Do not be afraid

A sermon for Advent IV

How are you feeling about Christmas?

It’s a half-rhetorical question, I’d be delighted if someone chipped in, but we are Anglicans…

I love Christmas – from the naff music of “rocking around the Christmas Tree” to tinsel and fairy lights, from Dickens to carols in candlelight.

I was shocked a few years ago when I asked a group of women from our local housing estates what they felt about Christmas.  None of them saw it with anything like my flibbertigibbet enthusiasm.  For them it was to do with extra work, struggling to find the money to buy presents, struggling with bereavements and family tensions.  (I don’t think for one moment that these viewpoints are only found in housing estates!)

For many people Christmas is a time of dread and even fear.  Extra work and financial strains come alongside family gatherings where folks who don’t get on at the best of times find themselves forced together over a meal that is overly complicated to make (I mean who can possibly time all those different dishes to be ready at the same time?!) and the alcohol consumed to act as social lubricant just lowers inhibitions that are probably better kept raised.  Fear that you will not be good enough can damage your health – we ask ourselves stressful questions like “will my dinner be good enough for the in-laws?” or “will my presents be good or expensive or creative enough for the children?” or “will my Christmas sermon be fun enough for the kids while theologically inspiring enough for the adults?”

But for some Christmas this is a time of real pain – if a death or tragedy occurred around this time then the forced celebrations and chintz only open old wounds.  And if you lost someone during the year Christmas is a time when the pain is felt all over again – Christmas without mum or dad takes a lot of getting used to…

Christmas can be intensely lonely, intensely sad, and fearful.

But those who fear Christmas can take heart from the story of the first Christmas.  The Christmas story is full of people who are afraid.

  • Mary is afraid when the angel appears…
  • Joseph is afraid when he hears that Mary is pregnant…
  • The shepherds were afraid at the vision…
  • Herod was afraid, and that led to deepest disaster…

But as we reflect on this fear we have to hear the message of the angels, the message of Christmas:

  • The angel said to Mary “do not be afraid, God has highly favoured you” and Mary goes on to literally “give birth” to Christianity
  • The angel tells Joseph “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” and he overcame his fear to do the right thing…
  • The angels told the shepherds “do not be afraid, we bring you good news of great joy” and they become the first visitors to the baby Jesus (and a favourite image on a billion Christmas cards)…

Herod’s fear is worth considering.

Fear is a helpful emotion, fear of falling stops us dancing near clif edges and fear of fire stops us burning ourselves.  But misplaced fear can be devastating.  Herod’s fear leads to the murder of innocent children.  Fear can rob us of joy and ruin our lives, but it can damage the people around us too.  Fear does not only affect the person being afraid, if we let fear guide our opinions then we end up being so afraid of terrorism that we think it’s OK to torture suspects, or that political parties like UKIP pedalling fear and prejudice and lies start gaining votes.

Fear is not just a “harmless emotion” if it is misplaced it can be poisonous.

Christmas is a season when we should reflect on our fear, but it is a season that calls us to move from fear to faith, from dread to trust.

It’s a time when God appears in the form of a child, and so we are reminded that the best response to God is not fear, but love.

We are called to respond with love.  As 1 John 4 says “there is no fear in love, perfect love casts out all fear.”

If we are fearful, my message is not “do not be afraid – now pull yourself together” the message is “do not be afraid – here is an invitation to love.

  • Mary was called to love the baby she was asked to bear…
  • Joseph was called to love Mary, his fiancé with her mysterious pregnancy…
  • The Shepherds were called to love the Christ who would offer life and love to the whole world.

This Christmas let us try and turn our fears and sadnesses and loneliness into a manger to welcome the Christ child, and through our pain let up us pray for the grace to love.

Do not be afraid.

Love.

There is no fear in love, perfect love casts out all fear.

Amen.

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