Date: December 22, 1935
Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. – Luke 2:10
Father of all joy and love: As we look forward to the birthday of Thy Son, our Savior and King, we earnestly beseech Thee to send Thy Spirit into our hearts and homes, so that during these crowded days we may have time and thought and love for Him who, though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor. Heavenly Father, we confess that our desires have not been directed to the cradled Babe of Bethlehem as constantly and as joyfully as Christmas demands. Come, then, during these happy, holy days, with Thy purifying, sustaining Spirit and make this Christmas a day of rejoicing for weary souls, a memorable day of encouragement for the oppressed, a sacred day of reconciliation for those at enmity, a spiritual birthday for many souls that even now are walking in fear and darkness. Show us all the full radiance of the faith and hope that spreads abroad from the Christmas-message: “Christ, the Savior, is born”; and accept the faith of our hearts and the prayer of our lips as we blend our voices with the angel chorus and exult: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Bless us for the sake of Thy Son, our Savior. Amen.
DURING the early winter of 1755 the pioneers in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, threatened by Indian massacres, fled for refuge to Bethlehem, where Moravian colonists had established friendly relations with the red men. But the Indians had been aroused to such frenzy that they broke truce and planned a bloody attack on that village. As Christmas approached, the signal fires flared brightly on the surrounding heights. The tribal drums rumbled in fearsome rhythm. The war-whoops, reechoing through the hills, filled the besieged settlers with horror and heart-quake.
Christmas dawned, a Christmas of sinking fear. Yet enough courage triumphed in that crisis to perpetuate a time-honored custom, as young and old in Bethlehem gathered to sing their early morning praise to the new-born Christ-child. The chorals ended,—and never, perhaps, have Christmas anthems been intoned under more crushing weight,—the worshipers returned to the grim suspense of watching and waiting for a Christmas Day attack. Hardly had the fighting men of the village resumed their guard when, to their unbounded joy and astonishment, they watched the red men break up camp and disappear from sight in the distant, wooded hillsides. Miraculously, it seemed, the fear of bloody massacre was averted. Later, when peaceful relations had been reestablished, the reason for the retreat was revealed: while the war council of the chiefs prepared for the attack, the winds wafted the Christmas carols to the wigwams on the hills, and those sweet melodies soothed the savage breasts. Thus on Christmas Day did these settlers find peace in the Lehigh Valley Bethlehem, a release from the fear of poisoned arrows and dripping scalping-knives. In that Pennsylvania Bethlehem God blessed Christmas-song and Christmas faith, and terror was turned into unrestrained rejoicing.
Retreating horizons have all but isolated the American Indians in their reservations. Today we work and play and sleep undisturbed by the specters of attack and massacre. During this Christmas season assemblies of red men and their children sing the very hymns that the trembling colonists in Bethlehem caroled on that memorable Christmas. We thank God that there are among American Indians some who tune in our broadcasts and are united with us in the fellowship of Christian faith. Yet perhaps more than any other generation in our history we are besieged in these disenchanted years by the war-fires of other enemies, dismayed by encircling fears, which leave many of our homes and hearts fearful of the future. And now Christmas is at the door, the seventh since the sudden collapse of our much-vaunted wealth and industry. Hearts heavy with the burdens of dismay; lives crushed by the juggernaut of heartless commercialism; world-worn souls cowering before the terrors of every new day, wonder how Christmas can dispel the fear that dominates their lives.
How, indeed, we answer, unless their souls hasten to the first Bethlehem, the Bethlehem of Judea, and behold in the cradled Babe the Savior of their souls. What though a hundred fears and a thousand terrors threaten them? Once they hear the shepherds’ invitation “Come, let us go even unto Bethlehem,” and they go to find the miracle of divine love in the Christ-child, God manifest in the flesh, then and there fear will be transformed into spiritual courage. Before the Babe of Bethlehem the legions of earth’s stampeding terrors sink prostrate.
Nothing less than this is the promise of the first Christmas carol: “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” Luke 2, 10. By the power of the two words “Fear not” I direct you
TO BETHLEHEM FOR THE ESCAPE FROM FEAR
and I ask you even now to prepare your souls for that holy pilgrimage which will bring you to the manger and through the Christmas faith to peace, joy, and happiness now and forever.
THE TYRANNY OF FEAR
“Fear not,” the angel cheers the shepherds in his soothing Christmas-message. And is there any tyranny more cruel and relentless than the dominion of fear? Three centuries ago, when Shakespeare penned his immortal pages, he employed the word fear 600 times. If he were writing today, he would repeat that four-lettered word, 6,000 times; for the fears and the tremblings of men have multiplied faster than the years.
