September 21, 2020

Randy Thompson: Christmas Cheer and the Fear of the Lord

The Angel Appears to the Shepherds, von Carolsfield

Christmas Cheer and the Fear of the Lord
by Randy Thompson

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in
the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8, KJV)

In reading Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, we tend to go flying past “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified” to get to the angel’s “I am bringing you good news of great joy.” Countless church Christmas pageants and sentimental candle-lit Christmas Eve services distract us from the fact that Luke intends for us to notice that the prelude to the good news that makes us happy is stark terror.

By all accounts, the revelation of the glory of God is not initially a comforting or comfortable phenomenon.

Peter, for example, responds to the glory of God revealed in a net-breaking catch of fish by falling down at Jesus’ feet and saying “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:9). Whatever else the fear of the Lord is, it is a profound sense of the darkness and sickness of one’s heart in the presence of a health and holiness that is utterly alien to human experience.

Sentimental piety can’t abide this blast of spiritual reality. It latches on to the positive and upbeat while trying desperately to avoid the probing light shining in the general direction of the dark corners of our hearts.

Unfortunately for sentimental piety, the “good news of great joy” is that light shining into those dark corners of our lives that we pretend aren’t there. The result is, we’re left with beautiful and inspiring Christmas card images of angels and shepherds and creches that leave us inspired and unchanged.

Apart from the “fear of the Lord,” the angel’s message that comes to us about a savior being born is incomprehensible. It may be general and even generic good news, but it can’t be good news for us as individuals. Note that the angel speaks of good news of great joy “for all the people,” but then speaks personally, specifically and even oddly to the shepherds: “to you is born this day. . . a Savior” who is also Christ and Lord.

It is to the shepherds specifically that the angel says “to you is born this day.” We are so used to this passage that we fail to notice what an odd turn of phrase this is. This is something a doctor or midwife would say to a new father or mother, “to you this day is born. . . “This is very intimate language, when you stop and think about it. The shepherds are not the baby’s fathers and mothers, or grandfathers or grandmothers, but unto them this baby is born, and born a savior.

When God’s fearful presence in our lives reveals to us who we are and who God is, we are given ears to hear and eyes to see not only that we need a savior, but to recognize the heart-relevance of the joyfulness of this heavenly good news of a savior baby born to us.

Not only has God given to us a Savior, but God has not left all of us shepherds out in the fields at night clueless. This will be a sign unto you. . . “ they were told, and we are told. You will find him in Bethlehem, “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Children are born daily all over the world. Which one might be Savior, Christ, and Lord? How could anyone know? Again, heaven leaves nothing to chance. You’ll find this Savior, Christ, and Lord, they are told, in a manger in Bethlehem.

With this practical bit of information, the gates of heaven open a bit wider, and the shepherds hear and see the worship of heaven, which praises God and blesses humankind with the peace of heaven. The Prince of Peace is born here on earth to save us and lead us through these gates of heaven, that we might participate in heaven’s praise of God’s excellence.

The gates of heaven close, and the shepherds are left to themselves in their night watch over their sheep. Yet, in light of the glories they’ve seen, they cannot continue to stay where they are. A response to heaven’s message is demanded, and so they go to Bethlehem to see a human baby who is Savior, Christ, and Lord.

Of course, the baby they seek and find in a Bethlehem stable is just a human baby, just like any other. Yet, they are now able to see this child with heaven’s eyes. They may not fully know what a Savior is, or what it means to be the Christ, or what it means to call a baby in a manger Lord. But they have heard the angel voices, they now know what they can’t yet fully understand, and can speak confidently about what they can’t yet fully understand.

They have heard heavenly voices. They report what they have heard, and that is good enough. We who have heard the shepherd’s voices know something heavenly has been loosed upon the earth, and so we wait to see what will come.

And so they waited. Thirty years they waited to see heaven show itself in the baby grown into a man, and were amazed to see one despised and rejected, taking upon himself the sins of the world on a cross that finally couldn’t hold him. The one proclaimed Savior, Christ and Lord at birth is now our Savior, Christ, and Lord in heaven.

