You know that feeling, don’t you? That feeling that you get when a DPS Trooper, Sheriff’s Deputy, or Police car starts following you. You are sitting in the driver’s seat, and your body tenses up. You look at all the gauges. You check your speed. You wonder about your tags. You wonder about your lights. Your heart races, and you wonder if lights will suddenly flash and sirens will wail. If the trooper follows you for any length of time, your symptoms become worse. The fear starts rising. Are you in trouble or not?
Take that little bit of fear that you have felt during those times and multiply it by a thousand, and you might get close to what the shepherds were experiencing on that hillside outside of Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago. Luke recounts the tale, and we heard it just a few minutes ago, “8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” English sometimes is a poor conveyor of meaning, and this is one case in point. The ancient Greek literally reads, “and they feared great fear.” Whenever Greek uses two of the same words in conjunction like that, it is adding tremendous emphasis. Terrified might not quite cut what the shepherds were experiencing at that moment. Perhaps a better word might be–panic. The shepherds panicked!!
Have you ever wondered why? Why would the shepherds panic when they saw an angel of the Lord? I mean we don’t seem to have too much of a problem with angels. We talk about them showing up from time to time. We put them on the tops of our Christmas trees. We dress up kids as angels during our Christmas programs. We consider them blessings; signs of hope; signs of peace and joy. We seemingly have no fear of angels. But these shepherds did. They panicked when they saw one. They were absolutely terrified. Shaking. Trembling. Cowering with deep fear. Have you ever wondered why?
Consider the idea that these shepherds believed that the Day of the Lord was now upon them. Consider the idea that they believed that the Lord was now coming to judge the world and set up His kingdom. Now, if you have been raised as a Christian, you might wonder why this is such a bad thing. Aren’t we hoping for that day? Aren’t we longing for the day when the Lord will come to make everything right? Why would this be such a bad thing for those shepherds? Well, to be blunt, you are looking at this day post-Jesus. The ancient Jews had a very different understanding of the day of the Lord. It wasn’t going to be all that bright and shiny.
Consider these important biblical texts regarding the day of the Lord. These would have been the scriptures read to those shepherds who were on that hillside watching this angel appear to them.
Consider Isaiah 13 verses 6-9, “6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! 7 Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will fail, 8 and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame. 9 See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it.” Does that sound like a day to look forward to?
Consider Amos chapter 5 verses 18-20, “18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; 19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. 20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?”
One last passage. Consider Zephaniah chapter 1 verses 14-17, “14 The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. 15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, 16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. 17 I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.”
Now, after hearing those passages, and if you had been taught this from the beginning of your religious life, and if you suddenly seen a heavenly angel towering above revealing the power of God, how do you think you would feel? Don’t you think you might be a little concerned that all that once was told you was coming true? Don’t you think you would be terrified, panicked, overwhelmed and ready to crawl into a hole? The shepherds were. They were terrified. They panicked.
But their panic was transformed with some unexpected words that flowed from the lips of the angel, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” What the angel spoke was good news. If there is nothing else that you remember from this sermon tonight, please remember these next words: Good news drives away fear.
Good news drives away fear.
The shepherds were expecting the promised day of the Lord–a day that was foretold to be horrible as God’s wrath was poured down and God exacted vengeance upon sin. The shepherds expected to be blasted with holy fire, but instead were met with the news that God was acting in quite a different way. Instead of unleashing wrath, God was unleashing salvation. For the Jews believed that the Messiah would usher in God’s kingdom of peace, joy, and prosperity. The Messiah would be the one who was to set things to rights. The Messiah would be the one who would turn the world upside down and bring freedom from all that oppresses! Oh, this news was not to be feared in the least. This news was not to cause panic. This news was full of hope. This news was full of promise. This news was full of joy.
Certifying that this was indeed the case, a whole host of angels filled the skies and broke into song. They proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest and peace among those whom He favors!!” This was not a wrathful day at all. It was a day to be celebrated.
