“Do Not Be Afraid!” Luke 2.8-14

The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday in Advent at The Creek Covenant Church.

John August Swanson, Shepherds, 1985.

In the region of Bethlehem, there are shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. It is moonless and surprisingly warm. Three shepherds lay on their bedrolls around the dying fire. Down the hill, in the distance, only a few windows of Bethlehem are still lit. The town is mostly asleep. The fourth shepherd, Annas, sits with his back to the fire and looks out at the flock of sheep, as he has the first watch of the night. A few sheep bleat out, but mostly he hears them breathing deeply in slumber.

The other shepherds don’t speak and though they are tired down to their bones, sleep eludes them. Their minds are full of those worries that seem to only plague us at night when all is quiet. The deep fears we keep at bay most of the waking hours through busyness and distraction. But when there are no more tasks to take our attention, our minds can’t seem to stop the flood of worst case scenarios, existential doubts, and thousands of forms of the unanswerable question, “What if?”

Josiah, the oldest of the shepherds rolls onto his side, feeling each muscle as it aches. As a shepherd, he’s a peasant in his world. [1] Like his coworkers, he owns a little land, but not enough to feed his family. Each year he tends someone else’s sheep, spending weeks on the hillsides around Bethlehem away from his wife and children and grandchildren. The pay is meager, but enough. Taxes from the local governments and the Roman Empire are costly. If he can’t afford those, he will be thrown into prison until his family can pay up. Living on a hillside among filthy livestock is better than rotting in a debtor’s prison.

Josiah rolls again, unable to find a comfortable position. He knows these are not merely the sore muscles that come with his profession. Each pain is more intense, and they linger longer than last year. He knows these pains are a sign that he won’t be able to meet the physical demands of shepherding much longer. And then he will have to scramble to find work. Just when he wants to be falling sleep, his pulse quickens as he worries about his wife and family. His younger brother recently fell ill and Josiah’s family has started to provide for his brother’s family. If they are any more generous there won’t be enough to go around. They can’t sell off much more of their land. They live close to hand-to-mouth as it is. Josiah feels like he’s on a sinking boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. It’s too far from shore to swim to safety. If he stays on the boat, he drowns. If he jumps off, he drowns. His boss probably won’t hire him for many more seasons. But where else can he find work?

Annas, with his back to the fire, now stares at the sky bright with stars. As the youngest shepherd, he is lowest in authority, even among a group of men who are essentially nobodies in their society. Annas gets all the menial tasks, including the longest watch of the night. His mind turns to the Roman Empire.

He wants Israel to be free. Annas can’t stand the Romans and their oppression. He hates the soldiers ordering people around. He despises the political leaders who announce new laws and taxes on a whim. Annas sees through the cynical attempts of the Roman leaders to buy the people’s good will through building theaters and arenas—just distractions to keep the people of Israel from remembering that they live in exile in their homeland.

Annas is terrified of the Roman Empire’s violent power. He’s seen the bodies of revolutionaries hanging on crosses along the road. These invading foreigners might destroy him, his family, all that he knows. They have the swords, the numbers, the might—and they don’t seem to care one iota about the lives of the Jewish people. Annas knows the history of what happened when Israel tried to fight Rome and was decimated. His fear of the Romans manifests itself in two ways: sometimes his fear becomes hatred and he imagines joining a rebel group and killing Roman soldiers. Other times his fear causes him to freeze. Will he live his whole life under the thumb of an Emperor several thousands of miles away? Tonight Annas vacillates between fearful hatred that makes violence seem reasonable and fearful surrender to the awful thought that he has no hope of freedom. His parents want him to marry and have a family. But how can anyone think of having children in a hopeless world full of so much terror?

Hezekiah lies on his side, his eyes nervously darting from the embers of the fire to each of his coworkers. Earlier in the day he lost four sheep. He thinks they wandered into a ravine, but he can’t be sure. He didn’t tell the other shepherds about it due to his embarrassment. Hezekiah can only hope they won’t find out until the end of the season. Their pay is determined by the number of sheep they return when it is time for shearing and slaughter. Some loss is always expected, but this has been a tough season already. And Hezekiah has been responsible for most of that loss. The other shepherds barely spoke to him for three days when two sheep died under his care.

Hezekiah came to shepherding reluctantly. He grew up working in the grain fields. He is much more comfortable harvesting plants than herding livestock. But the pay watching sheep is better and he has a growing family. He has never felt secure in this role. He is afraid his coworkers think he is incompetent or a fraud. He fears disappointing his wife and children if he does not bring home decent pay. He worries his neighbors will see him as a failure if he leaves shepherding. He dare not speak any of these fears to anyone because he doesn’t want to appear weak. Hezekiah takes a deep, nervous breath, and pulls the blanket over his head.

