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Christmas Eve Homily – Luke 2:1-20

December 24, 2013

December 24, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“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.’”

“Fear not.” That is the angel’s message to the shepherds. “Fear not.” It’s an interesting command to hear after one has been scared to death. There’s some irony when the one who caused the fright says it: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.” 

“Fear not.” That’s the command given in the midst of great dread on that evening in the hill country of Judea. The shepherds were tending their lambs and sheep in the deep darkness. That environment can bring its own fright. Each rustle of grass, each snap of a branch, each howl of a wolf: these could cause fear for both shepherd and sheep alike. Alertness was high. Perhaps even some anxiety of having all the strangers in Bethlehem who had come for the census registration and paying of taxes. In the midst of that environment, the angel appears. In the middle of that stillness the LORD’s glory shines all around the keepers of lambs. 

“Fear not.” That’s what the angel says. The glory of the LORD had caused fright before.   David had seen a person touch the Ark of the Covenant and fall his length dead. Isaiah saw the vision of the seraphim and the LORD’s holiness and felt his doom. About a year before that night in Bethlehem, Zacharias had seen an angel in the Temple and was filled with fear. The same was true for Mary when the angel appeared to her in Nazareth about nine months earlier. Each time there was great fear, the type of fright that comes from knowing that death and destruction laid in wait. For that is the reaction when humanity’s sinfulness and smallness run up against the LORD’s glory. 

“Fear not.” The angel’s words disclose why there need be no fright on the outskirts of Bethlehem: “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 this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” There’s the reason why there should be no fear. The LORD’s glory shines all around the shepherds. It shines in the stable where the Infant Jesus lies in a manger. But this divine presence is there for a good purpose. This glory is not being poured out to ruin, but to rescue; not for doom, but for deliverance.

“Fear not.” That command is given to the shepherds because they are to be witnesses to the LORD’s work that will bring salvation to them. They are offered the opportunity to see their Savior. These shepherds will behold the Messiah who was promised long ago to their forefathers. And they have the occasion to listen to how heaven itself responds to this great act that has begun in Bethlehem: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!’” These shepherds are among that group mentioned by the heavenly host; they are sharing in the divine peace that the LORD brings to this world as He becomes part of it to cause its salvation.

Hearing what the LORD is doing for them, the shepherds act: ”When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” They believe the divine message that the angel brought them. They are not paralyzed by fear but driven by joy and gladness. They want their part in this act and others to have a share in it.

But what the angel says to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside is not for them alone. It has not been exhausted by having the townspeople and all the temporary residents hear it. No, the angel’s command is given to you: “Fear not.” But you may say: “Why shouldn’t I be afraid? Isn’t there so much to fear?” You know well how many things frighten: uncertainty in employment; bad health news; potential rejection by loved ones; watching the IRA drop in value; being called up for active duty; storms and natural disasters; debt and loan payments. These have caused many scares during 2013 among you; 2014 promises more of the same.

Then there are other things that frighten in a different way: guilt and shame. For you who have a knowledge and belief in the LORD’s glory and power, those cause fear. What is it like to feel the righteous judgment of God poured out on your sins, your transgressions, your faults? There is the thought of running for cover. But in the pit of the stomach, you know there is no place to hide. 

And there is the great fear that we all must face: death and the grave. There is a finality to those things. Each year, they draw closer to you, even if you don’t want to think about them. And I know that some of you are thinking about it, since this is either the first Christmas without loved ones with you or that you know this will be the last Christmas with others.

But on this Christmas Eve, the angel says to you: “Fear not.” He tells you not to be afraid: “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.” What took place in that little town of Bethlehem has ramifications for you now. The hymn writer put it very poetically in the lyrics that you sang: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” That’s what the birth of Jesus begins to bring about starting in that city of David.

There is good news of great joy here tonight, just as there was back then. A Savior has been born, and not just for the people of that Palestinian village. Christ the Lord has come for you. The LORD’s glory dwells in Him, so that He can use it for your good. He is present to bring deliverance from doom, from rescue from ruin. Your salvation began from that moment when the Christ-Child is born. 

This Jesus makes you the people with whom God is pleased, so that you can have His peace. That is what you have heard this evening from the other readings beyond the telling of the Christmas Story. This Savior the true expression of divine love and favor: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” This Christ brings you a new life that is filled with hope and faith, even in the midst of everything that causes us fear: ”For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ….” 

So while you gather to celebrate this evening, the LORD’s angel gives you the command: “Fear not.” Fear not, because your sins are atoned for. Fear not, because you possess the LORD’s righteousness. Fear not, because the light of divine truth shines in the darkness of this world. Fear not, because you have God as your true Father. Fear not, because you are not limited to just this lifetime, but have a share in everlasting life. Fear not, because you are meant for a new heaven and new earth that is even greater than this one. Fear not, because the angels that brought the message to the shepherds also dwell with you to preserve you in peace. Fear not, because all the changes and chances of life that weary you will be put away when this Jesus makes all things new.

“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” That statement has become your own again this night. It is yours as you have heard what was told you about this Jesus born in Bethlehem. The LORD’s glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, dwells in Him. He has used it for your good. And so you believe the angel’s message spoken on that first Christmas and repeated today: “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.”

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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