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The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg

The Rev. Dr. Douglas Oldenburg is the Immediate Past President of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, and was Moderator of the 210th General Assembly. He is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

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Presbyterian Church (USA)


Do Not Be Afraid

Luke 2:8-14

December 22, 1996

Some sixty years ago, the great German theologian, Karl Barth, made a statement about Christmas that has puzzled me. He said, "Christmas without fear carries with it fear without Christmas." As far as I know he never explained what he meant by that statement, but left it to the reader to reflect on, to puzzle over, to probe and penetrate its meaning.

What do you think he meant by it? "Christmas without fear carries with it fear without Christmas."

I believe he was saying something important. I think he was trying to tell us that before we can encounter the bright side of Christmas, we must first encounter the dark side of life. Before we can really sing the joyous songs of Christmas, we must first get in touch with the pain and pathos of life. I think he was trying to tell us that before we can really hear the angels say, "Do not be afraid...", we have to get in touch with our fears. And he is warning us that if we don't, if Christmas becomes for us a temporary escape, a time for suppressing those fears, for denying them, for burying them under all our pumped-up joy and pious platitudes, then those fears, which are within us all, will never encounter the glorious good news, the warming comfort and peace of Christmas. For "Christmas without fear carries with it fear without Christmas."

And so, in order for us to genuinely experience the comfort of Christmas, in order for us to really hear the song of the angels, "Be not afraid...", I invite you first to get in touch with your own fears.

We usually do a pretty good job of suppressing them, for they are often too painful and threatening to admit. We often pretend to others, and to ourselves, that we're not afraid of anything. And yet, for most of us, at least, there are some secret fears within us. Some feel them more intensely, of course, than others, but each of us has our own private set of secret fears locked in some internal closet.

Young people have them. Some years ago, a well-­known minister was invited to give a series of lectures on a college campus. In order to know "where students were" in their feelings and thinking, in order to know what problems he should address, he requested that a questionnaire be sent out to students on the campus. Much to his surprise, he discovered that the major problem of these young people, their dominant emotion, was a deep­-seated sense of FEAR. They were afraid to love, afraid to commit themselves, afraid of what others thought, afraid of rejection, afraid of being hurt, afraid of failure, afraid of the future. And so, some of them sought to escape it through all sorts of exits -- through drugs and alcohol and sex and some through suicide.

Of course, fear is a reality in most of our lives. To one extent or another, we live our lives running as fugitives from fear; a fear of -- you name it -- almost anything. One psychologist studied 500 people and found that among them they had over 7,000 different fears. In one way or another, to one degree or another, all of us are afraid of the future. It may be the personal fear of getting sick and infirmed, having a heart attack or a stroke or getting cancer or having an accident. It may be the fear of losing a loved one who has been so important to our lives. More and more people today are afraid of losing their jobs, as companies have been "downsizing." It may be the fear of losing your marriage. It may be a fear of the increasing violence and killing in America today. It may be the fear of loneliness, or the fear of failure, or the fear of getting old. And of course there is always, lurking somewhere within us, the fear of death. Yes, our fears are legion. What are your dominant fears today? Can you admit them, if only to yourself and to God?

Now, of course, fear is not always a bad thing. Indeed, it can be very constructive and creative and have a positive impact on our lives. To fear the right thing at the right time and to react in the right way is a sign of responsible maturity. In a frightening situation, only a fool says there is nothing to be afraid of.

Moreover, fear is a very powerful creative force. Every great invention represents a desire to escape some dreaded circumstances of condition. The fear of darkness led to the discovery of electricity and the fear of war led to the birth of the United Nations. Realistic fears protect us and push us to achieve greater heights.

But for too many of us, too much of the time, our fears imprison us. They paralyze us, they haunt us, they run our lives and poison our souls.

So the question becomes not how do we get rid of all our fears, but how do we harness them? How do we keep them from dominating our lives? How do we stay on top of them, rather than to allow them to get on top of us.

Some of our fears can be dealt with by simply looking at them honestly and openly and recognizing how ridiculous they are, and sometimes it's helpful to share our fears with someone else to get a better perspective on them Sometimes it's a matter of making the decision that you are not going to allow your fears to dominate and run your life.

Usually it takes courage -- the power to look fear straight in the eye and go on acting responsibly, doing what you know you ought to do and living a joyous life "in spite of" whatever fears you may have. Paul Tillich called it "The Courage to Be" in spite of fear, the courage to affirm, to go on, to say "yes" to life in spite of all the threats and uncertainties and fears, in spite of the dark valleys and deep waters which seek to overwhelm us. Yes, the dyke of courage holds back the flood of fears.

But where do we get that courage? I know of only one place. It's rooted and grounded in faith. Someone once wrote: "Fear knocked at the door, faith answered, and there was no one there." Now, please understand: it's not a faith that everything will turn out OK, but a faith that affirms that no matter what may come, no matter who knocks at our door, no matter how dark the valleys or deep the waters, God is with us. And that faith, that awareness makes all the difference in the world.

So take up your bundle of fears this Christmas and go with me to Bethlehem, and kneel before the manger and listen again to the angel say: "DO NOT BE AFRAID, FOR UNTO YOU IS BORN THIS DAY . . . A SAVIOR WHO IS CHRIST THE LORD."

But what does that mean? It means to me that in the face of all the frightening uncertainties of life, not knowing what the future will bring, we still do not have to be afraid, for there in that manger lies the one rock-­bottom certainty of God's love.

It means to me that in the face of all the fearful insecurities of life, we need not fear, for there in that manger is our one ultimate security.

It means to me that in spite of all the alarming discouragements of life, we can still keep going, for in Christ we have found our ultimate confidence.

It means to me that even though our sins deserve God's judgment, we can rest in peace, for in Jesus of Bethlehem we have discovered a God who is gracious and forgiving.

It means that even though events may threaten to shatter our self­-esteem, we can still hold up our heads, for in that little baby God has declared each of us of infinite worth.

Of course, I do not know what your individual fears may be today, nor what your future may bring. But this I do know and solidly affirm:

Whoever you are, however frightening the individual circumstance of your life may be today or may become tomorrow, YOU NEED NOT BE OVERCOME BY FEAR. For in that baby of Bethlehem, we have heard God's final and liberating word addressed to all our fears:

"DO NOT BE AFRAID ! Emmanuel! God is with us!"


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