Ever been in the dark and scared yourself silly? As children we’ve all experienced this. But even as adults this can happen.
Many years ago I used to help a friend of mine who was the director of a family camp high up in the Colorado Rockies. On one summer’s eve, on a moonless night, I was walking across one of the camp’s bridges. It was an arched-bridge that spanned a small stream. Mid-way across I felt the bridge begin to shake. There was no wind, no noise, no light. There was no mistaking it, something was on the bridge behind me. I was so overcome with fear that without thinking I just ran for my life.
Nothing happened, fortunately. But the next day I was determined to find out what was on that bridge. I was convinced it had been a bear. After examining every blade of grass surrounding the bridge, I concluded that there had been no bear. Using a bit of logic, I decided to retrace my steps, and walk across the bridge as “normally” as possible. Half way across I felt the bridge begin to jiggle, just like it had the night before. I went across again, and the same thing happened. What I felt that night was nothing other than my own movement. There was nothing to fear.
Unfortunately, life is not always like this. There are many things that make us afraid. Our world is not a safe place. In addition to the obvious, like war abroad and violence at home, many of us live lives in the balance, on the sheer edge of catastrophe. Some of us are only a paycheck away from financial disaster. Many of us deal with sicknesses which we can’t afford to treat or which threaten to debilitate us entirely. Still others of us live with the awful reality of being unknown and uncared for.
The way our economy works doesn’t help matters either. It’s not only a dog-eat-dog world out there, but fear is one of the biggest money-making ventures there is. Who doesn’t feel vulnerable without medical, life, auto, and house insurance? And what about retirement, and old age?
As we cross over the bridge of life, most of us, in one way or another, feel our knees shaking. There are so many unknowns, so many things that can and do go wrong. It’s enough to just go run and hide. Sadly, too many of us do just that! We turn to meaningless amusement, alcohol, drugs, sex, self-indulgence, overspending and over-working—whatever can alleviate our fear, if only for an hour or two.
Interestingly, during the time of Jesus, there was also a lot to be afraid of. The Jewish people faced innumerable threats: foreign occupancy, massive debt and poverty due to over- taxation, religious chaos among fighting factions, and all kinds of diseases and physical infirmities. And when Jesus was born, his life was immediately threatened—with no place to live, King Herod was on the hunt to kill him.
It is no wonder that when the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus they first exclaimed: “Fear not!” This is an amazing utterance. “Fear not!” The angels knew that this world was tormented and riddled with chaos and that what it needed most was news that was good—truly good.
I have to admit, it’s not always easy for me to believe the angels’ message. In my skeptical and cynical self I want to shout back: “Come on, you mean to tell me that there’s nothing to be afraid of? What kind of world do you live in anyway? This is planet earth—war torn with hate and conflict. Who are you kidding?!”
But the angels knew what they were proclaiming. From another world, a far greater one than ours, they tell us not to be afraid. Jesus would say the same thing later on: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid...In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Christmas is about many things. But one of the most important aspects of Christmas is the promise that we don’t have to live our lives in fear. Jesus came into the world to drive out the demons of worry and fret. Natural disasters, illness and death, violence, ethnic and class strife have always been with us. And yet, the message of Christmas is still the same: “Fear not!”
When I think back on that night in the Rockies, why was I so filled with fear? Bear or not, what seized me was not just the thought of a wild animal ready to pounce on me, but of realizing that in whatever might happen to me I was all alone. The root of fear is not just being threatened, but of feeling abandoned, alone, anonymous. This is not to say that all our fears are imaginary. It’s only that fear is something inside us, not outside us. The antidote to fear, therefore, lies within, not in a gun or in razor wire or some surveillance system.
In high school I had an African American friend who spent most of his life in one of the “hoods” in L.A. In his Sophomore year, he moved to my hometown in northern California. One summer we went to church camp together on Catalina Island. Before we headed back north for home we went to visit his old neighborhood. I had been in the bad parts of Oakland before, but this part of L.A. was an absolute war zone. As we went trucking through different “territories” my friend would jive with his friends, while I, the only white kid around, just stood there listening and watching, slapping a few high-fives here and there.
When I told my parents and friends where I had gone, they were not only upset, but aghast. I did what?! Didn’t I know what I was getting myself into? The fact of the matter is I didn’t. Nevertheless, in walking the hood with my friend I never felt an ounce of fear. And it wasn’t because my friend was some hardened, intimidating hulk who could defend me. It was because he walked among his kind, and I was with him and he was with me. I had nothing to fear.
The Bible tells us that the Christ child was “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us.” Christ took on human flesh to be “one of our kind,” and “dwell among us.” The message of Christmas is that Jesus not only came two thousand years ago but that he continues to come again and again. He walks amongst us. “Lo, I am with you always,” he told his disciples. This is a promise to anyone who gives over his life to Jesus.
It was God’s love that sent the Christ Child into this world. Christmas LOVE means, “I am with you...always!” This is why the Apostle John, Jesus’ most beloved disciple, wrote: “Perfect love casts out fear.” Herein lies the miracle of Christmas. God longs to dwell with us in such a way that we no longer live in fear. He is with us.
Whether we are like the shepherds of old, of impoverished circumstance, or live a life of privilege like the Wise Men, Jesus is looking to calm every heart and still every storm. But he can only do this if we are willing to come to him, and then follow wherever he leads. Nothing special is needed; coming to the manger will do. Fear not! He takes up residence in anyone who feels his need and is humble of heart.