(This devotion was preached on December 24, 2010)
We all have images in our minds of what the first Christmas looked like. Many of these images are imprinted on our memories from what we see in nativity sets, or on the cover of Christmas cards, or from television depictions, or in children’s pageants.
But not all of those images are historically accurate. We envision that the newborn baby in a manger has a halo, as do his parents. We visualize a little drummer boy playing his drum while the animals in the stable sway and keep the beat. We imagine that the Wise Men arrive on the night of Jesus’ birth, and these Wise Men are royal kings. But all of these images are fiction, pious embellishments of the biblical story.
One other fiction associated with the Christmas story is that the angels which appeared to the shepherds were gentle, frail, and smooth-skinned beings dressed in pastel loungewear, who wouldn’t hurt a flea. But in the Bible, whenever an angel appeared, it was a fearsome and awesome sight. That’s why Luke’s gospel states that the shepherds who saw the angels on Christmas night were filled with fear. Or, as the King James Version puts it, they were “sore afraid.” The appearance of these supernatural beings brought terror to the shepherds.
Accordingly, the first words out of the angel’s mouth were “Fear not.” The angels had come not to instill fear in the hearts of their viewers, but peace. That’s why their song announced “peace to God’s people on earth” (Luke 2:14).
The greeting which God delivered at Christmas could be distilled to these two words, “Fear not.” Of all the ways in which God could have come to earth, the way in which he chose to come to us says to us, “Fear not.” He could have come as he did at Mt. Sinai, with awesome displays of smoke and lightning, earthquake and thunder. God could have blazed the sky with his brilliant presence and blinding light. But instead he chose to come to us by becoming a tiny baby. He came to us in a peaceful way in order that he might impart to us his peace. All so that we need “fear not.”
Christ brought that message of peace because his mission was not to destroy sinful humans, but to reconcile himself to them. Jesus would later declare: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Even before Jesus was born, the angel appeared to Joseph and instructed him: “You are to call his name Jesus [which means ‘the Lord saves’], for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). On the night of Jesus’ birth the angel announced to the shepherds, “Fear not! For I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people. For unto you is born today in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
That is why Jesus came—to be our Savior, to save his people from their sins. He didn’t stay “away in a manger.” He grew up to be a man. And as a man he lived a perfect life. You would think that this would get him far with others. But where it got him was onto a cross. Because a dark and fallen world couldn’t stand such light. Today’s scripture reading describes it this way: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (vv. 9-11).
Think of it—God coming in peace to make peace with his people. But they turn on him to kill him. You might expect that this would mean the end of peace between God and humanity. Yet it is precisely by Christ’s death that God makes peace with us. From a wooden manger to a wooden cross—that was his mission. As the Christmas carol reminds us: “Nails, spear shall pierce him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.”
Indeed, for you the cross was borne to reconcile you to the Father. In the birth of the Prince of Peace foretold by the prophet, we have peace with God. More than that, we are adopted into God’s eternal family. “But to all who received him,” the Apostle John writes in today’s scripture reading, “he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (vv. 12-13). Far from being alienated from God because of your sin, through Christ you are reconciled with him, made his children, and joined to his family. The Apostle Paul writes: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
The Christmas message of the angel to the shepherds was “Fear not.” The message to you this Christmas as well is “Fear not.” Fear not your sin. Fear not God’s judgment. Fear not even death. Fear not! For unto you is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. In him there is peace, peace to God’s people on earth. Amen.
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