And, as the shepherds waited thirty years to see the baby become what he was proclaimed to be, so we too wait to see the gates of heaven open once again, when our expected Savior, Christ and Lord will break down the barrier between heaven and earth so that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

Comments

  1. The Light that shines in the darkness of the world shines into my own darkness as well. To attempt to hide from what it shows me is to turn my face away from my Lord and Savior, and from myself. Yes, it is a fearful Light that shows the world for what it is, and me for what I am. But the Light that searches does so with the promise to stay with me, and to enable me to face down and prevail over the darkness, my own and the world’s — not by own or the world’s strength, but by the purity and power of the Lord and Savior in the manger, the cross carrier who shoulders my burden from the moment of his birth, and who indeed carries me through myself and the world to his Kingdom. Therein lay my hope, which is his grace freely bestowed. Thanks be to God.

  2. from Anglican priest Malcolm Guite, this reflection on ‘our wounded world’ :

    “Come to us Wisdom, come Unspoken Name
    Come Root, and Key, and King, and Holy Flame,
    O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
    Be folded with us into time and place,
    Unfold for us the mystery of grace
    And make a womb of all this wounded world.
    O Heart of Heaven beating in the earth,
    O tiny Hope within our hopelessness
    Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
    To touch a dying world with new-made Hands
    And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.”

  3. Burro (Mule) says

    Family, work, and transportation issues effectively nuked my Christmas. No midnight Liturgy, no family spread with turkey and ham, no time even to wrap the presents. The kids both got new jobs and scrambled to find their places in them, so schedules had to be hurredly adjusted on the fly and first one car then the other needed attention.

    Christmas got shouldered out.

    But all in all, it was a good sort of hectic. Nothing compared to what Susan or Dan has been going through.

    Yesterday, we attended my wife’s Pentecostal church. Ordinarily I endure Pentecostalism but this Sunday was different. They had a guest speaker who seemed considerably more serious than the majority of speakers who festoon the pulpits of our country. In a solemn, measured voice he explained the progress of sin in the heart, how it begins as a diversion, progresses to an obsession, and terminates by setting the soul at loggerheads with God and all that is right and beautiful.

    He outlined the progression in detail for five particular sins; pornography/adultery, substance abuse, avarice, lying, and murder. It left me wondering where he got his source material, but he put his finger directly on me several times. After he finished the congregation was visibly shaken. If Saint Maximos had been given shore leave I doubt a better illustration of sin could have been given. I was reminded of CS Lewis’ portrayal of hell in The Great Divorce as well as much in the better Puritans about mortification. However, there was no guilt-tripping in his message. It was the cry of a dying man to dying men, and his view of sin was far more Eastern than Western. Human sin doesn’t ruffle God’s felicity or anger Him, it destroys His image in man, reducing it to rubble and dust.

    Interestingly enough, it did not end in a call to ‘get saved’ as these things usually do. The pastor, not the speaker, asked if anybody wanted ‘deep prayer’ for a besetting sin. Only two or three brave souls availed themselves. I made an appointment for confession as soon as I got home, which was probably the reason I got providentially gobsmacked by a Pentecostal preacher. It has been a while…

    But yeah, the horror of Christmas. I read somewhere that Americans have three basic fears; fear of death, fear of failure, and fear that people will find out what they are really like.

    • Burro (Mule)

      sit down, light some candles, and read the Gospel account of the Nativity in St. Luke

      this account:

      https://youtu.be/sOofCTbv96s

      now, you will be okay . . . . we who ran around like chickens with all the preparations also need some time-out
      so I’ll sit down and join you . . . Merry Christmas, mule

      pray for Susan and for Dan and also for all of us who are too busy to keep the feast

    • David Greene says

      In spite of all the roadblocks it seems your Christmas season was great after all, just not in the traditional way. You have a way with words, have you ever considered writing a blog or a book? “Speakers who festoon the pulpits of our country” great stuff 🙂