Three times in Luke’s birth narrative (Luke 2:1-20), angels appear to people and their first words are “Do not be afraid.”
It’s an understandable statement. I’d be frightened if an angel appeared to me and started talking, especially if “the glory of the Lord shone round about them,” as it did with the Bethlehem shepherds.
Luke tells us that they were terrified. Who wouldn’t be?
We understand their fear, but when something is that easily understandable, there’s a tendency to move on and not see if there isn’t something more going on.
In all the religions of the ancient Near East, there was a strong connection between fear and worship. “The fear of the LORD” wasn’t unique to Israel; all people feared all their gods, and that fear drove them to worship.
It is what motivated them to bring sacrifices to sacred sites in an effort to appease their deity.
The right gift might cause a god to look with favor upon you and offer you food or protection. It might cause the god to make your flocks fertile and rain to fall upon the land.
When times were tough, it was thought that a god was angry with you, and you needed to admit your guilt and offer up the proper sacrifice to soothe their feelings.
There might have been awe and respect mixed in with that fear, but we shouldn’t try to lessen the fear they felt. Fear predominated.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (see Proverbs 9:10) wasn’t some great revelation. It is what everyone understood. You feared the gods.
“The fear of Yahweh,” the God of Israel, was a phrase that assumed the fear people had of the gods.
This particular phrase was essentially stating, “Fear Yahweh more than the other gods. Fear Yahweh instead of the other gods.”
It was another way of saying, “Worship Yahweh alone” because fearing a god and worshipping that god were the same thing. They worshipped because they feared.
At some point, Israelite worship introduced a new dimension: love. “Love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and all your mind and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Love and fear existed together in Israelite worship as carrot and stick, one promising reward for obedience but always with the threat of punishment for disobedience.
But there is an inherent tension between the two: fear creates distance, while love bridges it.
Fear separates; love connects. Fear ruptures relationships; love mends them.
A person who lives in a constant state of fear and anxiety dies from the inside out.
A person who lives surrounded by unconditional love flourishes even in the harshest conditions.
The world in which Jesus was born was full of fear. The Romans obviously used fear to try to control the people, but so did the religious leadership.
The religious leaders told everyone that they would never get control of their country back until the people repented of their sins, obeyed the Law of Moses, separated themselves from these violent foreigners and kept themselves and their nation morally pure.
Until and unless they did this, they were doomed.
It was into this worldview and context that Jesus came proclaiming good news: God was for you, not against you. God came to deliver you, not condemn you. God has not distanced himself from you, but has drawn near to you. God is with you.
The world is still a scary place. I’m not sure that it is scarier than the world Jesus entered, as those were harsh times. Still, fear is palpable today.
But we must not let fear control the day. Followers of Jesus are not called to fear, but to love.
“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,” says 1 John 4:18.
The angels of Christmas were messengers, and their message always began the same way: “Do not be afraid.”
Why not? Because I have good news. A savior has been born. God will be glorified in heaven, and on earth there will be peace.
Fear brings neither glory nor peace. Only love can do that.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.
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Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.