Years ago, the comet Hale Bop made its appearance in our night skies. I was spending a great deal of time outside at night with my sheep. The ewes were lambing and my frequent late-night trips to the barn gave me the opportunity to look up at the stars and see the comet blazing across the sky. One particularly clear night, I took my camera away from the lights of the farm yard and took pictures of Hale Bop over my home. The night was still and dark and the view of the comet through the viewfinder of my camera was awesome.
While standing alone in the cold night, looking up at the sky, I could imagine being one of the shepherds “watching their flocks by night” as described in Luke’s account of the Christmas story.I could also imagine how terrified I would have been if an angel had appeared as I stood alone in the dark.
Shepherds, in biblical times, herded their sheep into an enclosure for safe keeping when they were grazing close to home. During part of the year when those nearby pastures were eaten down, however, the sheep were herded to pastures farther away. Then the shepherds stayed with the sheep even at night to protect them from predators and thieves. It was not a glamorous job, nor one with any prestige. It was hard work. Shepherds were rarely the people who owned the sheep. They were hired help. Because they lived with the sheep, they may not have been particularly clean. They were people without power or material wealth. They were, most likely, uneducated and superstitious. They may have preferred to be away from the rest of society. Other people were probably equally glad not to have close contact with the scruffy, sheep-smelling, coarsely mannered herders.
It would not be surprising if the shepherds reacted with fear at the sight of an angel. They had many things to fear. If they were smart, they would have a healthy fear of predatory animals and thieves who might try to take the sheep. Equally frightening might be the wrath of their boss if a number of sheep were eaten or stolen. The shepherds herded sheep over all kinds of ground–across rocks, through streams, up mountain sides. A fall could be fatal. A serious injury which made shepherding impossible might have meant begging for a living. The country was ruled by the Roman Empire and the murderous puppet king, Herod. People as lowly as shepherds could feel little security under a ruler who would kill even his own family to maintain his rule.
The angel said, “Don’t be afraid.”
Life is full of fearful things. In twenty-first century America, we fret about our health and the illnesses caused by our modern lifestyle–diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer. We worry that we won’t have enough money to pay our bills. We are afraid of having our possessions and our identities stolen. We are afraid we won’t be promoted and are suspicious of our coworkers.
We worry about terrorists planning attacks against us. We fear immigrants, legal and illegal, coming into our country. We are afraid those “others” will take away our economic well-being. We fear other countries’ ability to use nuclear weapons. We worry about global warming and natural disasters.
Fear is a powerful thing. Fear of being without can make us miserly and greedy. Fear of those who are different from ourselves creates prejudice. Fear can create anger, distrust, suspicion and hate. It can stop us from speaking up when we know something is wrong. It can make us look the other way when others are hurting. Fear of ridicule or of not fitting in is used to sell us the latest fashion. Fear can paralyze us. Fear can make us do all kinds of things we would rather not do and keep us from doing the things we would like to do.
The angel told the shepherds not to be afraid. He brought them good news. The angel’s admonition about fear wasn’t just about the immediate fear of being confronted by an extraordinary being in the middle of the dark night. Rather, the angel was speaking about fear itself. The angel continued his message, telling the shepherds that a savior had been born, not in the place of power, the capital city of Jerusalem, but in a small town of little significance. This savior, who would take away fear of all kinds, was not a mighty warrior, but a baby Like the shepherds, this new king was poor, homeless. He was sleeping in a feed bunk in a stable.
The shepherds, in spite of having many things to fear, heard the angel’s message. They didn’t cower on the ground, unable to act. They didn’t fear that others would think they had been drinking or that they were crazy. They didn’t worry about losing their jobs. They went to Bethlehem and saw the baby and went away unafraid, telling the story to everyone they met along the way. Some probably laughed at them and the tale they told. The night was still full of animals wanting to eat the sheep and thieves ready to steal them.
Not being afraid doesn’t mean abandoning caution, or unnecessarily putting one’s self at risk. The angel didn’t say that others would no longer make fun of the shepherds or try to hurt them. They were simply told not to be afraid. It means facing in faith those things which keep us from declaring the Good News. We should not allow our fears to paralyze us or make us act out of hate.
The good news is not that we will never face fearful things, but that Emmanuel, God is with us, and we don’t need to be afraid. Without fear, those things would have no power. The gift of Christmas is wrapped up in the message of the angel. “Don’t be afraid.”
Without fear, the world can be a different place–a place where peace is possible.
Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains