Christmas Eve, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Don’t Be Afraid!
Merry Christmas! And welcome to Christmas Eve at Life Center.
ILL: Adam, a bright-eyed 3-year-old, had been told of his German heritage. So at his church, when someone asked him if he had a part in the Sunday school Christmas pageant, he smiled and said, “Yes, I am going to be a German shepherd!”
You probably didn’t know there were German shepherds at the manger. There were shepherds there, because an angel had appeared to them—and it scared them.
If you were to see an angel, would it freak you out a little? Do you think you’d be afraid? Most people in the Bible were, which is why the first thing the angel usually said was, “Don’t be afraid”. Four times in the Christmas story an angel appears to someone, and each time the angel says, “Don’t be afraid”, but each time gives different reasons. We’re going to look at those four stories, and see why Jesus’ coming is the ultimate reason to let go of our fears.
Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Have you ever prayed and prayed for something, and it didn’t happen? Prayer is a mystery. The Bible tells us to pray and God will answer; but sometimes it seems like our prayers go unheard and unanswered; it can be discouraging. The first angelic visit in the Christmas story is an answer to a long-time prayer. Here’s the story.
1. Don’t be afraid: your prayer has been heard. Luke 1:5-25
Zechariah was a Jewish priest who served at the temple in Jerusalem. He and his wife Elizabeth were very devout—they loved God. And they had prayed for years for children, but Elizabeth was unable to conceive. Now they were older—past child-bearing age—and it seemed like their prayers were not going to be answered.
One day, Zechariah was working at the Temple and he was chosen to go into the Holy Place and burn incense on behalf of the people praying outside. He was alone in the Temple when suddenly an angel appeared to him. It scared the bejeebers out of him! So what is the first thing the angel said to him?
Luke 1:13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”
The angel goes on to describe John (we know him as John the Baptist) and the work he will do: he will go before the Lord to prepare the people for His coming. John would be the forerunner for the long-awaited Messiah.
“Don’t be afraid; your prayer has been heard.” The angel reassures Zechariah that the reason for his visit is an answer to his prayer. Not every prayer warrants an angelic visit; and not every prayer is answered the way we want. But God does hear our prayers, and it’s a good reason to not be afraid.
ILL: Laina and I identify with this story; we struggled with infertility—one in 5 couples does. We tried to get pregnant—I won’t say any more about that—and finally saw a doctor who told us that Laina had polycystic ovaries. Our chances were pretty low; he asked us what we thought about adopting.
We had always wanted to adopt, so we happily started down that road, but we also prayed that we would get pregnant, and felt like God spoke to us and said we would.
In 1982 we adopted Andy—picked him up when he was three days old. And in 1983, we adopted Jeff when he was two days old. Both those boys were an answer to our prayers. And then on the day we picked Jeff up, Laina’s cycle started spontaneously for the first time in 7 years. Thirteen months later, we found out Laina was pregnant. Our doctor was all smiles: “It’s a miracle,” he said. Because we had taken so long to get pregnant, he ordered an ultrasound to make sure everything was ok. And the ultrasound tech said, “There’s two in here!” When Sally and Amy were born, we had four kids, 3 and under! Woohoo! Don’t you love that picture? We got pregnant again and Michael joined us 3 years later. Those were fun years!
Don’t be afraid; your prayer has been heard. What have you been praying for?
Christmas was actually the answer to thousands of prayers, millions of prayers that had been prayed over centuries. “God, send our Savior. Send the Messiah to redeem and rescue us.” It wasn’t just Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer for a child—it was the prayers of millions for a redeemer that were being answered that first Christmas. We have a Savior! Don’t be afraid, your prayers have been heard; we have a Savior!
Christmas reminds us that God hears our prayers.
So we’re going to pray. The Bible says that you don’t have because you don’t ask. Millions of prayers go unanswered because they are unasked. Don’t be afraid to ask; God will hear your prayer. Here’s what we’re going to do. On your program, you’ll find a tear-off for prayer. If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be? Maybe it’s a long-term prayer, like Zechariah and Elizabeth’s. Or maybe it’s a very current concern. I’d like you to write it on that tear off, and then we’re going to pray. Our team is going to sing for us. Some of you will want to keep this prayer slip—put it in your Bible as a reminder. Some of you will want to give it to someone you know and ask them to pray with you. And some of you may want to bring it up here and set it by a candle.
In the past few weeks, we’re written our fears on rocks, and given them to God and made an altar with them. We’ve texted our biggest challenges to ask God to help us. We’ve written on cardboard what we would give if we had no fear. And now we’re writing our prayer and giving it to God. I like to think of it like folks writing their prayers and sticking them into cracks in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. This will be our Wall of Prayer.
Write your prayer. Then you can keep it and pray. Or give it to someone and pray. Or bring it up here and leave it with God. And the wall will be open after service if you want to bring it then.
