“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)
Fear Not are words that abide in our collective Christmas memory. Fear Not, the angel says to Zechariah when the preternatural birth of John the Baptist is foretold. Fear Not, the angel reassures Mary when his enigmatic greeting troubles her. And again, Fear Not, the angel declares to the shepherds when the glory of the Lord blazes around them as they keep a night watch over their flocks. Simple words, fear not, yet with power to calm a soul. Who among us has not at one time or another desperately needed to hear, hope and hold onto these words? Surely I am not alone in yearning for the faith of the Psalmist who says, “Although the earth erupts in quakes, we will not shake or fear; though glaciers crash into the sea, our God is always near. And though the oceans roar and foam, and breakers crash and swell, though mountains sway and split in two, we know that all is well.” (Psalm 46:2-3)
Fear Not are words of Advent that beckoned me into the nativity narrative the past several weeks to think about the lives of Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds. Beyond their encounters with the angels, which we are told triggered initial fear responses, what other things or people did they fear? For example, did they fear King Herod, the dark and foreboding antagonist in the narrative? Perhaps they were thrilled by his building of a great wall to protect the Second Temple in Jerusalem, his spending on infrastructure as he constructed the port at Caesarea, and his defeat of the Arabs. Or perhaps they despised him because he flouted the Mosaic law, was not Jewish, and lived off of their taxes.
Scripture only hints at such fears. For example, in her glorious song of praise Mary sings, “The Lord has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their throne but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53) Was Mary praising the Lord for His past deeds in scattering the proud, bringing down rulers, and sending the rich away empty? Or was she equivocally prophesying that the Lord would bring down king Herod? We know that within the year Mary would be forced to flee to Egypt with Joseph and the baby Jesus to avoid Herod’s genocide of male children; yet just a few years later Herod himself would be struck down by a horrible disease (quite possibly a cancerous infection called Fournier’s gangrene).
Irrespective of their views of Herod, and notwithstanding the shock of being visited by an angel, these were real people with concerns and fears, big and small, which undoubtedly affected their daily lives. Zechariah (and his wife Elizabeth) had lived righteous lives yet were childless in their old age. Mary was very young, perhaps less than fourteen, and about to enter into an arranged marriage. The shepherds were living a hardscrabble life in the open fields exposed to the elements and surrounded by predators that menaced their flocks. And, of course, all of them lived under Roman rule that was capricious at best to non-Roman subjects. Without doubt they had much to fear. Which makes their response to the angels’ words, fear not, so fascinating. For not only were their hearts calmed, but they pressed through their fears and redirected their hearts, minds, and actions to a movement of God. Zechariah praised God and allowed his miracle son John to live an isolated life as a harbinger of the Lord the way the angel had prophesied. Mary acquiesced and bore and nourished the Christ child. The shepherds abandoned the fields and journeyed to find the infant.
It is glorious to be comforted, but it is transcendent when obeying God redeems anxiety for His kingdom. For whatever their fears, there is a palpable sense of expectation and excitement as they enter into the unfolding events. Zechariah rejoices that he and Elizabeth will have a son in their old age who will prepare the way for the Lord; Mary moves from acceptance to worship knowing she will bear the Son of God who will reign forever over His kingdom; and when the shepherds find the baby Jesus, they spread the amazing news of the birth of the Messiah.
By believing God’s word and acting accordingly, Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds beheld the kingdom of God that was beginning to stir. A baby being born in a stable would soon turn the world upside down. The long-awaited Messiah was coming, and indeed was at hand. Not as a king from of old but as a humble child born in a manger. This was Jesus, the One who would announce the kingdom of God, manifest its power, and teach us about its nature. He was indeed the King of kings. Earthly kings had good reason to fear Him – even the mighty Roman empire itself would be wiped out within several centuries. But of His kingdom there would be and will be no end, as one day loud voices in heaven will declare “The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.” (Rev. 11:15).
The Advent narrative reveals the comforting words of angels saying fear not. But the lesson I take is that fear is conquered by trusting the Lord and then obeying. Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds did not remain in their fear, but simply acted in obedience to the word they heard from God. Of course, several decades later Jesus Himself would affirm this by declaring that the key to banishing fear was to seek His kingdom above all else. As recorded by Matthew, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34)
Herod commanded a Roman army and ruled a vast kingdom, yet he succumbed to his fear of an infant and at his word a generation of male children was slaughtered. Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds were humble citizens living in uncertain and dangerous times, yet by trusting God they transcended the daily fears of existence and played out critical roles surrounding the birth of the Messiah. Fear, unexamined and unrestrained, will always lead to evil. Fear, redeemed by the Farther, will always lead to goodness. When I forget this central truth of the Gospel that evil can only be overcome by good, I miss the essential meaning of Advent and the word of the angels.
I thank all of you who have been faithful readers of my monthly musings this year. I am encouraged by your kind words, and I am grateful to know many of you as kindred spirits. I wish you all the best this Advent season and a very Merry Christmas. May your hearts be revived, your minds refreshed, your relationships renewed, and your souls restored. And above all may you receive the encouragement of angels, Fear Not the Lord is with you always.