Something about Christmas always makes me reflective toward the preceding year. Maybe it’s how close it comes to the new year, or the way it conjures yuletide memories from years past. Either way, the holiday serves as a marker, as a point of delineation in time. This year, then, as I wrapped and unwrapped presents, sipped cocoa and sang carols, I was reminded time and again of what a year it’s been.
What a damn hard year it’s been.
On a personal note, it may well have been the hardest year of my life. In the first place, 2015 opened with me living alone (suddenly and unexpectedly), and sick as I’ve ever been. Then, as things started to settle, as I finally procured a roommate and managed to balance my four jobs with some degree of competence, my grandma’s health took a sharp turn for the worse. Over one long weekend, we said goodbye to her, to this lovely woman, this source of light and warmth.
The first Christmas without her would have been hard no matter what, and indeed it has been. Every tradition, every song and movie brings to surface some memory of her. Even during moments of laughter and celebration, her shadow looms large. I know she would want me to enjoy the season, and by and large I am, but I miss her. I can’t not.
Then, a few short months after grandma’s passing, I loaded my Nissan Altima and drove three thousand miles, settling in Princeton, New Jersey, a whole country’s length away from everyone I’ve ever known or loved. Don’t misunderstand me; the opportunity to study at Princeton Seminary and build a Young Life club from the ground up is truly an honor, and has proved to be quite the adventure. Still, those first few months away from home were full of grief and alienation. I barely survived them, and wouldn’t have but for the grace and love of God.
I think too about what an impossibly scary year it’s been for the rest of the world. Regimes are ascending and toppling, terrorist organizations are slaughtering the innocent by the thousands, unarmed black men and women are killed by authorities, and refugees are cast to the wind in search of home and shelter. Even in America it’s hard to feel safe, as mass shootings become more commonplace every week.
Almost everyone is, to some degree, scared. And an unsavory few are taking the opportunity to cash in on this fear. Politicians in particular have grown adept at exploiting our insecurities and fears, scapegoating whole races and religions, drumming up hysteria with their vicious rhetoric. We are made to believe if we could rid our lands and lives of those people we would finally achieve safety, prosperity, wholeness.
What a time to be alive.
Most years I attempt to blog through Advent season, each day finding some novel angle on what Christmas means and how to apply its lessons to our lives. But this year, I don’t have all that much to say. Really, my message is singular, so I thought I’d save it for Christmas day. Here it is:
Do not be afraid.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing. Do not be afraid.
I don’t blame you for being afraid. I’m afraid. But we shouldn’t be.
Whenever angels appear to humans in Scripture, they start out with the same greeting: fear not. Do not be afraid. Do not be terrified.
This is just how the angels greeted the shepherds on the night of the Lord’s birth. It is how God’s messengers encouraged Joseph and Mary in turn. It’s how the men at the mouth of the cave assured our Lord’s followers He had been raised from the dead.
I’ve always wondered why angels addressed humans in this way. I figured it was because an angel is an alarming sight to dull human faculties.
More recently, however, I’ve come to question that conclusion. After all, sometimes in Scripture humans interact with angels without realizing it (Genesis 19, Hebrews 13:2). Sure, maybe angels can hide their glory and appear as human, accounting for this disparity, but isn’t it also possible that this admonition (do not fear) is speaking not to the frightful visages of the angels, but to the terrorous circumstances of the days in which they speak?
Maybe when God speaks to people through His messengers, the first thing He wants us to know is not to be afraid, of those messengers, of our circumstances, even of our enemies. Fear is not God’s best for us.
This gels with my understanding of God’s love, which “casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). Followers of Yahweh and His Christ ought not be won over to fear, but should be sold out for love, service, and sacrifice.
Anyone claiming to speak for God who tries to manipulate you with fear is a liar, and is anti-Christ.
A natural question follows this admonition: why not?
Why not be afraid? The world is a terrifying place. I may be in danger. My family may be in danger. What’s to keep me from being afraid?
A prophet of God who lived in Judah in the 8th century BCE wrote about the terror of his own age, and his hope in the midst of it:
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”
Some Christian scholars interpret these words as a prediction of the coming Messiah, the “child” who would set the world right. Others understand Isaiah’s words merely as a comfort to the people of Israel, who were always between one state of oppression or another. From my perspective, however, it hardly matters. Whether these words foretell Christ or speak comfort to an oppressed Israel, they communicate the same thing about the nature of God: God comes down. God incarnates. God is with us.
Throughout human history, since our fall from grace, we have always lived in some kind of darkness. Few would argue that this world is exactly how it ought to be. Something is fundamentally wrong with the way we treat each other, ourselves, and the earth. But that is not the whole story.
For one who is light came to dispel the darkness, and the darkness did not understand Him, and the darkness did not overcome Him (John 1:5).
Some dark night two thousand years ago heaven broke open and the God of the universe was born into the world.
An asinine assertion. A scandalous story. A beautiful promise.
God came down, not just that day but years earlier, when He heard the cries of His people enslaved in Egypt, and years later, when His light pierced my own heart and changed my world.
This is what God DOES. This is who God IS.
In being born Jesus redeemed birth, in dying He redeemed death, and in being born again into eternity Jesus Christ our Lord inaugurated a new world where the light of God is available to all.
So don’t be afraid. Things are scary, but heaven is breaking open every moment and the Spirit of God is invading the dark places, bringing light and hope and beauty. We may have lived in deep darkness, but light has come.
When we make choices out of fear, hoarding weapons, rejecting refugees, electing leaders who play on our worst and basest instincts, we operate within the kingdom of darkness, not God’s kingdom of light.
God's people must make light.
Do not be afraid.