The final shepherd, Judah lies on his back, eyes closed, lips silently moving as he recites prayers. The other shepherds know him to be the most religiously devout of their group. He regularly quotes the verses from the psalms that refer to shepherding and often reminds the others that the great king David was a shepherd. But tonight, as he prays, Judah feels no connection to Yahweh God. It is as if he is speaking into a void.

Judah opens his eyes and looks into the darkness between the stars. As long as he can remember he has prayed for Messiah to come. His parents prayed for Messiah to come their whole lives. His grandparents prayed too. And their parents and their parents, going back generations. Why has God not sent Messiah, who will lead Israel back into faithfulness, and who will establish Yahweh’s kingdom here on Earth?

Judah thinks about the centuries of waiting for the promised messiah and he wonders why does God delay? Maybe God doesn’t really care about the people of Israel. What if Yahweh has decided to leave the world alone to its own devices? Or what if the belief in God’s redeeming messiah is just a story the people of Israel made up? Judah grows afraid as he entertains this thought. What if all his hope, all the hope of the people praying in the Temple and synagogues, is placed on a figment of someone’s imagination, or worse, on a hoax? What other answers can there be for God’s delay? Either God no longer cares or the hope of Messiah coming to Earth is a lie. And if the hope of Messiah is a false hope, isn’t the whole Jewish faith false too?

Judah finishes reciting his prayer and he receives no comfort. He doesn’t feel God’s presence. His certainty in God’s goodness is not stronger. Instead his doubt has increased. The fear that he is alone in this world has strengthened. Judah looks at the fire, the brush, the rocks. He sees the silhouettes of the sleeping sheep. He looks at the stars and the dark, dark night, and he asks that terrifying question, “What if this is all there is?”

Four shepherds around a fire, ruminating on their doubts and fears. Fearful there won’t be enough to provide for their families. Frightened of the violence and terror in the world. Scared others might reject them if they are truly known. Petrified at the thought that God does not care, or God does not exist and they are alone in the world. These shepherds, who live on one of the lowest rungs of society’s ladder, lie awake unable to sleep and overcome by fear.

Then an angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them, and they are terrified. But the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there is with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” [2] 

We are in the second week of Advent, a holy season that marks the beginning of the Christian year. It is four weeks of memory and hope. We remember and prepare to celebrate Jesus’s birth, the first arrival of God’s messiah. And we hope for the time when Jesus returns, fully establishing his kingdom and bringing about the new creation. Like the shepherds, we long for God to set everything right.

Into a world much like ours, where fear is rampant, the Gospel of Luke tells us an angel of the Lord appears to a group of shepherds and proclaims, “Do not be afraid!” This proclamation works on the obvious level. If you were camping with friends, sitting around the fire, and in the middle of the night, out of nowhere an angel of the Lord appeared, you would probably lose your cool and be rather afraid. So the angel tells the shepherds in a sense, “Do not be afraid, calm down, I’m not going to harm you.”

“Do not be afraid,” however, is not merely an attempt to calm understandably terrified shepherds. It is a call that pierces into the deepest concerns the people of Israel felt as they longed for the messiah to arrive. These words are as much a part of the “good news of great joy” as the announcement that “a Savior…the Messiah, the Lord,” is born in Bethlehem.

The fears of these four shepherds are alive and well today. Often it seems, these fears exist for good reason. Not knowing if you’re going to be able to keep your job or where your next paycheck will come from is terrifying. The violence that exists in other parts of the world and in our nation, as we saw in San Bernardino this week, and the conflicts within our families, are truly scary. One of the most common fears people have is that others would see their faults and reject them. We live in a rather judgmental world and at times Christians can seem to be the most unforgiving. For those who have known the sweetness of God’s closeness, to no longer see evidence of God at work in your life or in the world around you, is frightening. You not only question whether you are wasting your time here on a Sunday morning, but you worry that your hope, all you built your life on, was merely wishful thinking.

To people who scrape by to get just enough to feed their families, the angel proclaims, “Do not be afraid!” For people afraid of violence, war, and terrorism, the angel calls to them, “Do not be afraid!” To people who hide their failures and seek to protect themselves at all costs from being rejected, the angel announces good news, “Do not be afraid!” And to those who have not sensed God’s closeness, who wonder why God no longer seems to respond, the angel calls, “Do not be afraid!”