It is no wonder that the shepherds’ fears were transformed into hope and joy. It is no wonder they arose and spoke amongst each other and said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem to see this thing that the angels have made known to us.” Good news drove away their fear, and they responded with reckless abandon to seek out total strangers and witness God’s action in the world. Truly good news has that effect on people.
Think about how transformative good news is. Think about the cancer patient who is declared cancer free. What is the reaction? Think about the person who has suffered the loss of a job who is told, “We’d like to offer you a better job.” Think about the couple who has struggled with infertility who discovers they are pregnant. Think about the family who is struggling to make ends meet who receives an unexpected financial windfall. Think about the military family who received word that their deployed loved one will be home for Christmas. Good news transforms folks and brings true joy.
But in most cases, such joy is short lived. Either by the fact that something else comes along that changes circumstances or the fact that what is good news to one person is the exact opposite for another person. For instance, in some of the above examples–the family who was struggling to make ends meet receives and unexpected financial windfall, but in two months, the windfall has run out, and they are back to square one. The military family whose loved one came home for Christmas finds out their loved one will be deployed for Easter. Circumstances change.
This past election cycle saw roughly half of the country pleased and excited about the outcome–it was good news. However, for the other half of the country, fear, angst, and anger was the response–it was not good news. A factory that decides to uproot and move to another location is certainly bad news for the current employees of that factory, but it is good news to the jobless who will benefit from the factory’s move. Hearing that Tom Savage is going to be the Texans’ quarterback is good news for all Texan fans, but it is certainly not good news for Brock Osweiller. Do you see how that works? Do you see how oftentimes good news is short lived or how good news is not necessarily good news for everyone? Can you see how because of this fear easily gains a foothold and even sometimes becomes the driving force in our lives?
And so we must ask: Is there good news that indeed is good news for everyone; that is long lasting; that brings joy and peace and assurance no matter if circumstances change? Is there such news that can bring transformation to our entire lives? Is there such news that will drive away fear and give us a sure and certain hope?
What if I told you, there was? What if I told you that the news of this night–the birth of the Messiah who is Christ the Lord–leads us straight toward that Good News of Great Joy that never ends? No, it’s not simply a baby in a manger that encapsulates that good news, but it is the fact that that baby will grow and lead us all to a cross and an empty tomb.
For it is on the cross that the God of this universe dies for each and every one of us. It is on the cross that the God of the universe makes sure that we are right with Him. It is on the cross where all of the things that separate us from God–our sin, our selfishness, our desire to call our own shots, our failure to love one another, our failure to be compassionate, our failure to live the lives that deep down we know we are supposed to live–all of these things are forgiven and paid for by God Himself. Jesus, the God in flesh, takes all of these things and much more upon Himself so that you are free of any guilt of your failures. Nothing in the past can haunt you. You can walk free. This is good news.
And it is in the empty tomb that we find assurance that all that is bad will be transformed. All that is evil will become good. All pain will be taken away. All hate will turn to love. All darkness will turn to light. All despair will turn to hope. All death will spring to life. Whatever it is that you are facing, even should it bring death to your body, will be transformed by the God who holds the future in His hands. The resurrection is proof of God’s transformative power over the future. And if you trust that your future is in God’s hands–if you trust the promises of God, what do you have to fear? The answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing.
The cross. The resurrection. God’s reconciling action. God’s promise of hope. This is good news for all. This is news which has no down side. This is news of a life-changing scale. Countless Christians from the time of the resurrection have had their lives changed because they trusted in these promises. From the shepherds on that hillside to the martyrs who died singing in flames to ordinary people like you and me. This good news has taken away fear and brought hope to billions. This good news that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who trust in Him should not perish but have eternal life; for God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.
May we trust in this promise. May we trust in this good news. May we have our fears removed so that we may experience peace, hope, love and joy. Merry Christmas!! Amen.