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Fear Not!

December 6, 2009

Sermon:  Fear Not!

Text:  Luke 2:8-12

Our son Kris is an artist. His specialty is painting guardian angels, some of which were displayed in the Sanctuary last Christmas. Kris explains that he became interested in this particular kind of art when a colleague with whom he works was having a very difficult time. Kris was thinking about and praying for this person while he was working in what was then his studio, his garage. He painted a background color on a paddle intended for stirring paint and sketched a little angel on it. He took that paint stirrer to work and gave it to this person, who said it brought comfort and strength through that particular time of difficulty.

Kris was telling Clare about this experience, and Clare said, “Kris, I would like to have one of those angels.”

He found other stirrers and painted several for Clare. When he brought them by our home, Clare asked, “Where should we hang them?”

Kris answered, “Mom, hang them in the places where you are most afraid in the house.”

Clare, being the mother she is, asked, “Kris, where would those places be?”

The two walked around the house, and Kris showed her the places where he had been most afraid when he was a little boy. One spot was the dark stairway to our basement. Clare hung a guardian beside the door at the top of the stairway.

When my grandparents lived in our house, they used a storage area in the basement as a coal bin. We have always called that space “Outer Darkness.” Kris pointed out that a guardian angel should also be placed at the entrance into Outer Darkness.

These guardians have really caught on and become quite popular. Recently, Kris was doing a residency for a few days in New Mexico at the Ghost Ranch, a place where Georgie O’Keefe painted. The people there allowed him to scrounge around and find scraps of wood on which he could paint guardian angels. After painting there in New Mexico, he either shipped them or brought them back when he came home.

Kris has decided he wants to have an event in what is now his new studio. His theme for this event is Fear Not! Of course, this is the message the angel spoke to the shepherds in the Scripture passage that serves as our text today. The Bible delivers that same message of “Fear Not!” 180 times.

I questioned Kris, “Are you sure Fear Not! is what you want to call this event?”

He answered, “Dad, think about it. Do you know how many new handguns have been sold in this country recently? People are arming themselves because they are afraid. Do you know how many people are suffering from the economy? Do you know how fearful people are about swine flu? There are two wars, and the President is stepping up our forces in Afghanistan. Just in my circle of friends, so many young people have lost their jobs. Fear Not! is a good theme.”

After thinking about his answer, I have to agree that Fear Not! is a good theme. We do live in an atmosphere of fear.

By the end of December, a family in our church will have one son leaving to serve in Iraq. By mid-January, a second son from the same family will leave for Afghanistan. Fear Not!

I do not know what right TIME Magazine has to theologize about the decade, but TIME has recently released a special edition, one that simply calls the past ten years “The Decade from Hell.” The magazine, which has provided a list that explains the epithet, points out that we began the decade in fear. Of course, you remember the concern about what was called Y2K. The Y2K glitch caused 500 slot machines in Atlantic City to shut down all at once. Maybe that was good. On a more serious note, the list mentions the fear created when alarms sounded at a nuclear reactor in Japan just two minutes after midnight on January 1, 2000. The possibility of a nuclear disaster was actually a false alarm.

Listen to some of the other events that TIME Magazine lists.

– Torrential rains caused flooding in Africa, leaving more than 1,000,000 homeless.
– An Air France Concorde crashed, killing 113 people.
– Soon-to-be Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel prayed at the Temple Mount, setting up tremendous conflict between the nation of Israel and the people of Palestine.
– Al Qaeda suicide bombers struck the U.S.S. Cole, killing thirteen sailors.
– The U.S. economy went into recession.
– Nineteen Islamic terrorists flew high-jacked planes into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people.
– An anthrax panic broke out when contaminated letters were sent through the mail. Five people actually died.
– The U.S. invaded the country of Afghanistan.
– An American Airlines flight crashed in Queens, New York, killing 265 people.
– Enron filed the largest bankruptcy claim in U.S history.
– John Walker Lynn, a U.S. citizen, was charged with fighting with the Taliban.
– The United States introduced color-coded threat alerts related to terrorist activity.
– Reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan.
– Two beltway snipers struck and killed ten people in Washington, D.C., keeping the area surrounding the capital city in panic for weeks.
– Congress authorized action against Iraq and Chechen terrorists who seized a Moscow theater and held hostages. One hundred twenty of those hostages died during the rescue operation.
– The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in mid-air.
– The U.S. invaded Iraq.
– A nightclub in Rhode Island caught on fire, killing 100 people.
– A record number of tornadoes – 391 – were recorded in one day in nineteen states.
– An earthquake in Iran killed 26,000 people.
– Mad cow disease threw people into a panic.
– Islamic terrorists attacked trains in Madrid, killing nearly 200 people.
– Tests confirmed that dioxin had poisoned and killed a Ukrainian presidential candidate. – A tsunami in the South Pacific killed more than 200,000 people.
– North Korea revealed that it had nuclear weapons.
– Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, causing levies to fail. More than 1,500 people died.
– Homegrown suicide bombers struck a London transit system, killing fifty people.
– An earthquake in Kashmir killed 80,000.
– An earthquake in China killed 80,000 people.
– Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, sending the U.S. stock market into a plunge.
– The Illinois governor was charged with trying to sell a Senate seat.
– Terrorists attacked in Mumbai, killing more than 170 people.
– Chrysler and General Motors declared bankruptcy.
– Bernie Madoff stole $165,000,000 from people who had trusted him.
– The World Health Organization declared swine flu a pandemic.

