Be Not Afraid
Week of Monday, December 24, 2001
Fourth Sunday in Advent (2001)
The waiting is over and Christmas is here. Preparation gives way to celebration, anticipation to fulfillment. God has spoken to humanity in many ways down through history, as both Scripture and experience attest, but with the birth of Jesus He has spoken His decisive word to us (Hebrews 1:1–2). The birth of Jesus inaugurates many things in the history of salvation, but one thing in particular that God says to us with the birth of the Baby is “don't be afraid.”
The birth narratives of Jesus contain elements that, two millennia in retrospect, are difficult to understand: pregnancy by the Holy Spirit, Magi following a star, dreams and angelic visions. But they also contain telltale signs that in my mind make them radically authentic. In particular, the Gospel narratives record that the constellation of events surrounding the birth of Christ evoked a certain emotion in people: human fear. And to each one of these understandable human fears, God responded with a firm and gentle assurance, “Do not be afraid.” This comfort amidst fear is at the heart of the Christmas story. Do not be afraid.
Joseph received four dreams in Matthew's account, enough to unnerve most anyone, I would think. When he discovered Mary was pregnant, he decided to divorce her quietly, until an angel appeared to him and advised otherwise: “Joseph, do not be afraid” (Matthew 1:20). Similarly, in his parallel account, Luke writes that Zechariah was “gripped with fear,” Mary was “greatly troubled,” and the rugged shepherds were “terrified” when angelic messengers visited them. To each of these three people God responded, “do not be afraid” (Luke 1:13, 30, 2:10).
Throughout the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, human fear reappears time and again at crucial junctures, and each time God responds to his people in the same way. When Jesus called his first twelve disciples, Peter was overwhelmed with a sense of his own sinfulness, “Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man.” The Lord responded, “Peter, do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10). During his final discourse to these same twelve disciples, they were understandably filled with anxiety, to which the Lord responded, “do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The women were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and commissioned to go tell the men who were in hiding, but, as one might expect of reasonable people, they were filled with fear at the unfolding events. To them the risen Christ said twice, “do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:5, 10). Finally, there is the invincible Paul. But for him too the journey with Jesus was sometimes filled with “conflicts without, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:4–6). At Corinth God spoke to him clearly, “do not be afraid” (Acts 18:9), emboldening Paul to minister there for eighteen months despite fierce opposition. Sailing to Rome for his trial before Caesar, his ship encountered a hurricane, and again God told him, “Paul, do not be afraid” (Acts 27:24).
When I think about our world today, there are aspects of it which evoke fear, and for good reasons. Suicide bombers in Palestine. Devastation in Afghanistan, a pseudo-country that was an unqualified humanitarian disaster even before our bombing. In our own country, everyday letters have been turned into biological weapons, and ordinary aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. More broadly still, important social critics now write about our western culture as living in its “twilight,” much like decaying Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries. Growing social and economic inequality, government dysfunction, epidemic illiteracy, widespread drugs and crime, and what Berman calls “spiritual death” are all harbingers of a culture in deep distress.1 Reasonable people have cause for at least some of their fears.
But Christmas is the declaration that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23); He has not left us, or our history and culture. Not even our own deep sinfulness can separate us from His loving care, as Peter who denied him learned (Matthew 26:72), for as the angel told Joseph in his first dream, “His name shall be Jesus, because he will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Sometimes the journey with Jesus is itself a cause for fear. Having put our hand to the plow, life as we know it can never be the same and turning back is hardly an option. When the disciples found themselves caught in a storm, they were afraid; but when Jesus calmed the storm, “they were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and waves obey him!’“ (Mark 4:35–41). The latter fear was worse than the former. Similarly, when Jesus healed the demon-possessed man, people from both the town and country went out to see what had happened. Finding the man healed, “they were afraid.” When they heard how the man had been healed, “they were overcome with fear” and asked Jesus to leave (Luke 8:26–39).
Henri Nouwen liked to define discipleship and maturity as allowing God to take us to places where we would prefer not to go (see John 21:18 and Jesus' words to Peter). That is an understandable cause for anxiety and apprehension. But with Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, the shepherds, and many other characters in the Christmas story, may God help us always to hear His sure and certain voice, “don't be afraid, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” and to move forward in faith.
- Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: WW Norton, 2000). See also Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1985), and Robert Kaplan, An Empire Wilderness: Travels Into America's Future (New York: Vintage, 1999).
The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.