These few words are spoken to both Zechariah and to Mary. They are also often said by Jesus to the apostles and to people He meets. “Do not be afraid.” As we approach the celebration of the birth of Christ we might allow these words to seep into our spirits and to calm our fears. We each have personal reasons to fear. Children fear rejection or ridicule from their classmates. High school and college students fear failure in the classroom or on the sports field. Parents fear for the safety of their children and unemployment. Older people fear loneliness or a lack of purpose. All of us are only a medical test away from fear.
So fear is real and simply being told not to fear does not take away our fear. So let’s look a little closer at what Gabriel and Jesus are saying in context. Zechariah is told not to fear because his prayer has been heard. Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for years to bear a child. In their culture it brought shame to be childless. Thus, in addition to the natural anxiety about wanting to conceive and be parents is the added disgrace that being childless brought upon them. It is no wonder that Zechariah does not believe the message of the angel that Elizabeth would give birth to a child of promise. He is left unable to speak because of his disbelief but it is in the school of silence that he learns to trust in God’s promise and share in God’s dream.
Mary is told not to fear because she has won God’s favor. And still, the explanation the angel gives does not provide much consolation for Mary to explain herself to Joseph and to her parents. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That’s fine but Mary still needed to live in her society. As Elizabeth points out: “Blessed are you who trusted that the Lord’s promise to you would be fulfilled.” The key to Mary’s faithfulness is her trust. She would have many other moments for fear like fleeing into Egypt because Herod wanted to kill her child and hearing Simeon prophesy that a sword would pierce her soul. She lived her life wondering when and how. But she trusted.
For the sake of brevity, allow me to take one example from the life of Jesus. When the apostles were out in a storm and Jesus came walking toward them, they were afraid of the storm but they were terrified by the person walking toward them because they thought it was a ghost. It was Jesus who was right there and they failed to recognize Him. Sound familiar?
What does Jesus say to them? “It is I. Do not be afraid.” Peter tests Jesus: “If it is really you, tell me to walk on the water.” Jesus invites him out of the boat. Here is a true trust walk if there ever was one. Peter becomes preoccupied with the strength of the wind and begins to sink: “Save me, Lord,” he cries. Jesus reaches out and lifts Peter up. “Oh you of little faith. Why did you doubt?” What happened to Peter? He was doing fine but he took his eyes off Christ and looked at the force of the wind. Can you see yourself in Peter?
Yes, we have reason to fear in our world today both personally as mentioned above and collectively. Just turn on the news at night and you have reason to fear. Zechariah doubted that his prayer had been heard and it was only in the desert of silence that he learned to trust. Mary trusted in God and proclaimed God’s greatness. Peter took his eyes off Christ and sank. What will you do this Christmas? Will you bury your fears by running at a hectic pace? Will you allow silence to teach you to trust? Will you take your eyes off Christ and blame God when your prayers are not answered as you wanted? Or will you trust God?
We await the prince of Peace, the God of hope, the Savior, Jesus Christ. Do you need Him? Are you afraid?
Rev. James M. McNamara