Fear seals us off from others. Fear makes us less generous. In the petri dish of fear anger grows and festers. Resources become more scarce. We grasp, we clench our fists, terrified to lose what we have. When we look through the lens of fear, we see our neighbors as competitors or even enemies. Fear is insidious. Fear tries to convince us that it is reasonable. It wants us to think we are merely being rational as we shut ourselves in, as we protect ourselves from risk, as we withhold selfless love. We are worried we might be hurt, but in fearfully protecting ourselves, we often hurt others.

Fear takes the place of God in our lives. We are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Fear prevents us from doing these things. In the aftermath of the truly evil attacks in Paris by ISIS, a debate has emerged in the US regarding what to do about millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence in their homeland. The US had committed earlier in the summer to bring in 10,000 refugees. But the attacks in Paris made many people want to pause or end the refugee program for fear of some similar attack happening in the US. I believe it is reasonable to want to bring in vetted refugees from a land overrun by a terrorist organization. How to best do that is a necessary discussion. I am concerned, however, that the conversation within the Christian Church about pausing or ending the refugee program is born out of fear and not out of God’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Fear draws our focus on us. We want justice for us, safety for us. Fear leads us to care only for people who are like us. We love mercy for other American Christians like us. Fear takes away the desire to walk humbly with God. Rather, we want God to walk proudly and forcefully with us. We want God to give a stamp of approval on all our actions and thoughts rather than us aligning ourselves with God’s will.

God calls us to look to the interests of others before our own. We are to ask how are we to do justice for our most vulnerable neighbors, even if they live on the other side of the world in the tent cities of the refugee camps? How do we show mercy for these neighbors? How might walking humbly with God lead me to reach out to my vulnerable neighbors next door? Fear won’t let you ask these questions. Fear will demand you look out only for yourself and your loved ones.

The angel’s call “Do not be afraid” can seem unrealistic at best or callous at worse. It’s not like we want to be afraid. I doubt anyone in this sanctuary woke up today and thought, “I would love it if I read the news and saw another frightening story of ISIS slaughtering more innocent people.” Nobody wanted to see the terrible news of fourteen people murdered in San Bernardino on Wednesday. We don’t long for the fear of rejection. We don’t seek the awful uncertainty of unemployment. And we don’t want to walk in the dark valleys of doubt where God seems absent.

So we hear the call, “Do not be afraid,” and we want to yell back to the angel, “How? Easier said than done!”

The angel tells us the antidote to fear: good news of great joy—a savior has been born as a gift to us. Receiving joy and giving in love. These are ways we can live into the call of God to not be afraid.

We will hear more about joy during Advent, but I wanted to touch on it briefly. I often consider security as the opposite of fear. But as I think about it, I realize I also lose my joy when I am afraid. When I think of the shepherds, I relate greatly to Hezekiah, who is afraid of failure and of his neighbors rejecting him. I’ve sat at work, frozen, almost unable to make a decision because I was afraid of making a mistake. It wasn’t that my supervisors were unforgiving tyrants who demanded perfection. Rather, I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than perfect. And so I would procrastinate and put off important decisions for fear of doing something that would fall apart. In those periods it became nearly impossible for me to recognize goodness in the world. I lost joy. I would isolate myself because I viewed my friendships as toilsome labor rather than life-giving necessities. Music I usually loved didn’t bring me pleasure. Even food didn’t taste as good. I became a stick in the mud. Joy was sapped from my life as my fear consumed me.

A few months ago the comedian Stephen Colbert gave an interview with Father Thomas Rosica. Colbert is a Christian and Father Rosica asked him about the necessity of joy in the Christian life. Colbert gave a very profound answer that caused me to reflect on the role of joy and laughter in our faith. Colbert said, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” He did not mean you can’t hold joy and fear together in your mind at the same time, but that physically you do not feel afraid when you laugh. Colbert suggested that maybe we laugh when we are afraid in order to push the fear out.

Joy, I believe is deeper than the natural reaction to a good situation. Joy is a disposition that seeks goodness wherever it may be found. Joy welcomes beauty. We can be joyful through difficulty and even tragedy. Often in the midst of a difficult situation, joy returns to us in the form of laughter. Laughter helps us see there is more in this world than our pain or our fears.

But fear wants to take joy from us and make the world a cold, drab place. During this holy season of Advent, I invite you to make a spiritual practice of joy. Seek out friends and family who bring you joy, who make it easy for you to see the goodness in the world. The Reformer Martin Luther, who suffered from bouts of depression and who preached a lot against drunkenness and debauchery, has earned a reputation for being rather dour. But he wrote to his friend who was also struggling with worry: “Be strong and cheerful and cast out those monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing.” [3]

“I am smiling.”

