David A. Davis
December 9, 2018
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“Do not be afraid.” We hear it a lot from scripture this time of year, during Advent. “Do not be afraid.” We here it at Easter too. But it’s all through Advent – in the Advent narratives of the gospels. It’s like a gospel refrain almost. And it comes from the angels. “Do not be afraid.” In Matthew’s gospel, just as Joseph had resolved to dismiss the now pregnant Mary “quietly”, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in dream and told him, “Do not be afraid.” Here in Luke, just a bit before this morning’s reading, it’s Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, father to be of John the Baptist. The angel appeared to him at the side of the altar as he was performing his priestly duties and said, “Do not be afraid.” When the angel appeared to Mary, after “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” the assurance came quickly, “Do not be afraid. Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And to the shepherds out keeping watch over their flock by night, when the glory of the Lord shone around them, the angel said, “Do not be afraid.”
Quite a bit of fear…this time of year. Fear in the biblical narratives that tell of the Savior’s birth. Enough fear that the angels in heaven sought to address it… often. But upon further review, all that fear is not the same. For instance, Joseph’s nighttime dream-time assurance sounds more like the grandfatherly encouragement and slap on the back offered to a jittery groom unsure about what the future will bring. “Come on, Joseph, don’t be afraid to marry her. It’s going to all be fine.”
And Mary, well you know Mary just rocks it all through the story. It’s not even all that clear that Mary was afraid. According to Luke when the Angel Gabriel appeared, Mary was “much perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be”. That sounds less like fear and more like she just trying to wrap her head and her heart around unimaginable news. You remember she did hesitate to question the heavenly messenger. Fear didn’t hold her back. “How can this be?” she pushes back at Gabriel. Whatever and what on earth and how that angel Gabriel might have presented to Mary in sight and sound and presence, she was a lot more reflective than scared. At least when you compare how she is described with the fear attributed in Luke to Zechariah and the shepherds.
Some will remember that last week during the Time with the Children, Andrew Scales told the story of Zechariah and his visit from the Angel Gabriel. When Andrew came to the part where Zechariah sees the angel there next to him at the altar of Lord, Andrew let out this outside voice, high pitched, not usually heard in this room, flat out scream. It was like mouse just ran between the fount and table. I laughed out loud along with many of you. An unnamed church member leaned over to an unnamed family member of mine and whispered, “I don’t think that part is in the bible.” But after some study this week, looking at the fear described in these key players, looking at all the fear in the bible this time of year, I think Andrew’s oral interpretation was spot on. Contrast Luke’s description of Zechariah’s fear with what I just described for Mary and for Joseph. Luke writes, “When Zechariah saw the angel of the Lord, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” His fear is described with repetition; fear times two. It is as if, both in the Greek and the English, the gospel writer is looking for a way to say that Zechariah screamed…..like Andrew. And the angel said to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid.”
Which brings us back to the shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flock by night”. According to Luke, “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Now, does anybody remember how the terror of the shepherds is translated in the King James Bible? Yes, “the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” Sore afraid. Now as much as I would like to suggest a play on words; that they were so afraid it hurt them physically, the better dictionary definition of “sore” here is “severely, acutely”. They were severely afraid. In this case the King James seems better and the NRSV loses something in the translation. Because the Greek text offers an even stronger redundancy for emphasis than with Zechariah’s fear. Closer, better, would be “and they were frightened with great fear.” They were scared—scared, afraid – afraid, terrified—terrified.
At our Wee Christmas flash mob pop up Christmas pageant for the youngest among us, the director had a new idea for this year’s production. That would be me. We have a few of those really bright, intense work lights here in the building. I ask Edie Estrada to help me. I was leading the group of shepherds, three maybe four in costume with their stuffed sheep under their arms, I was leading them around the sanctuary as they watched their flocks by night. When it came for the angels, for the glory of the Lord, for all that brightness, Ed stood up on a stool over by the piano, held the work light high, and flipped the on switch. Well, I underestimated how bright it was. I think we temporarily blinded the shepherds. And dutifully as they had been instructed when we rehearsed all of about 7 minutes before, the shepherds dropped their sheep, hit the ground and cover their heads in fear. The problem was that when I tried to get the shepherds to move closer to the angels when they started to sing, to move closer to the light, they wouldn’t budge. I prefer to conclude they were intent on following the earlier stage direction rather than waiting for their sight to be restored. Regardless, they were paralyzed with fear. They were frightened with a great fear. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.”
