This was presented to our fellowship this morning.
The Most Neglected Message of the Season
It has long been customary, among churches that define themselves by the careful observance of “doctrines” to which their adherents are required to subscribe, to create an especially obligatory “sacred” atmosphere around certain “seasons” representing particular segments of their perceived history. Other, less formal assemblies (who are just as concerned with being faithful) have chosen to emphasize some of these “seasons” or “feasts”, as they are called, and to minimize or ignore others. And some, who do not enjoy – or who even take offense at – what they call “pageantry”, ignore it altogether. (Did you know, for example, that celebrating “Christmas” was illegal in Puritan New England? They objected to the suffix, “-mas”, because it was derived from the Catholic observance of the “Mass”.)
It is difficult to find specific Scriptural instructions either for or against any of these positions, so I am not concerned this morning either to attack or to defend any of them.
The celebration of Christmas, supposedly the time of Jesus’ birth, is one of many groups’ favorites. Setting aside the strong probability that this actually happened in the spring, and not mid- winter at all, I do, however, find their choice of “words” to emphasize at this time of year quite seriously lacking. One can easily wax eloquent about such ideas as “light, hope, faith, love, peace,” and other similarly idealistic topics – and none of these is “wrong”. All are quite legitimate ideas to promote – at any season.
But I would prefer today to direct your attention to one of the most common admonitions, both by Jesus himself, and by the earlier “messengers”, both human and super-human, who announced his coming, but which is almost universally ignored by people who claim to represent him, and which I have never found on any list of “Advent” topics.
That message is “FEAR NOT!” – “Don’t be afraid!!!” And is there any message that this sad world needs more than that?
Of all the imperatives in the New Testament, it may well be that this one stands in the sharpest contrast to the voices that constantly bombard our consciousness. Economic, political, medical, social, and yes, even “religious” spokesmen, of every persuasion, assault their already apprehensive audiences with the same message:
“Be afraid! Be very afraid!”
Jesus, in contrast, as well as virtually all the supernatural participants in his recorded history, consistently greet despairing, worried or startled people with a reassuring, “Fear not! DON’T be afraid!”
How have these encouraging words become so universally ignored among people who claim to represent Jesus? Indeed, the students at the “Christian” high school where Aaron taught years ago, overwhelmingly gave “fear of what would happen to me if I did not”, as their primary reason for committing themselves to the Lord! And a fellow-teacher at that same school, who called himself an “evangelist”, questioned the validity of my own conversion when I said that I had never been “afraid of God,” or of meeting him! This is not only tragic: it is an exceedingly shameful misrepresentation of the One who commissioned us to share his “Good News”! That, by the way, is the literal translation of both “evangel”(Greek) and “gospel” (an old English equivalent).
So let’s look at the New Testament! That is still, as it always was our best source of information.
Before Jesus was even born, the message predominated: Fear not!
Please read each of the indicated references as you come to them.
Gabriel’s message, to both Joseph (Mt.1:18-20)
and to Mary (Lk.1:26-32) began with the same admonition: “Fear NOT!” “Don’t be afraid!”
To the elderly priest, Zachariah, in the temple, (Lk.1:9,11-13) it was the same. This must have made a strong impression, because look, then, at that gentleman’s response (Lk.1:67, 72-75) at the birth of his own son, who was to be part of the plan! “Enabling God’s people to serve him WITHOUT FEAR!”
Later, the shepherds, frightened by the sudden apparition in their peaceful fields, got the same message (Lk.2:8-10)
During Jesus’ ministry, the same refrain keeps repeating – we will just pick a few of the many incidents:
Mk.4:35-40 – the storm at sea.
Another storm story appears in three of the gospels: Mt.14, Mk.6, and Jn.6 – the account of Jesus, who, rather than taking a much-deserved nap, had been left behind, and came walking toward them on the water. The disciples are terrified at the sight, but his greeting combines two of his “trademark” statements: “Don’t be afraid” and “I AM.” This latter phrase deserves a whole study of its own – suffice it here to say that it is Jesus’ common statement of his identity with the Father, using God’s Burning Bush statement to Moses, which was forbidden to ordinary people.
