A Christmas Reflection by Munther Isaac
Academic Dean of Bethlehem Bible College
“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11).
Have you ever been afraid or terrified? Have you ever, perhaps, been afraid of being in the wrong place in the wrong time? As a child I was once caught in the line of fire during a demonstration and it was terrifying!
To live in a constant state of fear is one of the worst things for a human being. Fear of a nearby danger. Fear of the future. Fear of the unknown, or even being afraid of a perceived terrifying and unmerciful god.
During this Christmas season, the words of the angels to the shepherds continue to ring in my mind: Fear not… Fear not… Maybe it is because fear seems to be everywhere around us these days.
In the Christmas narrative, we read about the fear of the shepherds. They were terrified when the angels appeared, and we can understand that. Imagine the scene: in the silence and darkness of the night suddenly appears this glorious vision. There is the sudden appearance of innumerable angels; the surprise element. Then there is the darkness. Quite simply, they were afraid!
Yet, I wonder if Luke was alluding to a more general fear that was prevalent in Palestine in Biblical times. In his introduction to the birth narrative in Luke 1, we read many references to the yearnings and expectations of Israel. There was a reality of fear in those days. We see this in the hymn of Zacharias in Luke 1: “…That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers… to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear”
It is safe to say that fear and anxiety were common in the days when Jesus was born. The people of the land were afraid of their occupiers; afraid of the unknown; afraid that God had forgotten them. They were afraid—and where fear is, there is despair and slavery. We become prisoners to our fears, chained in despair and hopelessness.
Christmas Hopes and Fears
I see this same reality of fear in our world today. Here in Palestine, we live under military occupation. Years of conflict and violence have created a reality of fear and despair. Many people in this land are afraid of the future. Young people have lost hope of creating any promising future here. People leave, looking for a better and safer future. They are afraid of the unknown. Today, a headline from the BBC fittingly reads:“Christmas in Bethlehem: Hopes and fears for the future.”
As the Christian community here, we also experience another dimension of fear: our numbers are small. We are literally a little flock. There is a lot of talk today about the future of Christianity in the Middle East. Every Christmas I read articles about this disappearing flock; and yet we are here. We did not go anywhere.
But in places like Iraq and Syria, that might be true. The threats they face are so real and evil, and the ones remaining live in fear and anxiety. The prayer of Zachariah is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago:“…grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear.”
But not only that: I look around the world and fear is everywhere. Most notable is the fear of Muslims and Islam – Islamophobia. Politicians are utilizing and encouraging this fear for selfish evil reasons. Because of this fear, many Christians are not willing to serve and embrace refugees. Thus, they are refusing a marvelous opportunity to get involved in a ministry that is as close to being Christ-like and following Jesus’ teaching as you can get! Fear is causing many Christians to reject—and in some cases—even hate others! Fear is a reality that is crippling our world today. It is a reality that is damaging our Christian witness to the world.
Today, more than ever, we need to hear and embrace the words of the angels: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
There are at least three things concerning fear that Luke is telling us today:
First, we fear not, because Jesus is born. The message of Christmas should drive fear away. The message that God sent His Son to be born here; to become one of us, to feel our pain and sorrows, and to ultimately carry our sins upon Himself on the cross – this message should drive fear away.
Notice that we are to “Fear Not,” but not because our circumstances will necessarily change. “Fear Not,” but not because we should trust in ourselves. This is not merely a “self-help” message. The message from the angels is not simply for us to muster up some courage. We are to “fear not” for this reason alone: because of what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. Hope and salvation come from without, not from within. “My help comes from above, from the Lord.”
This is not statement promising that the current political reality will change. Rather, it is the announcement that a new kingdom reality is breaking through! The dawn of a new era is appearing. Interestingly, a similar statement with almost the same Greek words and sentence structure as Luke 2:11 was known in Jesus’ times concerning the birth of Augustus. Was Luke alluding to this? “Fear Not!” The new king is born. It is not Caesar, but Jesus. And His kingdom of love and joy challenges the kingdoms of the fear that dominate our world today.
Those who really understand who this baby is, and what His kingdom is about should know no fear. We should fear no power or political reality. We may be occupied, but that does not mean we should live as prisoners. We may be feared and seen as a threat, but we know that we are loved and remembered by our God. The baby of Bethlehem drives away all of our fears.
Joy Replaces Fear
Second, what is really interesting in the angels’ words is that fear is replaced with joy – the joy of the Gospel. This is amazing! The opposite of fear is not security…but joy! If we look closely, we see the same pattern of joy replacing fear in Luke 1:13 and 1:30. It is one of the central themes of Luke’s Christmas narrative.
It is joy – and not security – that ultimately replaces fear. The promise of Christmas is not one of security, wealth or comfort. In fact, the baby of Bethlehem and the holy family embody the opposite: They were poor, powerless, and without a place to stay. Yet imagine how deep their joy and wonder must have been when Jesus was born. In the midst of hardship and anxiety, joy is born in Jesus.
This is not just any joy, but the joy of the Gospel! This is the joy of knowing that God has dealt with our sins and failures. It is the joy of realizing that God has remembered His covenant; the joy of realizing that we are not forgotten. The joy of knowing that the baby of Bethlehem is the Prince of Peace and also the One who“with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).
Today, we can have this joy. Today, God wants to replace our fears with joy!
Thirdly and finally, this is not a passive or naïve joy. This is not escapism. Joy is active and transformative. The joy of Christmas should transform our world and reality. It should cause us to become agents of transformation and change. The shepherds received this joyful news of Jesus’ birth and went to Bethlehem. There, they met Jesus and the family and then returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Today, we are invited to do the same.
Because Jesus is born we are now free to love, serve and worship Him. Because He is born we are no longer slaves to our fears. We “fear not”… and with joy we love and serve the world. Many people worship and serve God out of fear. This does not work. This becomes a burden. No one wins. But when we serve with joy – when we are liberated from fear, only then we are able to love and embrace God and others.
My prayer is that we will be set free from our fears. I pray that the joy of the Christmas story will challenge us to love and serve the God of Christmas. For Palestinian Christians, I pray that we will live free from fear; that we will remain in this land with joy and confidence. I pray that we will look at people around us – our neighbors – through the eyes of love, and not fear.
I pray for the church around the world to overcome its ungodly fears and suspicions and instead learn to love and embrace the refugees; the poor and the needy. Let us remember the words of 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” In this sense, we can replace fear with service and love – indeed with Evangelism!
Let us remember the words of the Gospel of our Lord: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.