A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 19, 2015
for the Blue and Gray Christmas Service
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 40: 1-8
Luke 2: 1-14
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For thine eyes show the way
Thy mind knows the truth
Thy being is the life.
2 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
So we've come to this old story again, and it does not ever change. We have the long road to Bethlehem, the trip inspired by Imperial Decree, from Caesar Augustus himself, come, show up and be counted. There is still no room in the inn, and Mary lays the Christchild, newly born into our world, Immanuel, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings in a lowly manger, in a stable, amidst the sheep and cattle, and the shepherds are out abiding in the fields as they are like to do on a night such as this, and everything is peaceful and regular, as it should be, all until, one angel comes with the glory of the Lord, and the angel says fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And the sky opens up with the heavenly host singing and praising, with a bright light, And then those shepherds come, and then a star appears overhead beckoning wisemen from the east. The story has been the same for more than a thousand years, and it was the same almost a hundred years ago when our nation was formed, and it is the same today when division has reared its ugly head, tearing our land asunder. It is true that the story never changes, but we do, and every year we come to it anew, with new ears, new eyes, a new mind, in new circumstances, and with all the newness in ourselves, we see something new, something new jumps out at us, that maybe, just maybe we have never noticed before, or at least had never seemed quite so important as it does now. And perhaps for me it is the world we live in with all the uncertainties of war, of civil war even, where the foundations of life, the things we've counted on, and taken for granted all our lives have been torn apart. Maybe that is what made me notice new language. . . sore afraid.
It is an interesting phrase for sure. I was wondering what does it mean to be sore afraid. It is a strange combination of words. Does it literally mean, so afraid it hurts, so afraid that you are sore? and if so why would the shepherds be that? What would be so frightening about an angel that it would make you sore. . . startled yes, amazed yes, mesmerized yes, intimidated yes, but sore? Not sure. I've been afraid, I've been paralyzed by fear. . . where you literally cannot move. Your stuck, frozen, can't go forward, can't go backward. . . I think if an angel came to me in the middle of the night, that would be my reaction, frozen afraid, but sore afraid? I did some word study and found that this use of sore is used often in the Bible, and it doesn't suggest pain in its other uses either, just intensity, Judges 15:18 has "sore athirst" Genesis 43 talks about a "famine, sore in the land", often in the Psalms too, like Psalm 6:3 being "sore vexed" or Psalm 118:13, "sore thrust" like of a sword, or Psalm 55:4, "my heart was sore pained." In our understanding of that word it would be redundant, you could just say my heart was sore, or my heart was in pain, but sore pained. . . you see it just means intense pain, an intense vexation, an intense famine, and intense thirst, or thrust. . . and so it simply means that the shepherds were truly truly afraid. And if we were to study the original Greek, that is what we get. Afraid, doubly, even triply because it has the word Phobos in two different forms, and then it is matched with the word Megas. . . mega, fear fear. . . yes that is truly intense fear.
And that makes sense, not in the pain type way, but an angel intruding into your peaceful night's rest, as you watch guard over your sheep would be that kind of terrifying. There would be the initial shock, the noise, the light, the otherworldliness of the whole event, but then would come the realization that this is truly significant, and you would search your soul for what it could possibly mean, and why now, why you, what does it have to do with me, I am simply a shepherd, minding my own business, the doubts would creep in, what have I done, is this bad for me, am I worthy of such events? And then the Angel says, "Do not be afraid." And so it begins, Jesus' life comes into our world and causes fear. It is a major part of the story because Jesus says again and again throughout the gospels, all four of them exactly what this angel says here, "Do not be afraid," and the angel says it earlier in Luke to Mary, "Do not be afraid, Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid." Do not be afraid for I will calm the storm. Do not be afraid It is I. Do not be afraid I am risen. Fear not and do not be afraid is actually found throughout the Bible, throughout scripture, the old and new testament 365 times. . . one for every single day of the year, which is quite convenient really, for we need it.
As I said this piece of the story jumped out at me this year differently. Maybe it is because we have much to fear. The world we live in is very different, and changing rapidly, violently so, this is Christmas in War, war against our brothers, against ourselves, against what used to be one, has now become divided, and we have to wonder what victory looks like, what does defeat look like? Is it just a war that will go on and on, a rivalry that will never know an end, if the split is permanent, perhaps it will result in constant tensions forever. But what if the war takes the other path, is reconciliation even possible, can reconciliation be possible through force of arms? Will the divisions ever heal, is such healing possible? Days like these it is hard to tell, and I find myself sore afraid when I think about the future.
But then I think about, what if I were a shepherd and the angel were to come to me, on a night like tonight, what would they say. . . I can bet that the first words out of their mouth would be, "Do not be afraid," and they would mean much more than simply the initial shock of the encounter, to a much more holistic and holy call to leave behind out fear. We must remember that if Jesus comes into our midst, as he does at Christmas, then we have much to build our faith on, a great foundation of truth, and promises, and covenant, and he does, the story does not change, only we do, and no matter how much we change, no matter how many years go by, no matter how many new challenges we face, battles we fight, wars pull us apart, the story remains the same, so too does the message, do not be afraid, it doesn't matter what day it is, Christmas day or any day, the message is the same, Do not be afraid, for I bring you great tidings of joy, the promise is the same, though our world seems to turn, Christ has come into it, and is with us, and will be forever, and ever. Such is the promise of Christmas, such is the promise of the angels to the shepherds, such is the promise of God to us, yesterday, today, tomorrow, Christmas day and everyday, Do Not be Afraid, for I am.