This season I am blogging through Advent in a series called “Resurrecting Christmas”. I hope to find something new and fresh in the midst of this season. I hope you join me.
This post initially appeared on Fuller’s website. They had asked for students/faculty/alumni to write Advent reflections, and I wrote this piece. As it was my first Advent reflection of the year, and because I like to keep things all in one place as much as possible, I’m posting it here as well. But I would also encourage you to check it out over at the Fuller page so you can read some other great reflections by some friends and faculty I know and a lot that I don’t. You can find all those reflections here.
“Do not be afraid!”
Every appearance by an angel of the Lord in Luke’s gospel contains these words.
Zechariah in the sanctuary, then Mary, then the shepherds in their fields—everyone’s first reaction is fear. I always assumed this was because they were startled by the sudden appearance of a heavenly being. Wouldn’t you be?
But maybe there’s more to the story.
Mary’s story may point us to something deeper. Luke notes that Mary “was much perplexed by [the angel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29). Mary wasn’t afraid because she was startled; she was confused about why the angel was there.
Zechariah’s story has similar depth. On this occasion, he was chosen to enter the sanctuary. Those familiar with the priestly tradition know that this was not the safest of duties. Tradition says that those who enter the sanctuary would have a rope tied around them so they could be dragged out, in case they were struck dead in God’s presence. So when the angel appears to Zechariah, it makes sense that his fear is the strongest: “When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him” (1:12). Even the shepherds in the field were afraid, despite the “glory of the Lord” shining around them.
The angel’s message to all of them was: “Do not be afraid.” They were all afraid, not just startled. They were actually afraid of God!
Scripturally, this isn’t unjustified. Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
But 1 John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (4:18).
I think it’s worth noting that the Proverbs passage describes the fear of the Lord as the “beginning” of knowledge. And 1 John uses the language of “reaching” the point of love driving out fear.
The movement from the wisdom of Proverbs to the wisdom of 1 John is a movement from fearing God to loving God. Shane Hipps compares this to the way we treat the stove. As children, we learn to fear the stove so we don’t get burned. But if we always relate to the stove in fear, we will miss out on all the important potential the stove has for living. Our relationship to the stove changes as we grow and mature.
Israel was taught to fear God, but as they grew and matured, they learned to have a different kind of relationship to God, one classified by love.
Perhaps this transition in the history of Israel begins in these Christmas stories.
What if “do not be afraid” is actually the first message of Christmas?
Jesus embodied “perfect love.” Christmas is the announcement that “perfect love” has arrived on earth, to drive out all fear: even fear of God.
It’s interesting that the first time fear appears is in the garden, when God confronts the humans with their sin. The man says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10). Fearing God was never part of the plan; it was a result of separation from God.
“Do not be afraid” is the first of many messages of reconciliation between God and humanity; fear no longer has to define the relationship. God and humanity, through Christ, will be a relationship of love, as it was in the beginning and was always meant to be.
This Christmas, let’s reflect on the things that we fear—loss, death, pain, sadness, discomfort, loneliness—and the ways in which Jesus offered the end to these fears.
And as we approach another year, let us reflect on the ways that religion, church, and belief can sometimes be agents of fear—through scare tactics, judgment, accusations, condemnation—and how Jesus was the answer and the solution to those patterns as well.
This Christmas, let’s fully embrace the message: “Do not be afraid.”