December 22, 2002
The Shepherds Were Terrified
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
If fear is the topic being discussed in your group, you can be sure that each person will have something to say. Fear is real in most peoples’ lives. It does not take much to make us afraid. Just a visit to the doctor’s office for a physical can be frightening. “What might the doctor find to be wrong with me? Could the lump be malignant? Are my chest pains only heartburn, or are the vessels clogging?”
Recently the economy has caused some fears. An elderly member of our congregation told me that she had invested much of her life’s savings in the Enron Corporation. Now she agonizes over whether she will have enough money to supply her needs until she dies.
The concern about people’s opinion of us has always been with us. Not many are able to say with St. Paul, “It is a small thing that I am judged by you or any human court. It is the Lord who judges.”
It is the confrontation with the unknown that causes fear. When this confrontation involves our relationship with God, especially in times of serious illness or death, even the most fearless persons are terrified. It was this kind of experience that terrified the shepherds.
Fear was the most common emotion in the lives of those people around the manger. When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he was afraid. The angel tried to settle him down by saying, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” I am not so sure this angelic counsel settled Joseph’s nerves completely, for he stood in the presence of the Divine. This was a unique fear.
St. Luke tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” when the angel broke the news saying, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. . . . Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name of Jesus.” We know Mary was given a divine task, and she believed the Lord was with her, but that did not mean she was free of fear.
Then there were the shepherds watching their sheep. When the angel appeared to them, they were also terrified. What did the angel say? “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” I have to believe their knees were shivering and their stomachs were upset as they left the hills to find this important child.
These shepherds had their daily fears. They were always afraid of the wild animals that could attack the sheep. There was also the fear that one of the flock would wander off and would need to be accounted for to the owner of the flock. These were daily fears, but to stand in the presence of the angels sent from God was another kind of fear.
The closest we come to identifying with the shepherds is when God speaks to us clearly from His Word. Those passages from the Bible, which we have committed to memory, speak powerfully to us under certain circumstances. Many times I have read those beautiful words from John 14:3 to a dying person: “I will come and receive you that where I am, there you may be also.”
The dear soul about to leave this world will say, “I know that it will be wonderful, but leaving loved ones and standing in the presence of Jesus is frightening.”
It is a confrontation with a God who is almighty (and I am a weak human being saved by His grace alone) that causes the fear. The angel’s comforting words “fear not” would have been silly counsel had he not told them why there was no cause for fear: “There is born to you this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” It is this Savior who will take away your fears.
Hearing this word the shepherds could have said, “Wow! What an experience! What do you suppose this child looks like?” Yet this was not their response. Rather they said, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Joseph and Mary and the baby who was lying in the manger.
Note their response. They made a decision: Let’s investigate. The investigation led them into the presence of Christ, and there in the manger they met the Savior. The Holy Spirit was present and created within the shepherd’s soul a faith that Jesus was the Savior as had been proclaimed.
The presence of God, speaking through the angel, created fear in the hearts of the shepherds. The Word of the Lord telling of the Savior who had been born created an interest in seeing what God had to offer them. Standing in Jesus’ presence, these men received Him in faith as the Messiah and Savior of the world. That is how people came to faith in those days, and that is the way it happens today.
Fear is related to faith. It was fear that sent the shepherds to the manger where the angel’s words, “He is your Savior,” came alive. Faith was created in their hearts. Fear was replaced by peace, and peace sent them out with joy in their hearts. “They spread the word concerning what the angel had told them about the child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds had told them.”
Let us personalize this story. We live with fears, all kinds of fears. Some of them come from our own making and a little common sense will take care of them. Control your spending and the fear of debt will disappear. Control your tongue and many of your social fears will disappear. Yet some fears are beyond our control. We do not have the answers about how we should control them. We are confronted with the unknown, such as what the future holds for us. God’s word says, “Fear not, for I am with you, do not be dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10). God does not simply tell us not to fear and give no basis for his counsel. He tells us why we are not to fear: He is with us.
However, then comes the next step: God says we should not fear. Do I let that advice remain a simple Bible verse with no effect on my life, or do I investigate what it means? The shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the Christ child. Where do I go to meet this Savior? Spend a few minutes with Him each day to hear him speak to you through the Scriptures. Decide to hear that word preached. Find a few Christian friends with whom you can discuss these great Biblical promises. Spend more time in prayer.
In these ways we learn what Christ has in store for us. It is through these teachings that the Holy Spirit works. These Bible verses are no longer simple words; they become divine truths that will grab our heart and change our life as He begins to control it. I become a new person in Jesus Christ. First I was afraid; then God presented me with the facts. Through these facts the Holy Spirit created faith in my life, and this faith sent me out into the world to tell others of the Savior.
That is the way it happens. Has God been permitted to change your fears into joys through faith in Jesus Christ? This is an extremely personal matter. Millions of people who attend worship services this Christmas season still do not realize the experience of the shepherds can be their experience also. He wants to change your fears into joys. Will you let Him?
Rev. Homer Larsen