The Angel ‘Don’t be Afraid’
I was reading a Thanksgiving Sermon by our ‘American Cousin’, David Henson the other week, which in essence was a reflection on the problem of anxiety – David called his reflection ‘An Antidote to Anxiety’. Worrying about things seems to be part of how we are as people; it comes from our capacity to imagine the future and that means that we can imagine not only what might happen if things go well, but also what might happen if things go badly. We are, in some ways, natural born worriers, with some people perhaps more prone than others. Mary and Joseph were only human and there would have been plenty to worry about. Life was tough; innkeepers would have had their share of problems, as might business people today. And the life of a shepherd, and others working on the land, would have been physically tough as well as economically precarious. These people were human, and they had plenty to worry about.
But in his sermon – and I’ll get on to his punch-line in a second – David points out that in fact ‘don’t be afraid’ is one of the most common phrases in the Bible. Did you know that? It’s said by God’s messengers, by Jesus or by other representatives of God well over 100 times if we count up both the Old and New Testaments. It’s the first thing the Angel says to Mary, it’s the first thing that the Angel says to Joseph, it’s the first thing that the Angel says to the shepherds and it’s the first thing that the risen Jesus says to the disciples in the upper room following his resurrection. Don’t be afraid.
The essential point which David makes though is about the response we should have to this eternal and repeated message from God.
Don’t be afraid does not just mean ‘have courage’; don’t be afraid certainly does not just mean ‘do as you please, because it will be all right in the end’; and don’t be afraid is not an accusation that you’ve got insufficient faith either.
The proper response – what David calls the ‘antidote’ to being afraid, to being worried – is in fact, to say ‘thank you’. And his thinking goes like this:
Worry and anxiety are based on fear, which is really about loneliness. Thanks, in contrast, is based on love and on connections. When we thank someone, we acknowledge their presence, and we acknowledge their contribution. We are saying, in and through the ‘thank you’ that we are not alone, that we haven’t done it all on our own. David sums up by saying:
“This is grace. It recognizes, admits, and embraces our incompleteness, our utter, beautiful and holy dependence on each other.”
Our children and young people this morning have shared with you some of their thoughts and ideas about the things which may have been worrying Mary, Joseph, the Donkey (!), the Innkeeper and the Shepherds, and we have heard again the wonderful tale of the birth of Jesus as recorded by Luke. I must stress that the ideas came from them.
The message though is in what the Angels sang and – utterly crucial to this story – the reaction of the shepherds as a result. ‘Don’t be afraid’ says the Angel, ‘Peace and goodwill’ sing the other messengers, and the Shepherds, they run off, to see for themselves. Then, THEN, we get their reaction – praising God for all they had seen and heard – the antidote to their worry – thanksgiving.
Christmas is the ultimate time to say ‘thank you’. Christmas is the time when God says to us, that the answer to our worries comes in the form of a baby born at Bethlehem.
Not that we might have more faith; though we pray that we do;
Not that we might do as we please; though we pray for freedom to experience the things life has to offer;
Not that we have more courage; though there are times when we pray for that too.
No, what God says in Jesus is ‘I am with you and you don’t have to go it alone anymore’. That is the best news ever, God with us, Immanuel. And like shepherds of old, our own and only response is praise and thanksgiving.
May it be so
22 Dec 2013