Luke 1: 28—30:
And Gabriel came to Mary and addressed her thus:
“Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”
Now, she was greatly troubled at what he said and wondered what such a greeting might mean.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
This, too, must absolutely be a part of our Christmas anticipations: that in the presence of divinity we are “greatly troubled.”
When he saw the seraphim flying and heard their cries, the prophet Isiah wailed, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa. 6: 1—5). Even the reflected glory of the Lord, flaming in the face of a living man, caused such mortal dread that the people of Israel “were afraid to come near” Moses after he had talked with the Lord (Ex. 34: 30).
Nevertheless, fear has been much forgotten—both by the world and by Christians in general. We rush toward angels unafraid. We approach the blazing furnaces of the seraphim with no more apprehension than children who reach laughingly for fire.
This fearlessness is not a sign of the character of God, as if God has changed through the centuries that divide us from Moses and Isaiah, from Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds. Rather, it is a sign of the character of this present age, of arrogance or of ignorance, whether or not one admits to a living God.
Mindlessly do the bells of secular celebrations jingle for Christmas. Meaninglessly do carols repeat their tinny joys in all the malls in America. No richer than soda pop is every sentimentalized Christmas special on TV. Fearless is the world at play with godly things, because Godless is its heart.
If God is a laughing Santy, why should we be afraid?
Secular arrogance says there is no God. Arrogance, in fact, assumes that humanity itself—its dreams, its talents, its visions and accomplishments—is the nearest thing to God the world will ever know. Therefore, the “true meaning of Christmas” is assumed to be the occasional human kindness which, yes, may very well be symbolized by a nice old gentleman.
Or secular ignorance takes creation for its Creator; it worships the earth, the universe, the great cosmos both material and immaterial. It believes that goodness itself is God. So it finds divinity good little children. And its Christmas celebrates not the birth of God among us, but birth itself: that humans do renew themselves, starting fresh in infant faces, returning to innocence. Of course the secular angel is a chubby babe with vestigial wings.
How can there be fear in such a Christmas? No God. No blinding righteousness approaching the earth. No gulf between us and the immortal Invisible—and so, no need to bridge the gulf.
Surely we Christians should know better. Yet look around: are we more fearful at the prospect of angels than the world is? Aren’t we blithe this Christmas too? Heedless? Jaunty, even, to the point of self-satisfaction?
Of course it is right to rejoice in tidings of great joy: that the mercy of God now crosses the gulf which our sinning opened between ourselves and our Creator. Yes, it is right to fall down in perfect trust, fearlessly, before the Christ child and to worship him. Yes, it right to delight in the song of the angels, the peace that God brings to the earth. Yes, yes, and therefore do we cry in confidence, “Fear not! Fear not! For God hath banished fear!”
Ah, friend, but arrogance assumes that we deserve this blessed state. There is neither grace nor gifts for those who deserve what they get—and no true joy at the receiving.
And ignorance forgets the sin without which mercy means nothing, without which the baby Jesus is just a baby after all.
Listen: the light of Christmas shines into darkness! We should be the walking dead. What we deserve, in fact, is the absence of God—a cold and cosmic isolation—for this is our sin, that we chose to be gods in the place of God. In the day we disobeyed we began to die. We should, therefore, be dwelling in a land of deep darkness, mistrust, hatreds, hopelessness, finality, and death.
But here in a child comes God, the light! And light in darkness is a frightening thing. (“People loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” John 3:19.) O my friend, a self-examination both humble and true must cause us to tremble before the living God. Yes!—we will be “greatly troubled” at the appearing of angels.
But even as we feared, so do we rejoice when we hear the light say, “Don’t be afraid. I have not come to punish but to give you life. I am no judge. I am the Savior born for you.”
Life instead of death? That is a wonder! And the wonder is all the more intense because death had been expected—because death had been right!
The mercy of God? Is not this dazzling wonder?
And isn’t Christmas wonderful after all?
O Jesus Christ,
Rule my heart in truth and grace, and make my gladness prove the glories of your righteousness and wonders of your love, and wonders of your love.