Reflections for Christmas and the New Year
"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God."
There can be few people in the world who would not find being confronted by an angel rather terrifying. Mary, Jesus’ mother, seems to have been very disturbed although this may have been caused by what the angel said as well as his actual presence there with her. So came those words used to others in a similar situation "Fear not." Zechariah was another who found the words and presence of the celestial visitor very strange and was told to "fear not." Joseph responded similarly to Mary and whatever the exact cause of the reaction he was told not to fear. Even after Pentecost, Peter had a feeling of confusion when the angel led him out of the prison. These
reactions were not altogether surprising since angels did not assume a physical form very frequently during the history of Israel, and there had been prophetic silence during the past four hundred years. In that period of silence God had not been inactive and there were still godly men and women in Israel. That at least is clear from the presence in the Temple of the aged Anna and Simeon when Jesus was presented with His mother. There were those in Jerusalem who looked for God’s deliverance and with whom God had maintained contact. There had just not been any outward dramatic appearances of messengers from heaven. It is a point to ponder that they do not become visible very often in our human world. They were usually sent to those men and women whose hearts and lives demonstrated they were ready to receive and listen to them. Yet the devout followers of the Lord Jesus by and large have missed out on this privilege. Were an angel to appear in our lives, most of us would go into deep shock; terrified like the shepherds out on the Judaean hill the night Jesus was born. The angel would say to us as he did to those now famous shepherds, "fear not."
Gabriel was not an ordinary angel. He was one who stood in the presence of God and was therefore one who went on very special missions and this was a special mission! This was the greatest and most extraordinary event in the lives of men and women on the earth. It was the great turning point in history when the Son of God entered the world of men, to begin the long awaited process to eradicate sin from the earth and reconcile all mankind to their Creator. The more we ponder the thought, the more stupendous it becomes. Yet Mary would have been looking forward to a time when God would make Himself known to His people and rescue them from their plight. Perhaps like Simeon, she knew that God would eventually bring light to the nations and remembered the promise to Abraham that his descendants would bless "all families of the earth." Mary was not only a daughter of Abraham, she was also a descendant of David. Through the centuries the believing souls in Israel knew about the messianic promises from God and that some day He would place a king of David’s line on the throne. However great the longing for such an event, when faced with the reality, it came as a surprise. Mary was not living in a palace as a princess. She was engaged to a lowly carpenter, a ‘tekton’—more likely to have been the local craftsman and builder. They would live in a very small house, flat roofed and with a stairway at the side. Their one room would probably be shared with their few animals and it was quite usual to have a manger in a peasant’s home. Was it into such a place that the mighty angel from the presence of the eternal God greeted Mary? It was rather dark, for there were not many windows and only small, smelly oil lamps. How bright the heavenly visitor would be; dazzling in fact. Gabriel would speak Hebrew, of course, or would it be Aramaic, the language of the ordinary folk? What really mattered was that the angel had come to Mary, a lass who was little more than a girl and of humble background. Why out of all Israel, of all the people of the Roman world, of all peoples that had ever lived on earth, had the Almighty Creator chosen this honoured servant. What a fantastic privilege! God doesn’t make mistakes and nothing is too hard for Him. He had found just the one who could fill a unique place in His purpose and who would not be spoiled by it. That Mary was the one with the right attitude is clear from the wonderful song that she sang to her cousin Elizabeth. She knew that it was God’s principle, to select for His work, those who would be obedient and not usually those who had riches and worldly honour. The great ones of the world just haven’t enough time to listen to God. They are so busy with their little schemes for running the world.
Mary would never forget that encounter with Gabriel through all the years that were to follow. After the visit to Judaea to see Elizabeth, there would be the long journey to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt. There was the return to Nazareth and the long years of Jesus growing up. He was not like other boys, just as He was not going to be like other men. It’s not always easy for a mother to take that kind of thing. There were more of these visits of messengers from the heavenly courts telling Joseph and Mary of their next move. When angels were no longer necessary Mary learned to rely upon her son, just as we have to do. Jesus told his disciples several times not to fear.
The word ‘fear’ is not in itself a bad word and as William Barclay explains in his book New Testament Words, it is a neutral word which can have either a good or a bad meaning depending on its context and the way it is used. There is a fear that is akin to panic and makes us want to run away. This is how the disciples felt in the boat during the storm. They also felt afraid in the presence of the power of God when Jesus did miracles. There is a fear which stands in awe of something wonderful and powerful. Our attitude to water illustrates this. Water is a most wonderful substance in all kinds of ways and makes our planet a suitable home for life. The majority of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. It forms the major part of living organisms and we can’t survive long without it. Most children discover early that water is fun, yet it can destroy life very readily and it has immense force when it is moving. An example of attitudes to water can be shown in a child who very capably handles a canoe without fear. That confidence rapidly disappears beneath the fearsome force of Niagara Falls. Yet such fear is not a bad thing but a sensible warning to the child not to take liberties with power beyond its ability. We stand in awe of the mighty forces of nature.
"Perfect love banishes fear" (1 John 4:18 NEB) wrote the Apostle John because as love develops and matures there is no fear of God’s punishment and judgment. What was wrong with Zechariah’s attitude and how did he differ from Mary? The priest’s problem was unbelief. It wasn’t just awe that he expressed as he listened to the angel from heaven. He still needed to take the first steps of faith in spite of his exalted office. Mary’s fear was due to the awesome and majestic figure of Gabriel as he stood before her. The happening was outside her previous experience. Nevertheless she believed Gabriel and readily accepted what he told to her. It is easier for some folk to do that than for others. We have such complicated minds and lives that something new from God is sometimes hard to accept.
"If our love were but more simple,
To remember the coming of the Son of God to earth as a baby, should give us courage. We look forward to meeting Him face to face for the firsttime. The consequences of that meeting should not make us fearful. He will see to it that we are ready for the meeting. There need be no fear for our own well‑being and safety. They are in the hands of the Lord who once was cradled in Mary’s arms and while dying was concerned for that mother’s welfare. There need be no fear for our loved ones, however hard the parting, because they too are in the hands of Jesus who once stretched out his hands in death to give us life. Christmas has a message of hope and joy and peace. Let us not be afraid as we enter another year however momentous it may prove to be. It will be another year for Him and with Him wherever we spend it.