Our team is going to sing—let’s bring our prayers to God. Don’t be afraid; your prayers have been heard.
Prayer/paper/Song (I’ll close in prayer)
Here is the second story:
2. Don’t be afraid: you have found favor with God. Luke 1:26-38
Six months after visiting Zechariah, the angel Gabriel visits a young woman named Mary, who was engaged to a man named Joseph. The angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was perplexed and confused—what did this mean?
Luke 1:30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.”
Don’t be afraid; you have found favor with God. We’ll look at what that means, but first, here is the rest of their exchange. The angel said:
Luke 1:31–38 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Don’t be afraid; you have found favor with God.
Mary was chosen for a very special role—to bring Jesus into the world and be His mother. Many Jewish mothers prayed that her daughter could be the favored one, the one chosen to bear the Messiah. Mary was that favored one—and with that favor came the pain of watching her Son die on a cross.
Don’t be afraid; you have found favor with God.
Christmas reminds us that we have found favor with God.
While we are not favored in the same way Mary was, each of us is favored by God. The word “favor” translates the Greek word charis, which is often translated “grace”. You have found favor or grace with God. This is the gospel—the good news—that God is showering you with favor you don’t deserve. Someone said mercy is not getting what you deserve, and grace is getting what you don’t deserve. We don’t deserve God’s kindness, favor, love and grace—but that’s what we get. Jesus came to bring the grace of God to all of us. Now, it’s not just Mary who is favored—it’s you too. Your sins are forgiven. You are reconciled to God and loved and accepted by Him. And all this is a gift of grace, given to you by God, and wrapped in a baby in a manger.
Jesus came to bring God’s grace, God’s favor to us. He launched his ministry by quoting Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Forgiveness, acceptance, new life, heaven—they’re all gifts. Mark Twain said, “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out, and your dog would go in.” You have found favor with God.
ILL: Marjorie Kitchell was preaching a Christmas sermon at her church. Here is her story:
I had hoped to illustrate the availability of God’s gift of salvation. “Whoever wants this beautiful Christmas poinsettia may have it,” I said to my Sunday morning congregation. “All you have to do is take it.” They stared at me. I waited. And waited.
Finally a mother timidly raised her hand and said, “I’ll take it.”
“Great! It’s yours.” That’s what I wanted—quick and easy, and on with the application of my sermon. But to my astonishment, she nudged her son. “Go get it for me.”
“No,” I said. “Whoever wants this gift must come and get it personally. You can’t send a substitute.”
She shook her head, not willing to risk embarrassment. I waited again. It was a gorgeous flower, unusually large, wrapped in red cellophane with a gold satin ribbon. It was set in front of the pulpit to brighten our small sanctuary during the holiday season. Several people had commented on how beautiful the plant was. Now it was free for the taking.
Someone snickered, “What’s the catch?”
“No catch,” I replied. “It’s free!” No one moved.
A college student asked, “Is it glued to the altar?” Everyone laughed.
“It is not glued to the altar. Nor are there any strings attached. It’s yours for the taking.”
“Well,” asked a pretty teenager, “can I take it after the service?”
I shook my head, though I was tempted to give in. “You must come and get it now.” Today is the day of salvation, I thought as I marveled at the power of passive resistance.
I was beginning to wish I’d never started the whole thing, when a woman I’d never seen before stood up in the back. Quickly, as if she were afraid she’d change her mind, she strode to the altar and picked up the plant. “I’ll take it,” she said.
As she returned to her seat carrying the free gift, I launched with enthusiasm into my text, Romans 6:23. “The gift of God is eternal life.” Believe. Receive. It’s free!
When the service had ended and most of the people had gone home, the woman who claimed the poinsettia came to the platform, where I was picking up my Bible to leave.
“Here!” She held out her hand. “This flower is too pretty to just take home for free. I couldn’t do that with a clear conscience.” I looked down at the crumpled paper she stuffed into my hand.
It was a ten-dollar bill.
All that…and she still missed the point. Please, don’t miss the point of Christmas: you have found favor with God. Forgiveness is a gift. New life is a gift. Heaven is a gift.
Don’t be afraid; you have found favor with God.
3. Don’t be afraid: God is at work. Matthew 1:18-25
A couple months after the angel visited Mary, it was time for a visit to Joseph. When he discovered that Mary was pregnant, and knew that he wasn’t the father, he decided to end the engagement quietly.
Matthew 1:20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Don’t be afraid, Joseph, to take Mary home as your wife. God is at work here. This isn’t what it seems. As improbable as it seemed to Joseph, this pregnancy was not a result of human activity, but God’s activity! God was at work to save us. The angel continued:
Matthew 1:21–25 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Don’t be afraid, Joseph; God is at work. Why would Joseph be afraid to take Mary home as his wife? It would ruin his reputation. Everyone would assume that he was the father of this baby conceived out of wedlock. It would be a tacit admission of guilt. Joseph is described as “a righteous man”; it would be hard for such a man to throw away his hard-earned reputation. It had better be for a good cause. It was. God was at work, saving the world.
