I recently heard a brief devotion focused on Luke 1: 26-38, the scene where the angels foretell the birth of Jesus to Mary. The pastor humorously reminded us that in scripture, whenever you hear the words, “Be not afraid,” then watch out! Something huge is about to happen. Hold on to your seats, because the world is about to turn upside down!
Mary receives that word from the angels, and she finds herself "perplexed;" Joseph receives a similar word and begins to sort through what it means to be engaged to a woman bearing a child; the shepherds in the field are given the message and they seem genuinely awestruck by the possibilities. This heavenly imperative doesn’t end with the Christmas story. It’s repeated in choruses throughout scripture, including at Jesus’ tomb on the first Easter morning.
"Do not be afraid" always accompanies an event that totally changes how we see and experience the world – a miraculous birth, God taking human form, life that is unrestrained by death. In each case, the phrase introduces a revealing of God that brings great hope. But for us to receive the hope, the angels always feel the need to relieve our fears.
This leads to some reflection about how hopes and fears intertwine. It’s no accident that the Christmas hymn says, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Times of great fear and anxiety send us searching for hope, struggling to discern it, and reaching to grasp it.
But the opposite is also true: Times of great hope stir up our fears. Even positive changes are disruptive and disturbing and even painful. They are wrought with risk, loss, challenge and threat. Hope and growth and change and uncertainty are a wonderful and wonderfully stressful mix.
Nothing so deeply captures the interweaving of our hopes and fears as the birth of a baby. I remember the moment more than 20 years ago when I was handed my son to hold in my arms less than fifteen minutes after his birth. My soul was overwhelmed with awe, joy, and hope. I sat down in a rocker and couldn’t take my eyes off of him. His little fingers looked exactly like mine! Few moments in life have so deeply moved me. But also with his birth and his becoming part of our lives, a whole new host of fears were born, the natural anxieties that come with the awesome responsibility of parenting. That mixture of hopes and fears continues to this day, and probably will as long as I have my breath. Anyone with responsibility and hope needs the angels’ reminder, "Do not be afraid."
I was recently reviewing a book for church leaders in which the author makes the case for stress as a necessary element of change. Yes, it’s true that too much stress or purposeless stress simply depletes and distracts even the best of disciples. But it’s also true that the complete absence of stress can indicate a lack of passion, a loss of purpose, a shortage of commitment, an absence of vision. Where there is no stress there may be no fear, but there is also no hope.
Those who feel prompted by the Holy Spirit to bold new service and creative new ministry and passionate new outreach, always step out into uncertain places as they seek to follow Christ and serve others.
As we follow our hopes, we constantly have to wrestle with our fears. That was true for Mary and Joseph, for the disciples whom Jesus formed around him, and for the women who proclaimed the resurrection. And that’s true for every one of us.
That’s why we need the messages from the angels. In uncertain and turbulent times, we need the assurance of hope. But also in the times of great hope and passion, we need the reminder, "Do not be afraid." Move forward. Step bravely. Follow Christ. Encourage one another. "Do not be afraid."
The blessings of Christ be with you in this season of new birth,