"O Lord, raise up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and
with great might succor us; that whereas, through our sins
and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is
set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver
us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,
be honour and glory, world without end. Amen."
Tonight we will hear the angels tell the shepherds "Fear not," and as
we make our final preparations for that moment, it might be wise to pause
to consider those angels, those shepherds, and that fear.
There is, of course, holy fear—an awe-filled, amazed, and wondrous respect
for God in all his power and might. This fear, the Proverbs and the Psalms
tell us, is "the beginning of wisdom," because it helps us to put our lives
and everything else into perspective. There is God alone who must be pleased
and satisfied, and all else will be well.
We even pray for this holy fear when we administer Confirmation. We
specifically ask God to send the Holy Ghost to fill us with "the spirit
of thy holy fear," because it is one of what St. Paul declares to be "the
gifts of the Holy Ghost." Holy fear, then, cannot be the "fear" that the
angels tried to take away, since their job is to promote the gifts of God
and not to shield us from them.
We can find the sort of fear that the angels meant, however, very easily.
All one needs is a television remote control and a little time late in
the evening, and he can find all the fear in the world. The various news
stations are one obvious choice, especially those that broadcast nothing
but news twenty-four hours a day. Those are a lot of hours to fill, and
there is nothing like doom and gloom to fill them. Moreover, to be fair
to the newscasters, there is plenty of true doom and gloom to go around.
A little diplomatic mistake here, a technological blunder there, a madman
with a chemistry set, a blunder in setting the interest rates, and much
of every day life could easily be disrupted. People could die.
But the other "information" and "learning" channels also have much fear
to offer. There are new diseases that we have never heard of, all supposedly
coming our way. People tremble, they even weep, as they describe some new
assault on their health and lives. And one begins to understand why Christians
once routinely prayed at their bedtimes, without blushing or irony, just
to wake up in the morning.
We live in a world of fear, and it has been a world of fear since the
very first sin, when the holy fear of God was mutated into something worse:
a dread of the consequence of our own actions, a dread of the actions of
others, a dread of life itself, and a dread of the justice of God.
If this world is only a stepping-stone, a doorway into an eternal life
with God, why would anyone fear leaving it? We don’t fear leaving the train
station when our train arrives. We look forward to reaching our proper
destination. If anything, we are usually impatient to leave, except when
we are going where we do not want to go. And that’s the problem with human
life without God. We are always going where we do not want to go, to receive
what we do not want to receive.
Without God, we should be afraid. In fact, it is a back-handed compliment
to how well God has made us that we are afraid so much of the time. He
made us to know better, and to do better, and to be better. And that grace
of creation, our desire for what is better, remains at work powerfully
within us, despite all of the distortions of sin.
But if God is powerful enough to give us a longing for something better,
even when we are at our worst, how powerful must he be to give us what
we need to live, what we need to abandon dread for the comfort of the holy
fear that is only another face of God’s love for us?
That power is what the angels will sing of tonight. That power is what
is born in Bethlehem, what is raised up at Easter, what ascends into heaven,
and will return in glory on the Last Day. That power that overcomes our
fears is Jesus Christ our Lord. The history of the modern world is a history
of the growth of fear precisely because it is also a history of the denial
of the angels’ words of comfort, and of the personal, divine, and yet human
power of that comfort.
Today’s Collect, written about 1500 years ago, is an echo of the angels’
message, turned into a prayer for its fulfillment: "O Lord, raise up, we
pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor us."
It is important to see, too, that although the angels may have appeared
out of the clear blue sky, their message did not. It was an old message.
It was the promise of a merciful God, made through his Prophet Isaiah,
as we hear in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson:
Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall
rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with
his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that
are with young (Isaiah 40:10-11).
The Almighty Power that comes in Person in Jesus Christ is both strong
and gentle. It is strong enough to conquer and to rule the world. It is
gentle enough to gather up the faithful into the arms of a merciful God,
as if they were his lambs. And in those arms, the dread of sin passes away,
and that dread is revealed as an unnecessary by-product of a life lived
unnecessarily apart from God.
We do not need to fear, at least not in the old dreadful way. That is
the message of the angels. It is the message of Isaiah. It is the message
of St. John the Baptist, whom we remember today. He came to make straight
the way of the Lord because it is self-destructive and stupid to put any
obstacle between ourselves and the goodness of God. He baptized with water,
in the Name of the One who would baptize with the fire of the Holy Ghost,
a fire that warms, enlightens, and cleanses but never consumes what is
of eternal value to God, what God has chosen for eternal life with himself.
Tonight, the angels will once again offer us a choice—the same choice
that they offered the shepherds so long ago. We can have the holy fear
of loving and being loved, always, eternally, and perfectly. Or we can
have the dread of death that fills the smallest moments of a life without
the Son of God as Lord and Savior.
If Christ is our Lord, we need not fear, because he will raise up his
power mightily in our lives. This is merely another way of saying, "If
Christ is our Lord, and he rules us in all things, then he is our Savior
and we are saved." The shepherds were bright enough to know which to choose.
They went to Bethlehem and knelt down. My prayer for us all is that we,
too, will receive the grace and wisdom to kneel before Christ, for then
our worthless fears will all be done away.
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
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credit St. Andrew’s Church and Dr. Tarsitano.