Christmas reminds us that God is at work.
And God was up to nothing less than saving us! The name Jesus means “God saves” or “God to the rescue”. God came to save us when we couldn’t save ourselves.
ILL: In his book, Detours: Sometimes Rough Roads Lead to Right Places, Clark Cothern tells of a Christmas when his family had an unexpected house-guest. A squirrel had fallen down their chimney into the wood burner stove in the basement of their home. Cothern writes:
I thought if it knew we were there to help, I could just reach in and gently lift it out. Nothing doing. As I reached in…it began scratching like a squirrel overdosed on espresso.
We finally managed to construct a cardboard box “cage” complete with a large hole cut into one side, into which the squirrel waltzed when we placed the box against the wood burner’s door. We let it out into the safety of our backyard.
Later, I thought, “Isn’t it funny how our little visitor had frantically tried to bash its way out of his dark prison? The harder he struggled in his own strength to get free, the more pain he caused himself.”
In the end, he simply had to wait patiently until one who was much bigger could carry him safely to that larger world where he really belonged.
That squirrel couldn’t save himself—he needed someone bigger to come to his rescue. That is what we need the Lord to do for us—and what He did on the first Christmas.
This is the gospel: Jesus is God to the rescue. God is at work! Here is the difference between religion and the gospel. Religion is all about what I do to reach God; I am at work. The gospel is all about what God has done to reach me; God is at work. Religion is spelled D-O. The gospel is spelled D-O-N-E. The good news is that God is at work and done for you what you could never do for yourself.
Don’t’ be afraid, God is at work
4. Don’t be afraid: I bring you good news of great joy! Luke 2:1-15
About seven months after visiting Joseph, and nine months after visiting Mary, it’s time for another angelic visit. Here’s the story:
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Don’t be afraid, for I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. When the shepherds saw the angel, they were terrified. In the Old Testament, when people saw angels, their first thought was usually, “Uh-oh.”
ILL: How many of you, when you were in school, ever got called to the principal’s office? What was your first thought when you heard the voice on the intercom say, “Mrs. Schwarz, will you send Joe Wittwer to the office, please?” Uh-oh. I’m in trouble.
That’s the shepherd’s response. They hadn’t seen “Touched by an Angel”; they just thought they were in trouble. And for good reason: shepherds were a disreputable group—a little shady, generally untrustworthy—not the guys you want your daughter to date. So when these guys see an angel, what do they think? “Uh-oh! We’re toast. We’re in big trouble.” And they were afraid.
Don’t be afraid. We bring good news, not bad! In fact, it is good news of great joy for all the people. It’s great joy for you…and you…and you…and you. For all the people…from the most righteous saint to the most sinful shepherd.
I love that God picked them to hear the news first! It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the gospel story: Jesus, the friend of sinners. Jesus, who hung out with the marginalized, the outcast, the rejects—and who died on a cross between two criminals.
The whole story shouts, “This is good news of great joy for all the people.”
Christmas reminds us of the gospel: it is good news of great joy for all the people!
ILL: Christmas morning we’ll open our gifts—like all good Christians do. Of course, the highlight will be watching the kids—we have five grandchildren ages almost 2 to 6.
I remember when our own kids were that age. One of my favorite Christmas memories is one year when it took us the whole morning to open our gifts. Each gift had to be tried out. For example, one gift was a bathtub toy. The kids were all so excited that we drew a bath and they played in the tub for an hour! When we dried them off, we asked if they wanted to open another gift? “There’s more?” Yep. They opened the next gift and played with it for an hour. It took all morning!
Isn’t it fun to watch your kids open a gift that you know they’ll love? To see the joy and delight on their faces? Nothing is better. A few weeks ago on my grandson Zealand’s birthday, he opened a new pair of shoes that light up when you walk—something he’d been asking for. Do you think he was excited?
I love to give to my kids or grandkids. I love to see their joy.
Don’t you think God our Father delights to see our pleasure? These shepherds rushed to Bethlehem where they found the newborn Messiah cradled in a feeding trough in a barn, flanked by sheep and German shepherds. Picture the terror on their faces when they saw the angels. Now picture the joy when they saw the baby—and knew that this baby was their Savior, Christ the Lord.
We give gifts to celebrate the great gift that God gave on the first Christmas. And our kids’ joy as they open their gifts is a reminder that the angels brought “good news of great joy that shall be for all the people.” Nothing will give God more pleasure than for you to open and experience His great gift to you. Have you received Jesus?
Don’t be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy for all the people.
Prayer to receive Christ
Candle-lighting and Silent Night