Do you think we ought to say the Benediction, go home, and hide under the covers? No! That is not what we should do! Here is the message: Fear not!

We do not know for sure how the date of December 25 actually originated as the day of our celebration of Christmas, but two theories exist. The oldest of those theories, oddly enough, is linked to the date Jesus was crucified. How is that? A very old Christian tradition claimed that the day Jesus was crucified was the same date – some years later – that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. That date, fixed at March 25, is still called the Day of the Annunciation in Christian calendars. If you count exactly nine months forward, you come to December 25, the date observed as the birthday of Jesus.

The second tradition, not quite as old but still very old, has been accepted as having more credence. The Roman emperor Constantine chose December 25 as a day to celebrate the birthday of Jesus because it was the time in the calendar year when people were more anxious and fearful than at any other time. Ancient pagan religions believed that the sun was retreating away from the earth at that time of year. Since there was less light, the days were shorter. The temperatures were colder.

The pagan people, even those in ancient Europe, tried to entice the sun to return. People brought evergreens, a symbol of life, into their homes. They burned candles and Yule logs, keeping light in their homes to encourage the sun’s return. It was a time of great fear, so the emperor decided there was no better time than to say that the “light of the world had come.” That light, Jesus Christ, came into this world of darkness, bringing the light of hope and the promise of salvation. The date for Christmas has everything to do with this sense of fear.

When John Piper, a wonderful pastor, preached a sermon on this very text one Christmas Eve, he was soundly criticized. One woman in his congregation complained, “John, we do not want to hear anything negative on Christmas Eve. Do not make us afraid by telling us about the bad things that are happening. We want a sermon about how sweet Jesus is. We want to hear about the Christ child in a manger. We want to hear about peace on earth.” John Piper claimed that people really do not want to understand that it was exactly into this same kind of world that Jesus came.

C.S. Lewis asserted that most of us just dabble at religion, just sort of play around with it. He said that at some point, though, we have to face the harsh reality of life. Only then can we see that our religion has to be very sturdy. It cannot just be painted in pastels. It cannot just be about a baby in a manger. It has to be about the Almighty God entering this world, coming to meet our greatest fears, helping us stand strong and courageous in the midst of all that threatens us.

The people of the first century had lived during very difficult times, often in terror. When Alexander the Great conquered the known world, the Greeks put a Syrian with a Greek name, Antiochus Ephiphanes, in charge of Jerusalem. A tyrant, he came into the temple in Jerusalem, set up an altar to Zeus, and sacrificed a pig there. He forbade the Jewish people from practicing Passover and other religious observances. He also ordered the deaths of many of the high priests.

With the Maccabean Revolt and the death of Antiochus, things settled down for a while. The Romans came with their army of occupation, and the people knew a time of peace. Under the reign of Herod, Pilate, and other rulers who followed the Jewish people once again experienced hard times. By A.D. 70, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. It is into exactly this kind of world that Jesus came to bring a message of hope.

Spend some time looking at your manger scene at home and just thinking about the people behind those figures.

What was the first reaction of Mary, a teenage girl, to the greeting by the angel Gabriel? She was frightened, but Gabriel told her, “Mary, do not be afraid.”

Joseph, who had found out about Mary’s pregnancy and knew the child was not his, was considering getting rid of her, putting her away, divorcing her. One night while he was having bad dreams about these matters, the same angel appeared to him. In this dream, the angel spoke, saying, “Joseph, don’t be afraid.”

Wise men, strange men from Persia, came to see this babe in Bethlehem by way of Jerusalem. They had gotten to know a bit about Herod, just enough to realize that he was up to no good. The wise men could see in Herod his horrible motives and tendencies. Thinking about the killing of infants in Bethlehem is sickening. Afraid, they returned to their homeland by taking a different route.

Consider the shepherds in the field tending their flocks when the angel spoke to them. I like the way Frederic Buechner speaks of these men on a hillside minding their own business. He says that “all heaven broke loose” as the sky was filled with brightness. What does the Bible tell us about the shepherd’s reaction? It was not, “Oh, goodie! Angels!” No, the Bible tells us that they were afraid, terrified, scared to death. The angel also assured them, “Fear not!”

God never says, “Don’t be afraid” or “Fear not!” without giving us a reason. The shepherds had no reason to be afraid because the angel had good news for them: “… 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.”

All people in that manger scene started their journey to Bethlehem in fear, but they all allowed hope to conquer fear because they had come to worship a child, a Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes. Did you catch the name of this child? Jesus, Savior, Emmanuel, God with Us. When God says, “Do not be afraid,” He always gives us a reason. The reason is that this child is God with us. Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s love. It is this perfect love that casts out all fear.

Phillips Brooks, in that wonderful hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” has a simple line: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Hope and fear meet right here at Christmastime. They meet right here in Bethlehem. They meet right here in this manger at a stable. The choice is ours. Do we let our fear win out, or do we hear the message of the angel, “Fear not!” We understand that we have no need to fear because God is with us. As Christian people, we must allow our hope to overcome our fear.

Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior? Have you accepted him as the Lord of your life? I want to invite you to acknowledge Christ as your Savior. I can promise you that if you do that, you will live life with a different quality. Your life is not going to be easy, but you do not have to be afraid. You do not have to live with fear. God is with us. I invite you to make that decision.

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2009

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