From Fear to Joy! A Savior is Born
The Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church
Christmas Eve 24-12-2015
The sermon this evening is taken from Luke 2:10-11: And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Have you ever been so afraid – so terrified – of something? Like being in the wrong place in the wrong time? I remember as a kid I was once caught in the line of fire during a demonstration and it was so terrifying!
What is worst is living in a constant state of fear! Fear of a nearby danger. Fear of the future. Fear of the unknown. Or even being afraid of a perceived terrifying and unmerciful God.
As I thought of what I will preach on this evening, the words of the angels to the shepherds kept ringing in my mind: Fear not… Fear not… Maybe it is because fear seems to be everywhere around us these days.
In the Christmas narrative, we read about the fear of the shepherds. They were terrified when the angels appeared, and we can, of course, understand that. Just imagine the scene how in the silence and darkness of the night they saw this glorious yet sudden vision. They were naturally afraid. There is the surprise element. There is the darkness. They were simply afraid.
Yet I wonder if Luke was eluding to a more general fear that was prevalent in Palestine in Biblical times. We read in his introduction to the birth narrative in Luke 1 many references to the yearnings and expectations of Israel. There was a reality of fear. We see this in the hymn of Zacharias in Luke 1:
“…That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers… to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear”
It is safe to say that fear maybe even anxiety were common in the days when Jesus was born. The people of the land were afraid… of their occupiers… of the unknown… afraid that God has forgotten them… They were afraid, and where there is fear, there is despair and slavery. You see when we are afraid, we become prisoners to our fears, chained in despair and hopelessness.
I see this reality of fear in our world today. Here in Palestine, we live under military occupation. Years of conflict and violence has created a reality of fear and despair.
Today in Palestine many are afraid of the future. Young people have lost hope in any promising future here. People leave looking for a better future – a more safe one. They are afraid of the unknown. Today the headline in BBC fittingly reads: “Christmas in Bethlehem: Hopes and fears for the future”.
And maybe as a Christian community here, there is another dimension of fear. Our numbers are small. We are literally a little flock. There is a lot of talks today about the future of Christianity in the Middle East. Every Christmas I read articles about this, yet we are here. We did not go anywhere.
But in places like Iraq and Syria – that might be true. The threat is so real and evil. The ones remaining live in fear and anxiety. The prayer of Zachariah is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago: “…grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear”.
But not only that. I look around the world and fear is everywhere. Most notably is the fear of Muslims and Islam – Islamophobia. Politicians are utilizing and encouraging this fear for selfish evil reasons. Because of this fear many Christians are not willing to serve and embrace refugees, which is as close a thing to being Christ-like and following Jesus’ teaching as you could get! Fear is causing many Christians to reject and in some cases hate others! Fear is a reality that is crippling our world today. It is a reality that is damaging our Christian witness to the world.
Today maybe more than ever we need to hear and embrace the words of the angels: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
There are at least three things concerning the fear that the Gospel is telling us today:
First, we fear not, because Jesus is born. The message of Christmas should drive fear away. The message that God sent his Son to be born here, to become one of us, to feel our pain and sorrows, and to ultimately carry our sins upon himself on the cross – this message should drive fear away.
Notice here: “Fear Not”, but not because your circumstances will change. “Fear Not”, but not because you should trust in yourself. This is not “self-help”. The message is not to simply have courage. “Fear Not”, because of what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. Hope and salvation come from without, not from within. “My help comes from above, from the Lord”.
This is not a statement that the current political reality will change. Rather, a new kingdom reality is breaking through! A dawn of a new era is appearing. Interestingly, a similar statement with almost the same Greek words and sentence structure like the one we find in Luke 2:11 was known in Jesus’ times about the birth of Augustus. Was Luke alluding to this? “Fear Not”! The new king is born. It is not Caesar, but Jesus. And his kingdom of love and joy challenges the kingdoms of the fear that dominates our world today.
Those who really understand who the baby is, and what his kingdom is about – should know no fear. We fear no power or political reality. We do not live as prisoners. We may be occupied, yet we are free of fear. We may be feared and seen as a threat, but we know that we are loved and remembered by our God. The baby of Bethlehem drives away all of our fears.
Second, what is really interesting in the words of the angel is that fear is replaced with Joy – the joy of the Gospel. This is amazing! The opposite of fear is not security… but joy! Actually, we see the same pattern of joy replacing fear in both Luke 1:13, 1:30. It is like a theme in Luke.
Joy – not security – replaces fear. The promise of Christmas is not of security, wealth or comfort. In fact, the baby of Bethlehem and the holy family embody this: they were poor, powerless, and without a place to stay. Yet I bet that they were more than thrilled when Jesus was born. In the midst of hardship and anxiety – joy is born in Jesus.
Yet this is not any joy, but the joy of the Gospel! The joy of knowing that God dealt with our sins and failures. The joy of realizing that God has remembered his covenant; of realizing that we are not forgotten. The joy of knowing that the baby of Bethlehem is the prince of peace and also the one who “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).
Today we can have this joy. Today you should leave Bethlehem with this joy. This evening God wants to replace our fears with joy!
Thirdly and finally, this is not a passive or naïve joy. This is not escapism. Joy is active and transformative. The joy of Christmas should transform our world and reality and cause us to be ourselves agents of transformation and change. The shepherds received this joyful news of Jesus’ birth and went to Bethlehem and met Jesus and the family, and then returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them”. Today we are invited to do the same.
Because Jesus is born we are now free to love, serve and worship him. Because he is born we are no longer slaves to our fears. We “fear not”… and with joy we love and serve the world. You see many worship and serve God out of fear. This does not work. This becomes a burden. No one wins. But when we serve with joy – when we are liberated from fear, only then we are able to love and embrace God and others.
I pray tonight that as we are set free of our fears – that the joy of the Christmas story challenges us to love and serve the God of Christmas For Palestinian Christians: I pray that we are set free of our fears and instead to stay in this land with joy and confidence. I pray that we look at people around us – our neighbors – through the eyes of love, not fear.
I pray for the church around the world to overcome its ungodly fears and suspicions and instead to love and embrace the refugees and the needy. Let us remember the words of 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”. In this sense with can replace fear with service and love – indeed with Evangelism!
Sisters and brothers: in this Christmas evening, hear the words of the Gospel of our Lord: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.