Luke chose to highlight a different encounter on the lake, one that contemporary “evangelists” would do well to imitate. Lk.5:4-11 describes an “ordinary” fishing trip that turned out anything but ordinary!
Overwhelmed by the huge catch of fish, (Quite an extravagant “thanks for the use of your boat”!) Peter reacted in the way too many preachers expect (or demand) of their hearers: “Leave me, Lord, I’m a no-good sinner!” But far from pouncing on that “confession” and flogging him with it (notice: that was Peter’s diagnosis, not the Lord’s), Jesus replied, more in keeping with his own consistent character, “Don’t be afraid”, Peter: I have a job for you!” What a gracious welcome!
Lk.8:49-54 – describes an interrupted “healing” trip, where the interruption did not prevent his ministry to either need.
Interestingly, all the accounts of Jesus’ Transfiguration, which understandably “spooked out” the watching disciples, also record the antidote for their fear: “Listen to him!” (Mt.17:5-8). If we listen / pay attention to Jesus, fear must take a permanent back seat!
Even when he is warning them about the very real dangers of their mission, the accounts in both Matthew and Luke are peppered with “don’t be afraid!”
And as the amazed disciples stood in wonder staring at the empty tomb, the heavenly messenger had exactly the same message: “Don’t be afraid!” (Mt.28:1-10).
It is especially sad when people who trace their beginnings to the Swiss Brethren, one of the first of the Anabaptist groups, (an original “back to the Bible” movement), fall for a “gospel” of threats and fear – which is no “gospel” at all! The word means “GOOD news” in sixteenth century English.
A focus on fear is a MAJOR rejection of both the first century church’s attitude and the 16th century Anabaptist principles. Those early brethren waded INTO fearful situations; they did not threaten others with doom!
Our spiritual ancestors willingly faced burning, drowning, exile, and all sorts of horrible treatment, BECAUSE they espoused a new definition of Christian faithfulness, which had no connection whatever to any dogmas compiled by hierarchical officials, be they ecclesiastical or political.
Several historical scholars have summarized this definition to include:
1. Discipleship. The classic statement was “No one can truly know Christ except he follow him in life.”
2. A voluntary (neither automatic nor hereditary) community, deliberately formed by committed adults
3. Study and interpretation of Scripture in the hands of the ENTIRE community (not the clergy: there was no clergy in the first century! “Clergy” was an artifact of the Constantinian alliance between “church and state” – which at the time were allied against those faithful brethren, as they also were in the 16th century.)
4.The priority of the New Testament, with the Old viewed as merely preparatory.
It was, in short, an effort to restore the New Testament Church – according to the pattern of Jesus’ first followers.
After a lengthy series of warnings about the very real perils of the life that he advocated – Jesus concluded with this admonition: (Lk.12:22),
“Fear not, little flock: it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!”
Please notice something else about this and all of Jesus’ similar instructions: except for those specifically addressed to a particular individual, they are all given in the PLURAL, not singular. Both fear and confidence are heavily influenced by one’s surroundings. Faithfulness is – and always was – intended to be a group effort, a mutual affair. Jesus never advocated the introspection of the lonely hermit on a mountaintop. He both practiced and preached the Kingdom in the messy context of real life.
And in this often very messy context, faithful representation of the Lord Jesus will always seek to alleviate, never to instill fear. Together, people can do a much better job of overcoming their fear, or, if necessary, enduring it.
This poor world has more than enough fear already. An accurate presentation of “the Gospel” is the same today as it was to the terrified shepherds on the hillside so long ago:
“Don’t be afraid! I am bringing you GOOD NEWS!”
It is a message our world desperately needs. Proclaim it faithfully!
Let our celebration of Jesus this Christmas season – and always – echo his most-often repeated message”
Thanks be to God!