How would you feel if you saw an angel standing in front of you? If there before you was one of God’s holy messengers, glowing with the blinding light of glory hitting your eyes? Your first honest reaction, and understandably so, would probably be fear.
“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.”
Every December, I like to read through the gospel stories about the birth of Christ. Each year, something different touches my heart as I examine the now very familiar stories found in the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Luke. This year, as I began reading, one phrase seemed to jump off the pages at me.
It is a simple four word sentence that was spoken by angels to several of the main characters in the unfolding drama. Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds all received these words. God’s messengers said to them,
“Do not be afraid.”
In Luke chapter 1, we meet Zacharias, a righteous man, and a priest. He and his wife, Elizabeth have real saving faith in the one true God. They are an older couple, yet they have no children because Elizabeth was barren. Back then, this was often considered a sign of God’s reproach.
One day, as Zacharias is in the temple to burn incense, the angel, Gabriel, appears to him. He tells him that Elizabeth will bear a son even at her old age. They are to name the boy John, and he will prepare the way for the Lord. Zacharias, naturally, finds this information hard to believe. He questions Gabriel, and therefore is made unable to speak until the baby is born and given his name. (From Luke 1: 5-23)
As Luke chapter 1 continues, we meet Mary. Most of us know her story. She is a young girl, a virgin, betrothed but not yet married to her fiancé, Joseph. Gabriel visits her and gives news that she too will have a son. Her child will not be just any baby. He is the Son of God, Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit. That would be pretty scary news to a young lady!
“But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”
Mary shows her great faith in her response to Gabriel’s message. She immediately summits herself as a humble servant of God, to be used according to His will.
In Matthew chapter 1, we are introduced to Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth. He is an honorable man. He cares for Mary and doesn’t want her to suffer shame or hurt because of the child she carries. As he tries to figure out what to do in their tough situation, he too, is visited by an angel of the Lord in in dream.
“But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.””
Finally, in Luke 2, Christ is born. We recognize this scene, the family in a stable with the animals, the sweet baby Jesus asleep in the manger. Except first, Mary and Joseph have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, (about 70 miles…with a donkey, and a woman about to give birth), and then they can’t even find a place to stay and have the baby except for a barn…SCARY!!
Again we see God’s angels with news. This time they have a message for a group of nearby shepherds.
“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The shepherds respond by hurrying to go see the Christ child. After their visit, they tell everyone about what they had experienced, and they praise God. What a wonderful response to the Savior! I pray that we would be like the shepherds even today. As we come to know Jesus, may we tell everyone of His goodness, and praise God for the gift of His son.
The words of the angel echos today, “Do not be afraid.” Still, there seems to be so much fear and worry around us, all over the world.
This year has been scary for many people. It is easy to read the news and think that there is plenty of reason to be fearful, of both present circumstances, and the future. And yet, just like in this Christmas narrative we hear the words of reassurance, “Do not be afraid.”
The Bible uses this phrase, and others like it, not only at the birth of Christ, but throughout the entire book. The whole history of humanity and the epic of God’s people resounds over and over with His encouragement NOT to fear. Here are a few more of my favorite verses on this subject:
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
“For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”
“You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.”
“You came near when I called you, and You said, “Do not fear.” You, Lord, took up my case; You redeemed my life.”
“The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
These verses don’t tell us that the situations we face aren’t really scary, they often are. And God isn’t promising to make everything ok or take away hardship, He isn’t. In fact, when you read these and so many more verses about not being afraid in context, the circumstances are very scary! The Exodus from Egypt, facing enemies inside the giant walls of Jericho, David running for his life, war, persecution, plague…are just a few of the events surrounding these verses.
The Biblical characters in these stories, justifiably, could have been terrified. There are many reasons today why we might think we should be equally afraid. And yet, we are commanded time and again in God’s Word NOT to fear.
The narrative of Christmas is the true story of “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us.” The people in this story: Zacharias and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, and the shepherds, did not know exactly what God was doing in their lives or in the world. Standing face to face with an angel was scary. Their personal situations were scary. But they trusted that God was with them.
We also don’t fully know what God is doing, in our own lives or in the world. But we too can trust that He is with us, He will never leave us. He promises us His help, His strength, His peace. We need not fear.
The Prince of Peace came into the world at Christmas. He lived, He died for our sins, and He rose again. He sent the Holy Spirit to be our constant help and our strength.
These words of comfort spoken throughout His Word are as true for us today as they have ever been. The story of His birth tells us that hope has come to the world. God is with us.
This Christmas, this year, whatever next year may bring, let us hear and receive in our hearts the message He has so clearly spoken,
Do not be afraid.