I have been meaning to write a little about Christmas. I know this can be a hard time for many, particularly for those who have little money yet see others feasting all around them, or few friends and family around them to celebrate with. There are, of course, also people who have lost loved ones and who remember them at this time of year. I know that I tend to think around the Christmas and New Year period about where my life is going, what has changed since last year, and I am often sadly disappointed.
Significant dates are hard to deal with when you seem to have achieved very little in life – I am not working, am still on ESA (the sickness benefit) and feel very unproductive. I have no partner, no children, and live with my parents. In some ways I still feel like a child. It is at this time of year that I feel most keenly the loss that mental illness has given me – that I do not have the job and life I expected to have, that I experience difficulties when I am working which I have still to resolve, and face, as all of us with illness do, possible prejudice and stigma. I fear for my future, particularly for what will happen when my parents, who are my main source of support and effectively my carers, die, of whether I will be able to cope, or whether my life will disintegrate. I worry that my faith will collapse one day, and that I will become depressed and not see any reason at all to stop hurting myself.
I am a worrier, but the Bible speaks of worry. I have heard it said that the words “Fear not” or similar are used 365 times in the Bible (it is a nice illustration, but apparently incorrect.) Whether there is one for every day or not, the idea of “fear not” is common. We are taught not to fear the future, not to be frightened of God, not to be frightened by this world that we live in. Today I want to discuss a little of the Christmas story, of the three fears that are illustrated in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels.
Fear of the Unexpected (Luke 1:26-30)
I fear change – I have always been small-c conservative, and I find that sudden changes in my life or work can trigger off my illness. I cannot even imagine how fearful Mary must have been when the angel came to her. She was an ordinary girl, after all, a young woman with hopes and dreams just like the others. Sometimes I think we focus on her extraordinariness and forget that she is described as a normal Jewish girl, who was faithful to God, engaged to be married, set for a completely normal life. And then an angel came, and just like that her whole world changed. I think most of us would tremble at an angel, most of us would be fearful of what he might ask us to do – but the angel told her not to fear – she had found favour with God. Although, I have to say, suddenly being told that you will become pregnant with the Messiah who will then have an everlasting kingdom would still strike some fear and apprehension! While nothing as alarming as that has ever happened to me, I still quake at the unexpected, and worry when my plans go wrong. Today the sight of the infamous DWP brown envelope can strike some fear into my heart.
We can take a wider application from this angelic encounter – that we should not fear the worst, no matter how life-disrupting it may be. Just because something is not on our planned list, does not mean that God is not using it to change our lives for the better, and we should try to place our trust in him and in his protection. That is, of course, easier said than done – but I make a concerted effort to say to myself, “My God is a God who loves me, who protects me, who will not let me face trouble on my own.” Change can be good, as well as bad, and one of my (not New Year yet) resolutions is to try to remember that.
Fear of Personal Loss (Matthew 1:18-25)
Joseph’s fear was a little different to Mary’s. He was engaged to be married to a woman he loved (that much I am reading into the text) and suddenly he hears that she is pregnant. I’m sure he felt betrayed, but also a sense of loss. His future wife, his hopes for their life together, their future children. It is noticeable that he was afraid to take Mary home as his wife, not afraid of the angel.
Again, to make this personal, we are all afraid of loss; loss of our futures, loss of money, loss of our homes – if that letter from the DWP landed on my door tomorrow I would fear the future, fear the Work Programme, fear the loss of money that losing my ESA would entail. Yet, to repeat myself, God could cause that change, and cause it for a good reason, to help me grow, to help me learn. I could even find that elusive key to health in employment through it. I still don’t like the idea of that, or any other change happening, but in the end, it’s about trust. I trust God, even though that is very hard to do sometimes.
Our fear of loss sometimes holds back blessings for us – if Joseph had not trusted God and taken Mary as his wife, he would have lost the blessing of their love, of their lives together. He would have lost the blessing of being the earthly father-figure for the Saviour. He would have lost a great deal – I hope to have the courage to listen to God, and do things that may seem strange, or uncomfortable for me.
The Fear of Meeting God (Luke 2:8-14)
Finally we come to the shepherds. They were just working, looking after their flocks, when, as Luke tells us, “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” (v9) Now this is something I understand – if the glory of God shone around me I would do what others in the Bible did – be absolutely awe-filled and terrified all at once. There are others who have encountered God – Abraham, Job, Isaiah, Peter – and have felt awestruck. Coming face to face with judgement for sin is a scary thing! We as Christians need not fear, for the message of the Christmas story is of the child born to save us, the child who grew up, and whose blood has blotted out our sin.
To conclude this – God does not want us to fear, and he takes away fear from us, if we let him. While it is hard to feel calm in the presence of change, disaster, loss or seeing God face to face, we need to remember that he loves us, and he has engraved us on the palms of his hands, he said, “let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27) My prayer is that all of us are able to stop being afraid, and be able to rest in God.
On an unrelated note – I am away in London for a few days and will be without my internet connection. I will return!
- Christmas Cheer & Christmas Fear (livingonpbj.wordpress.com)
- Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C (preachingthenewlectionary.com)
- Changing My Focus – Advent 2012 – Days 1-2 (pilgrimwanderings.com)
- Sunday Message: Heralds of Good News (ferlans.wordpress.com)