In the four angelic messages anticipating and announcing the birth of Jesus Christ there is a common phrase: 'Do not be afraid!'

The first 'do not be afraid' came in the context of prayer. Zechariah, an old and childless priest, was alone in the temple burning the daily incense offering [Luke 1:8-10], which is a symbolic expression of  prayer [Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8; 8:3,4]. Outside, a crowd of worshipers were praying [Luke 1:10]. For the crowd, we can be fairly confident that their prayers included at least two strong petitions: prayer for the forgiveness of sins, and prayer for the coming of the Messiah. For Zechariah, we might add a third - that somehow God would work a miracle and even yet grant him and his wife, Elizabeth, a son.

Alone in the temple, absorbed in his holy responsibility of burning the incense offering, Zechariah was stricken with fear as the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared to him and stood beside the incense altar.  Gabriel greeted Zechariah with the words 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.' This frightening visitation was a thing of joy, not fear, full of glorious hope, not judgment. Not only would Zechariah and Elizabeth have a son, but that son would be the herald of the long prayed-for Messiah [Luke 1:13-15; 1:76-79].

The second 'do not be afraid' was spoken to Mary [Luke 1:26-38]. Unlike Zechariah, Mary was not troubled by Gabriel's sudden appearance, but by his words: 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.' Luke records 'she was greatly troubled by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be'.  Did she fear the undefined responsibility inferred by this greeting? Was she perplexed as to why she, a very young woman, should be singled out for such a greeting? Did she, in a moment of God-given insight, actually glimpse at this point the awesome possibility that she might be the one to give birth to the Messiah? We are not told what it was about these words that troubled her so greatly. In any case, Gabriel quickly explained to her the role for which God had chosen her. She was to be the last in the line, the last daughter of Eve, the last descendent of Abraham, the last in the line in David - the last in the line of expectation, anticipation and promise: from her body would come the Messiah, the Son of the Most High God. Awesome. Immense. 'Do not be afraid, Mary ...'

The third 'do not be afraid' was spoken to Joseph [Matthew 1:18-25]. Joseph was troubled by the decision confronting him in his [supposedly unfaithful] pregnant bride-to-be. Justice and mercy fought within him. He was 'a righteous man' - careful about obeying the letter of the law, yet he was also a man who wanted to show mercy by not exposing Mary to public disgrace.  In such a circumstance the strict letter of the law, condemned Mary to  death, if she was a consenting party [Deuteronomy 22:23-27]. The most merciful application of justice was a formal divorce arranged privately. It seems that the possibility of proceeding with the marriage did not enter Joseph's considerations. Then the angel spoke and shattered all of his law-based options, telling him there was a reality in place here of which he was, up to this point, in total ignorance: 'Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife because that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit...' Do not be afraid' ... do not be afraid of what people will think, do not be afraid of the letter of the law ... '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' ... do not be afraid, Joseph, of the Law and its application, for this child born of Mary is the One through whom God will release people from the judgement and condemnation of the Law.

The fourth 'do not be afraid' was spoken to a group of terrified shepherds outside Bethlehem [Luke 2:8-20]. Surrounded by the glory of the Lord they were scared out of their wits, with good reason. They knew that no one could see God and live [Exodus 33:20]. They knew that all this blazing splendour around them indicated the presence of God. They doubted that they could survive this encounter, for no sinner can survive in the presence of the holy God. But the angel said: 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy. Today ... a Saviour has been born to you.' A Saviour ... because of whom sinners can not only survive, but actually gain right of permanent access into the presence of the holy God.  A Saviour ... because of whom fear is replaced with 'great joy'.

'Do not be afraid' ... may this repeated message impact us during this Christmas season. Because of this birth, this incarnation and all that it involved, we, sinners though we are, are set free from fear in the presence of God. For this reason we celebrate. For this reason we are filled with 'great joy.'

© Rosemary Bardsley 2007, 2015