“Do Not Be Afraid”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 24, 2016 — Christmas Eve Meditation


It’s one of the most common phrases in the Bible.  It’s a message delivered from God to God’s people over, and over, and over, and over again.  You’ve heard it twice already in our scripture lessons this evening, and it occurs once more in another part of the Christmas story that we did not read tonight.

Gabriel said it to Mary at the annunciation, while delivering the news that she would become the Mother of God.

The angel said it to the shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night, while bringing them good news of great joy for all people.

The angel also said it to Joseph in a dream, while convincing him that he should still take Mary as his wife, in spite of her “situation.”

That common phrase, that message from God to God’s people, that integral part of the Christmas story, is this:  Do not be afraid.

Quite often, when that message comes, it is delivered by an angel.  Some commentators have speculated that this is because the appearance of angels is a fear-inspiring thing.  They are, after all, beings from another realm that probably don’t look much like the cute, chubby cherubs of Renaissance art.

Perhaps that is part of the answer.  Angels have to reassure the humans to whom they appear because their very appearance scares the daylights out of mere mortals like us.  But I think there’s another reason.

What if the reason angels so often offer those words of reassurance—Do not be afraid—is this:  angels show up most often to people who are already afraid.  What if fear itself acts as a magnet for God?  What if fear serves as an SOS beacon, an emergency transponder?  What if trembling hearts are as irresistible to God as the cry of a hungry infant is to her mother?  What if God’s mercy lets down involuntarily like mother’s milk at the sound of plaintive, frightened souls?


What if the next person on the angel Gabriel’s list, the next person God cannot wait to reassure, is the man whose wife is dying a slow, painful death of cancer, and he doesn’t know if he’s more afraid of the illness, or the dying, or the living that comes after?

What if the next person on the angel Gabriel’s list is the woman whose son is fighting a losing battle with the bottle, and she’s terrified every night when she goes to sleep that she’ll be awakened by a telephone call from the police or the hospital or the morgue?

What if the next person on the angel Gabriel’s list is the young person who went to school, and worked hard, and graduated, but he can’t find a job that pays enough to afford his rent and food and heat and student loans?

What if the next person on the angel Gabriel’s list is a Muslim whose faith community received a horrible, threatening letter in the mail a couple weeks ago, and now the headscarf that used to feel safe and comfortable feels instead like a bullseye?

What if the next person on the angel Gabriel’s list is a transgender teenager whose parents just kicked her out, or a young black man growing up in a world that tells him his life does not matter, or an older woman whose children have moved away, whose friends have died, who feels like the world has left her behind?

What if the next person on the angel Gabriel’s list is … you?


Whatever the fears might be that race through your mind at night, that sit like a solid brick in your stomach, that clench their icy fingers around your heart—God knows those fears.  God yearns to lift them away.  And God is even now sending God’s angels to bring you the same message God has been bringing to God’s people for ever and ever:  Do not be afraid.

But here’s the thing:  this is no easy reassurance.  Just as it did for Mary, for Joseph, for the shepherds, this reassurance brings comfort, but it also brings challenge.  The angels do not promise that from now on, life will be simple and easy and carefree.  If you’re paying attention to our world, you know this.  If you’re paying attention to your life, you know this.  Much as we might wish it, the angels do not say Do not be afraid because everything’s going to be just fine.

Here’s what they do say.  Do not be afraid because even in the midst of your fears, you are not alone, ever.  Do not be afraid because even when everything seems to be going down the tubes, God is with you.  Do not be afraid because even when your life is turned upside down, you are in the strong company of Emmanuel, which is a Hebrew word that means God-With-Us.

Do not be afraid, my friends, because the Christmas story is the story of a God whose preferred habitat is the messiness and vulnerability of human life.  It is the story of a God who could have chosen to remain distant and aloof, unsullied by the complications of earthly existence—but instead chose incarnation.  God chose to become flesh, to join us in this human life, with all the joys and hardships it brings.

In making that choice, God could have chosen any place, any time, any social location—and God chose this:  the story we remember tonight, the birth of Jesus.  An occupied land beset by violence and fear, intimidation and discrimination.  An unwed teenage mother of an ethnic and religious minority.  A forgotten rural village that most people had probably never even heard of.  A birth away from home, without medical attention, in a humble barn.  A childhood of refugee flight to escape certain death at the hands of a jealous tyrant.  An adulthood of itinerant preaching and dependence on the charity of others.  A message of love that was met with hate because it was so threatening to the powers that be.  A death on the cross of shame.  And, ultimately, a triumph over even the worst that the world could do.

No, the message of the angels is no easy, but empty, reassurance.  It is something much better, much stronger, much deeper than that.  Do not be afraid, the angels sing, because you are part of something much bigger than yourself, because you are called to a purpose holy and high, because you are here to spend your life—however brief or long, however famous or anonymous it might be—living out the kind of love God demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection—and, as we celebrate tonight, in the birth—of Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel.

I don’t know any news better than that.

Thanks be to God.


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