What if we each took some intentional time to laugh during this season? To watch a silly movie with others just for the sake of laughing together? (Have you ever noticed we laugh harder when we are with others? Maybe that tells us joy is inherently communal.) What if we commit during Advent to eating a good meal with friends and family where everyone has to tell a joke or a funny story? What if we engaged in that seemingly forgotten tradition of singing Christmas carols together? This is not to deny the scary darkness in our world, but to intentionally allow mirth to remind us there is goodness and beauty around us. “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” Laughter is a gift from God.

The teaching of the Christian faith I find the hardest to believe is the return of Jesus. It’s not the other miraculous claims we make like Mary was a virgin or Jesus rose from the dead. Like the shepherd Judah, who began to fear Messiah was never going to arrive, I can fear Jesus isn’t coming back. Advent is therefore a difficult season for me. I love to celebrate Jesus’s first coming, the incarnation, but I look at the darkness of this world and I wonder if he is ever going to complete his mission and return. And, I fear, if the hope of the second coming is false, does that mean all that I’ve believed is false?

A few weeks ago when ISIS killed hundreds in a few days by bombing Beirut, attacking a wedding in Baghdad, and tearing apart Parisian neighborhoods with automatic rifles and bombs, I sat aghast and said to Jesus, “Where were you?” As I saw the news of the murderous attacks in San Bernardino on Wednesday, I prayed, “If you want to come back, now would be a good time before we destroy ourselves.”

The return of Jesus, which we anticipate with hope during Advent, is one of those beliefs for which we have little evidence because it hasn’t happened yet. Even Jesus tells us it will come as a surprise. I think that’s why we often forget that Advent and Christmas are not merely about Jesus’s birth. They are also about his second coming. Jesus promises he will return and that promise is essential for our hope. But it’s not an historical event yet like the Resurrection or Pentecost. It’s somewhere off in the future. That scares me. I want something more tangible to grasp.

In my fear I find comfort in this passage from Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. A woman goes to a monastery to meet with its leader, Elder Zosima. She struggles with doubt about the Christian belief in life after death—another Christian belief for which there isn’t much empirical evidence. Her doubt troubles her greatly and she wants proof. The Elder Zosima responds:

“No doubt it is devastating. One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced.”

“How? By what?” [she asked.]

“By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain.” [4]

I think the same could be said to those of us struggling with doubt or fear that God is not active in the world or that Jesus is never going to come back. As Zosima says, “One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced…by the experience of active love.” Active love might be God’s greatest gift in helping us live into the call to not be afraid. Whereas fear isolates us, active love demands we connect with others. When we actively love our neighbor with selflessness, we participate in the very life of God. We experience God’s goodness and generosity flowing through us. If you are like me, wondering if Jesus is ever coming back, or if you struggle to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, if you sit here today afraid that we’re just making all this stuff up, try loving your neighbor through concrete actions. Buy some socks and some warm hats. Give them to our homeless neighbors as you pass them on the sidewalk or as they ask for money at intersections. Treat a friend who can’t pay you back to a meal. Rake up a neighbor’s leaves. Write someone an encouraging note. Through experiencing active love we become convinced of God’s presence and we remember Jesus keeps his promises, including that he will return.

Active love might in fact be God’s answer to all our fears. God reached into a world wallowing in fear and gave the greatest, most tangible gift of love we have ever seen: a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. God gave us God’s Son. God gave us God’s very self. In flesh and blood.

For those who are like the shepherd Josiah, afraid there won’t be enough to care for your family and are tempted to grasp and hoard, practice active love and give to others. When we give we find there is more than enough. For those who are like Annas, terrified of the violence in the world and are tempted to close yourself off from people who are not like you, practice active love to a stranger. For those who are like Hezekiah, frightened of failing and having others reject you, practice active love and risk to help someone. For those who are like Judah, scared that God no longer cares and is no longer a part of your life, or are doubting God altogether, practice active love for someone else and see if you can find God present with you.

The angel brought good news to the shepherds, men who were outcasts. The angel did not make this announcement to the power brokers of the world. This is good news for everyone. That message was, “Do not be afraid!” And as we read further in the story, the shepherds received this gift of good news, ran down the hill, and sought and found the infant Jesus lying in a manger in Bethlehem. They exchanged their fear for joy. They returned to the hillside praising God. This is joyful news! It frees us to experience active love. The message rings true today during Advent. Sisters, brothers, “Do not be afraid!”

Footnotes:
1. All information about the historical context of ancient Israel comes from Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).

2. All Scripture quotations adapted from the New Revised Standard Version.

3. Martin Luther, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther, Preserved Smith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), 324.

4. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 56.

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