All the fear in scripture this time of year is not the same. For the shepherds, the fear was unique. Their fear-fear was distinct. They were terrified when the glory of the Lord shone. They were terrified by the glory of the Lord all around them. Not just an angel. Not just a light. But the glory of the Lord. It is a unique and specific fear; the shepherds fear.
Interestingly, there is not all that much “glory of the Lord” in the rest of the gospel of Luke, in the other gospels, in the New Testament, for that matter. “Glory of the Lord”, that’s pretty much an Old Testament expression. Exodus, and Moses, and Mt. Sinai, and the pillar of fire, the cloud; Exodus is full of “the glory of the Lord”. When it comes to the prophet Isaiah, “the glory of the Lord” is pretty much in the prophet’s sweet spot. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” (Is 40), “the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (Is 58), “the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60). The glory of the Lord and the Old Testament, like hand and glove; “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14)
But when it comes to the New Testament, there’s not so much “glory of the Lord.” To be sure there are plenty of examples of praise and adoration being offered to the glory of God. An act of praise, a doxology offered to the glory of God. But that’s a bit different than the glory of the Lord shone all around. Paul writes in II Corinthians of unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord. Paul asserts in Romans that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” But none of that is the same as an eyeful of God’s glory. When the glory of the Lord shone all around them, the shepherds fell to the ground, with their heads and eyes covered, paralyzed in fear. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid…. for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Do not be afraid. Good news. Great Joy. Savior. Messiah. Christ the Lord. And a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Do not be afraid. The glory of the Lord is now this. Do not be afraid. The glory of the Lord is this little, teeny baby. What’s to be scared of, unless you’re King Herod or brand new first time parents. The sign, that sign, the sign for the shepherds, the sign of the good news of great joy, it is a manger cradling the glory of the Lord. “Do not be afraid.”
From fear to great joy. In salvation history, the glory of the Lord forever transformed. The glory of the Lord come all the way down. From some kind of terrifying sensory other worldly experience of the divine to a child nursing at his mother’s breast. The glory of the Lord came down. In the child wrapped in bands of cloth, in his flesh, in his life. God’s glory shone. In his life, his baptism, his teaching, his touch, his embrace, his reach, his words, his prayer, his action, his taking, breaking, and blessing, his forgiveness, his tears, his selflessness, his suffering, his sacrifice, his death, his resurrection. Glory shone. Embracing sinners. Welcoming strangers, caring for the sick, raising the dead. Forgiveness unrestrained. Boundary lines crossed. Dividing walls smashed. Power structures tumbled. The hungry fed. The poor lifted up. The rich challenged. Lepers touched. Children embraced. The glory of the Lord come all the way.
There is a lot of fear this time of year, and not just in scripture, and not just this time of year, either. “The hopes and fears of all the years” as it says in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Plenty of fears, you and me. But the Advent Promise of the Christ Child, the promise of the Advent of his presence in your life and in mine, is that there is absolutely no room, no place, no role for fear in the gospel of Jesus Christ. That when it comes to God’s glory, God’s presence, God’s love, God’s plan, God’s kingdom and your seat in it, you have nothing to fear. For you are being held now and forever in the hand and the heart of God. The Advent invitation is for you take all your fears, or just one of your fears, and bring it to him, lay it before him, give it to him, hand it over to him, submit it to him. Allow the Good News of Great Joy to wash over you this morning and calm you fear. For that Child in the manger, the Savior, the Christ, The Messiah, the Glory of the Lord, he is the one who said, “I will be with you always… Do not be afraid.”