Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on December 24, 2000
C. S. Lewis said, "There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion ('Man's search for God') suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing he had found us?" The Christian faith in general and Christmas in particular are the proclamation that he has found us. And when he did, it was, for a moment, as threatening to the Shepherds as Lewis' quotation suggests. Before they could rightly hear the good news of joy to all peoples in vv. 10-11, they had to get scared out of their wits in v. 9. Why did the angel begin with "Fear not?" Because he was frightening. Angels are not cute and cuddly and encounters with them are not "precious moments" but profound shocks to the system. Why? Because they shine with the reflected glory of the greatness of the majesty of God.
An angel is a more intense concentration of the glory of the Creator which David says is declared by creation, specifically the heavens (Ps. 19:1). Probably, none of you has ever seen this declaration as our ancestors did, for the night sky is damped, even in the remotest areas of N. America, by the "light pollution" created by the electric lights of our cities. Even in the remotest places you can go East of the Mississippi, like camping on top of Albert's Mountain off the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, a place you can only reach by a couple days of stiff hiking or by being lowered from a helicopter, the lights of Greenville, S.C. streaming up from over the horizon in the East blank out half the glory the heavens were able to declare to David. Once, I saw the stars much as he must have, in a village in the Andes with no artificial illumination stronger than a kerosene lamp even over the horizon. And I thought I was going to die. They were not twinkling prettily but pulsating dynamically as if they were going to bore holes right through you. It was very exciting but also a little frightening. But the angel who appeared to these Shepherds--men who were used to the night sky in all its pristine splendor--was more than a little frightening. They were "sore afraid."
We can try to compensate for our visually impaired concept of the sky by our greater theoretical knowledge of it. The sun, our own neighborhood star, is 300,000 times the mass of the earth. The energy which it lavishes on the insatiable sponge of space come from the conversion of 974 million tons of hydrogen into 970 million tons of helium every second. Four million tons of matter a second is thus transformed into energy. An infinitesimal bit of that reaches the earth and fuels all the life in its biosphere. The sun is 93 million miles away from us. That energy, traveling at the speed of 186,000 miles per second, takes 8 minutes to reach us. The next nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light years away. If it went supernova right now, we would not even know it until March of 2004. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains 100 billion such stars. The known universe contains an estimated 100 billion galaxies. Not even to mention quasars, pulsars, black holes . . .
Now, the idea of God means that the Power that made and maintains and controls all these vast unimaginable forces is a Person--who can see into your heart right now. If you find that a comforting thought--if you are not threatened by it to the point of extinction and reduced to dust and ashes--then you are dead or deaf or just plain stupid. If the Being who is as absolute in power and intelligence as he would have to be to be the Creator of this universe is just as absolute in burning moral purity, as the Bible clearly teaches, then what must he think of us? Our standard defense against such thoughts is to say, "I'm not so bad." Do we really suppose such an argument has any force with a Being such as we are describing? That you are only a petty sinner? Hmmm.
In an earlier version of this message preached in another church, someone accused me of "scare tactics." Just preach the love of God, she urged. But my point is precisely to magnify the love of God by beginning with the reality of God. The only doorway that leads to an adequate appreciaton of vv. 10-11 leads through v. 9. We have such a superficial grasp of God's love because we have tried to get to the Good News by making an end run around the Fear Not. It is just as in that most misunderstood sermon of all time, Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." All the infamous imagery of God dangling the sinner over the flames of Hell like a spider over a campfire is there to say, "Look: God hates sin this much. And he still sent his Son to save us!" So his love must be a powerful and profound force indeed if it can overcome his hatred of sin.
In other words, it is only when we have seen God as GOD and ourselves as he must see us that we are in a position to get the impact of what the birth of Christ means: We have a Savior! Now we can understand why the Gospel is called Good News: nothing less could transform the glory and reality of God from the threatening idea it ought to be to the comfort it is. Hence my summary of the whole history of religion:
"The smoke of Sinai slowly clears away
To show a Baby lying in the hay."
So let the glory of the Lord shine round about you, and be sore afraid. And then listen to the angel's words, the message of Christmas: "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all peoples. For unto you is born this day in the city of David as Savior, who is Christ, the Lord."
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams