The Angel’s Message
Christmas is more than a celebration of the birth of an infant, no matter how divine; it is a celebration of a totally new way of living, a new way of being, and a new way fearless love. Sermons have been prepared and spoken over the centuries that try to give deeper meaning to the Christmas story. Despite all those sermons, Christmas is more like a children’s fantasy similar to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales or the poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas (‘Twas the night before Christmas…) . Many know Christmas story only by association. Because the story is so familiar, the words are not heard. It is not difficult, when hearing the Nativity Story read, to drift back into thoughts of other times when, as children, we portrayed angels, shepherds, wise men, and the holy parents. And because our memories take so complete charge of this moment in time, we fail to hear the Christmas message.
In the story an angel appeared to shepherds at night near Bethlehem and said, “Do not be afraid.” The words of the angel are precisely, “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.” Right from the beginning, we hear the message that a Savior is born, but then in all the jubilation over the angelic announcement we do not hear the good news of this revelation. The good news is, “Do not be afraid.”
We live in a fearful time. I suspect we have always lived in fearful times. For example, I was born during the Great Depression, a very fearful time. By the time I was five years old a ruthless war and inhuman atrocities engulfed Europe and the Asia-Pacific area; a very fearful time. At age seven, a boy living in Annapolis, Maryland, the terror of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and German submarines sinking ships off the coast of Maryland gave me nightmares; a truly fearful time. When I was eleven, the atom bombs exploded over Japanese cities; a time of relief that the world war was over but a fearful realization that a momentous change in human affairs had occurred. As a young person in my teens I faced the reality of a nuclear holocaust; I recall seeing on our television set pictures of the atomic bomb exploding at Bikini Atoll and an artillery piece shooting off a shell with a nuclear warhead in Nevada. Then there was war in Korea, a fearful time, the confrontations with Russians was a fearful time, and by the time I was finished with my undergraduate education, the nation faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was an exceedingly fearful time. On it goes, the war in Vietnam, wars in the Middle East, the thousands who died on September 11, 2001, more angry and fearful times. War rages; people are killed randomly by religious fanatics. Now there is even a threat of a pandemic of the flu or the threat of a terrible virus called Ebola. What are we to do? In addition to all that we have experienced in the last century and now into the twenty first century there are angry young men bursting into our placid lives killing dozens of people, mostly young, with assault weapons–most of the victims are young. Then there are protesters in the streets angry over racial tensions topping the television news every night. We see buildings burn, people injured, and desperate police trying to restore order— despite the calls for peaceful protest, violence seems to beget violence. We have the right to ask, “What has happened to our civilized lives?” We have every right to be fearful.
A New Message
However, listen again to the words of the angel, “Do not be afraid.” These words are the way of Jesus Christ; they are the heart of the Christian message. Often in the Gospels, we read the message, “Do not be afraid,” or “Have no fear.” For example, recall how Jesus quiets a storm on the Galilean lake, and he tells his friends, “Do not be afraid, O you of little faith.”
You might think the Christian message is that you must be saved; that is you must seek personal salvation. I do not mean to say that salvation from sin and death is not a part of the Christian message, but it is not the central part. The challenge that you must be saved needs to be reversed and stated as a question, “What must I do enjoy the benefits of my statement of belief.” Salvation requires only believing that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of the Living God. That is the easy part. We can say we believe and tell others we believe but we only believe intellectually. Not formed by intellect; instead faith, is formed in the hard rock of total reliance on the love of God and the teaching of Jesus that we do not need to live in fear. How can I say this after reciting to you all the terrible dangers we have faced and will continue to face for the rest of our lives? I can proclaim the good news that there is no reason to fear on the grounds that God has done a mighty thing in the incarnation we celebrate here today. God has chosen to be one of us. God has chosen to live in our human form, rejected, and suffer as every human does. Despite the trails he faced, Jesus instructs us to be fearless.
Think what this wonderful annual celebration opens for us. If we are fearful because God has done a marvelous thing, we can take a risk to love the loveless, work to bring reconciliation to a torn and unhappy world, and be members of the living Church, the Body of Christ.
The Joy of Christmas
Because Christmas begins with, “Do not be afraid”, we can be truly joyous. We can sing of angels that we have heard on high, we can sing out “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” This is an invitation to live fearlessly in the Christmas story. We find that all those old carols and hymns are not just sentimental remembrances of Christmases past, but are true descriptions of the life we live today.
We can open our ears to hear the angels sing, we can open our hearts to invite others to join with us in our rejoicing.
Thus, the Christmas story is more joyous than we thought. We can come out of our bomb shelters and face the world with the strength of the Gospel. And we can be certain that in faithful obedience to the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid,” we will experience the same victory over all that assaults us as Jesus did as he rose above the world and thereby saved it.