"O Lord, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be honour and glory, world without end. Amen." ( Collect for today)
On Christmas Eve we will hear the angels tell the shepherds "Fear not," and as we make our final preparations for that moment, it might be wise to pause to consider those angels, those shepherds, and that fear.
There is, of course, holy fear—an awe-filled, amazed, and wondrous respect for God in all his power and might. This fear, the Proverbs and the Psalms tell us, is "the beginning of wisdom," because it helps us to put our lives and everything else into perspective. There is God alone who must be pleased and satisfied, and all else will be well.
We even pray for this holy fear when we administer Confirmation. We specifically ask God to send the Holy Ghost to fill us with "the spirit of thy holy fear," because it is one of what St. Paul declares to be "the gifts of the Holy Ghost." Holy fear, then, cannot be the "fear" that the angels tried to take away, since their job is to promote the gifts of God and not to shield us from them.
We can find the sort of fear that the angels meant, however, very easily. All one needs is a television remote control and a little time late in the evening, and he can find all the fear in the world. The various news stations are one obvious choice, especially those that broadcast nothing but news twenty-four hours a day. Those are a lot of hours to fill, and there is nothing like doom and gloom to fill them. Moreover, to be fair to the newscasters, there is plenty of true doom and gloom to go around.
A little diplomatic mistake here, a technological blunder there, a madman with a chemistry set, a blunder in setting the interest rates, and much of every day life could easily be disrupted. People could die.
But the other "information" and "learning" channels also have much fear to offer. There are new diseases that we have never heard of, all supposedly coming our way. People tremble, they even weep, as they describe some new assault on their health and lives. And one begins to understand why Christians once routinely prayed at their bedtimes, without blushing or irony, just to wake up in the morning.
We live in a world of fear, and it has been a world of fear since the very first sin, when the holy fear of God was mutated into something worse: a dread of the consequence of our own actions, a dread of the actions of others, a dread of life itself, and a dread of the justice of God.
If this world is only a stepping-stone, a doorway into an eternal life with God, why would anyone fear leaving it? We don’t fear leaving the train station when our train arrives. We look forward to reaching our proper destination. If anything, we are usually impatient to leave, except when we are going where we do not want to go. And that’s the problem with human life without God. We are always going where we do not want to go, to receive what we do not want to receive.
Without God, we should be afraid. In fact, it is a back-handed compliment to how well God has made us that we are afraid so much of the time. He made us to know better, and to do better, and to be better. And that grace of creation, our desire for what is better, remains at work powerfully within us, despite all of the distortions of sin.
But if God is powerful enough to give us a longing for something better, even when we are at our worst, how powerful must he be to give us what we need to live, what we need to abandon dread for the comfort of the holy fear that is only another face of God’s love for us?
That power is what the angels will sing of on Christmas Eve . That power is what is born in Bethlehem, what is raised up at Easter, what ascends into heaven, and will return in glory on the Last Day. That power that overcomes our fears is Jesus Christ our Lord. The history of the modern world is a history of the growth of fear precisely because it is also a history of the denial of the angels’ words of comfort, and of the personal, divine, and yet human power of that comfort.
Today’s Collect, written about 1500 years ago, is an echo of the angels’ message, turned into a prayer for its fulfillment: "O Lord, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor us." It is important to see, too, that although the angels may have appeared out of the clear blue sky, their message did not. It was an old message. It was the promise of a merciful God, made through his Prophet Isaiah, as we hear in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson:
Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young (Isaiah 40:10-11).
The Almighty Power that comes in Person in Jesus Christ is both strong and gentle. It is strong enough to conquer and to rule the world. It is gentle enough to gather up the faithful into the arms of a merciful God, as if they were his lambs. And in those arms, the dread of sin passes away, and that dread is revealed as an unnecessary by-product of a life lived unnecessarily apart from God.
We do not need to fear, at least not in the old dreadful way. That is the message of the angels. It is the message of Isaiah. It is the message of St. John the Baptist, whom we remember today. He came to make straight the way of the Lord because it is self-destructive and stupid to put any obstacle between ourselves and the goodness of God. He baptized with water, in the Name of the One who would baptize with the fire of the Holy Ghost, a fire that warms, enlightens, and cleanses but never consumes what is of eternal value to God, what God has chosen for eternal life with himself.
At Christmas , the angels will once again offer us a choice—the same choice that they offered the shepherds so long ago. We can have the holy fear of loving and being loved, always, eternally, and perfectly. Or we can have the dread of death that fills the smallest moments of a life without the Son of God as Lord and Savior.
If Christ is our Lord, we need not fear, because he will raise up his power mightily in our lives. This is merely another way of saying, "If Christ is our Lord, and he rules us in all things, then he is our Savior and we are saved." The shepherds were bright enough to know which to choose. They went to Bethlehem and knelt down. My prayer for us all is that we, too, will receive the grace and wisdom to kneel before Christ, for then our worthless fears will all be done away.
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne