Read Luke 1: 11-13 and 26 -33 here
Read Luke 2: 8-14 here
Our sermon today is entitled “Fear not” and “Good News” and really this is mostly because we’re not focussing on a single biblical text and because I’m terrible with titles.
But what prompted this is my reflecting on the texts from the nativity story, which we read and heard last week at our Christmas Eve service. And to be fair, I may have heard somebody reflecting on this previously. But it was also further spurred by something I heard from Tim Keller, which I will share shortly.
But in brief, when we hear the nativity story, we hear about several encounters with angels. And at least in the Luke account, each of these encounters begins with the angel’s declaration of “do not be afraid,” or “fear not.” (Matthew also records the angel telling Joseph “don’t be afraid,” but it’s in the context of “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” – a very different kind of concern).
So, in Luke, the nativity story is replete with “Fear not.”
This motif begins with the angel appearing to Zechariah to inform him that his wife Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist:
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.Luke 1: 11-13
We see it again in the angel’s appearance to Mary. We read:
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”Luke 1: 26-33
And finally, we read the same thing when the angel appears to the shepherds:
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,Luke 2: 8-14
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Now I draw this to your attention because how we experience Christmas – or at least how we’re told we’re supposed to experience Christmas – is so at odds with the notion of fear. Indeed, it is the season of “
[fear not] for I bring you good news of great joy.” At Christmastime, it would seem entirely unnecessary to tell people, “Fear not.” It seems obvious to us that at Christmas time, there is no place for fear. But in the Christmas story, it was necessary to say to the people – to Zechariah, to Mary, to the shepherds – over and over, we hear “don’t be afraid.” Which begs the question, why were they afraid (or why would they be afraid)?
The obvious answer to this is that the appearance of a celestial being would certainly have caused alarm – “surprise,” if we’re being diplomatic about it. But it would be wrong to downplay what the human reaction actually was. We should take seriously that throughout scripture, the appropriate (or the normal) response to God is fear.
As an aside, there is an argument to be made that “fear of God” is perhaps closer to “respect.” And I certainly think that by “fear” scripture doesn’t usually mean abject terror. But I think that “respect” is too tame a word. Human beings, when they encounter the living and holy God, are not overcome with respect.” I think “fear” is an appropriate term.
So, in short, I think that in each case, what we should understand is that the human reaction to the appearance of the angels is indeed fear – and this is what prompted the first words in each case, in each recorded interaction, to be “do not be afraid.”
But the angel’s words do not end there. Each interaction is part of the nativity story – part of the Christmas story. And the angel’s message is not merely – “don’t be afraid.” The message is “don’t be afraid because I bring you good news of great joy.” And that good news is that Jesus Christ is about to be born. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, is about to enter into human history. And His arrival is going to change everything.
Don’t be afraid – though this is the natural human reaction to God’s arrival. Rather, rejoice because, at this time, God’s arrival is good news which will bring great joy for the whole world.
Earlier, I mentioned that something from Tim Keller spurred my reflections on all this. A few weeks ago, I was listening to a sermon by Tim Keller in which he said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that perhaps many people think of Christianity mostly as a hard task. Do we mostly think of Christianity as a hard task?
Do we think of Christianity as giving up a bunch of things, of avoiding a bunch of things? Do we think of Christianity as a list of rules we have to follow lest we risk the wrath of God? Or do we think it’s giving up what is good for me for the sake of the “greater good”? Do we think that in order to be a Christian, we have to walk a very fine line, not straying one inch to the right or the left? And is this, then, what we demand of others?
Keller also says that most people think Christianity is basically like other religions. Do good things and avoid bad things so that we can get the reward and avoid punishment. But Jesus says his message is absolutely different. Everyone who truly hears and understands the Christian message, everyone who truly grasps who Jesus is and what He has done, knows that something radical has happened. A new light has dawned; the new creation has come.
And all this made me think of the angel’s words, especially to the shepherds. That is:
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.Luke 2: 10
Do we think of Christianity as good news that will cause great joy? Or is it cause to be afraid? Is the gospel good news? Or is it a hard task?
As you probably know, the Greek word translated to “gospel” in English is euaggelion. It’s from this root that we get our term, evangelical. You may also know that euaggelion is a compound word. It’s derived from the root word, aggelion (aggelioV), which means message or news – this is the same root from which we get the word for angel, or aggeloV (an angel is a messenger) – and the prefix, eu, which means good.
Now as you also know, the calling of the Church, the calling of Christians like you and I, is to share the news, the message – that same message that the angels were proclaiming. The question obviously, is then, are we sharing good news? Are we proclaiming good news that will cause great joy? Are we, aggeloV, speaking, living, sharing euaggelion with the world?
Now I want to quickly say that I don’t believe that the only calling of Christians is proclamation; and that I’m not saying anything like the Church takes the place of angels in the creation order. What I am asking is, inasmuch as we are called to proclaim, what is it that we are proclaiming?
So again, is it good news we are sharing? More importantly, perhaps, is it good news that the world is hearing?
And perhaps it’s unhelpful to put it in those terms – the world is too large after all. Is it good news that our neighbours are hearing. Is it good news that our friends, co-workers, family are hearing from us, are seeing in us?
Now of course, I’m not saying anything today about the shape of that good news. How news is shared and how news is received depends much on the context. I’m not trying to suggest, for example, that we should be ignorant of sin and holiness. But we can never be so wrapped up in what we want to say that we refuse to pay attention to what others are hearing. My point simply is that the gospel is supposed to be good news. We are supposed to share good news.
As you know, I have been asking for your help to identify some topics that we might explore for our New Year’s sermon series. And we received a good number of responses (more than I expected, honestly). Some of those topics we are going to have to put off for another time – a series on the book of Hebrews for example; perhaps a series on some of the Psalms. And some of those topics may be better suited to a one-on-one conversation than a sermon, per se. However, I will try to tackle as many of these questions and suggestions as I can – it will probably take us through February.
A somewhat common theme that arose out of these suggestions is what does Christianity mean, how do we live out our faith, in the midst of a changing world? Or, what does the Christian faith look like in this changing world?
We could explore these questions in a variety of ways, from a number of different vantage points. But what I want to do is think about these things from the framework of, “how is the gospel of Jesus Christ good news?” How is the gospel of Jesus Christ good news for you and me? How is the gospel of Jesus Christ good news to a hurting, broken, and lost world? And lastly, how are we, Christ’s hands and feet, salt and light, messengers and proclaimers of good news?
But I also hope that it doesn’t stop there. That is, this isn’t something that I want to consider merely over the next couple of months. This year, I hope we can think about and live out what it means to believe in and take hold of the good news.
So, as we close out this year, as we look forward to the next one, I hope that you will join me as we explore and dig into all this. I hope that we will be encouraged and that each of us will be an encouragement. And I hope we will all desire more deeply, more fully, more real-ly, the fullness of the promise that we have in Jesus Christ.