke runs a theme that appears time and time again. It is the sense of fear, terror and perplexity that people experience at the marvel of God’s manifestation. The word “fear” in its various forms appears some 37 times. When the angel appeared to Zechariah by the altar, he was terrified and overwhelmed with fear. When the angel visited Mary the first time, she was much perplexed and filled with fear.
On Easter morning Mary and her friends came and found an empty tomb and saw angels, they were perplexed and terrified. On each of these occasions these people were commanded to not be afraid.
Luke begins the story of Jesus’ birth by telling us of shepherds watching over their flocks, out there, doing their own thing as every day before, and suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them. At this sight and presence, the shepherds were terrified. However, the angel said to them: “Do not be afraid; for see–I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people….”
I was counting how many times the phrase “Do not be afraid” appears in its various forms in the Bible and I counted almost 200. Some say that altogether, in one way or the other, this phrase or a version of it appears some 365 times. The message of God to humanity is “Do not be afraid.”
Today more than ever, people live in fear. My dear friends, fear is a terrible thing. Fear makes people to flee or fight back; fear makes people to tell lies to cover their mistakes. Fear makes people put on masks to hide their real selves. Fear causes division among people and prompts them to build walls. Fear paralyzes and leads to death. Let us, therefore, hear the message of God for us today, “Do not be afraid! Be of good heart! Take courage!”
Let us listen to the angel’s command to not be afraid. Yes, we should not be afraid but not because we cannot be easily intimidated by the forces of fear. We should not be afraid but not because we live in a country with the most sophisticated system of security, or the most advanced technological weaponry and army. We should not be afraid, but not because we can access safety nets if we ever come to that point.
We should not be afraid because at the birth of Jesus Christ, God came to dwell among us. Jesus is the Emmanuel—God with us. In Christ, God whispers to us, “I am with you. Do not be afraid!” In Jesus, God is indeed with us—the Emmanuel.
More importantly, the announcement of Jesus’ birth is a message of “good news of great joy for all the people”. It is a gospel of great joy for all people. Jesus himself continued to announce a message of assurance. In Luke 12:7, he said to his disciples, “But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Again he said in Luke 12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
As for us, let us be messengers of peace and comfort. Let us carry the message of joy that is for all the people. Christ Jesus was born. He is our peace and he gives us his peace not as the world gives. So let us not be afraid! Amen!