In our own country many thoughtful citizens cannot rid themselves of a vague apprehension concerning our country’s destiny. They read, as we did the past week, of the possibility of extending our national indebtedness to $70,000,000,000; and recalling the disastrous swath cut by inflation in other nations, they listen with dismay to the economists, who now predict a reaction “even more severe than the depression which began in 1929.” They survey the carnival of crime within our boundaries and wonder how the blessings of God can rest upon the country that leads all civilized nations in the number and frequency of major offenses. Mothers hear the rumble of warfare in Africa, and tracing the fine hand of munitions profiteers and traffickers in youthful blood, they fear that their own sons may be demanded as sacrifices for a new war in the Old World across the seas. Christian youth sees the onward march of the godless radicals in our large cities, as atheistic Communism launches into a program of increasing audacity, and beset by doubt and dismay, these young men and young women wonder whether our flag or the red flag will wave over their America tomorrow.
Now, many unconcerned souls are not disturbed by the fear of national trends; but even placid lives are tyrannized by other mighty fears today. Millions are harassed by fears concerning food, clothing, shelter. Multitudes who a few years ago enjoyed comfort and complacency live in a continued nightmare, as mistrust and suspicion concerning their business, their investments, their money, prey upon their minds. Into the lives of those signally blessed mortals who have more than they need may come terrifying moments when their blood will run cold and their teeth chatter. Even the strongest are obsessed with the dread of disease and of death. They know by the mortality rates that on the average about 4,100 people die every day in our country and Canada. They realize that day after day the relentless grind of life brings them closer to the inevitable end; and no matter how they may seek to conceal their timidity and how boisterously they may take recourse to denial and bravado, beneath the mask of their all too human pride there is the clutching, gripping fear of death, before which strong minds quail.
No emotion that stirs the human heart is more disastrous than fear. In its intense forms it often paralyzes the brain, stuns the entire body, and produces the cold sweat of terror. Less severe, in the form of a hundred worries, it often helps to streak the hair with gray and to dig furrows into human countenances. Fear besets its victims with shadowy phobias; it rides in hysterical flights; it sucks joy out of life and chokes off all peace of mind. Its victims are often afraid of life and afraid of death, until, caught in the rip-tides of flooding fright, they frequently seek the cowardly suicide’s exit in the slow suffocation of a closed garage or in the mangle and the spatter of death on the sidewalks at the foot of our skyscrapers.
Nor is there any human escape from the stranglehold of fear. Thousands are trying to drink themselves out of fear, to drown their fright in alcoholic forgetfulness. If God now charges me with the duty of speaking to you men whose browbeaten wives and children are the victims of your bestial, brutal drunkenness, let me say in warning not only that you cannot escape fear in drink, but also that one of the worst terrors known to medical science is the tremble and tremors which finally overtake the drunken sot. Let me plead in the name of all that is honorable and decent and happy in life as well as for the sake of your eternal welfare (for God’s Word plainly states that no “drunkards . . . shall enter the kingdom of God”) that you ask God for strength to fight this besetting, deforming sin, and start a new page in the record of your family annals that will be blessed by abstinence and love and consideration for those who are near and dear to you.
Neither can men buy themselves out of the clutches of fear. If riches were the key to the courage of joy, we would find the strongest security in the homes of the wealthiest. But kidnapers never snatch away children of the slums. Extortion is never directed against those that are on relief. Factory workers need no body-guards. Fears increase as fortunes rise. Since it is a fact that men with millions cringe in dread of family strife and scandal, that a corporation president with an annual salary of a million dollars hangs himself, that bankers carry charms and wear amulets, you can understand why the Bible warns against the perils of wealth.
Nor can we think ourselves out of fear. It is true, books published in large numbers promise to change fearsome, mouselike timidity into lion-hearted bravery. I read such a book last week, and as I laid it down, I could think of nothing more than of the lost wayfarer who tries to pull himself out of the quicksands by his own boot-straps. The superstitious are said to pay more than a hundred million dollars a year to fortune-tellers of various kinds and trust charlatans to solve their worries. But all this, even the fashionable religions that rule fear out, will fail. We must rather understand in a personal and individual way that all the care and worry, all the fright and terror, all the pains and the horrors of life, must be traced, directly or indirectly, to the influence of sin. Fear began with the first sin, when the first man, answering the call of the Lord God, “Where art thou?” confessed: “I heard Thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid.” And behind every fear in your life and in mine lurks a sin, either our own sin or the unhappy consequence of some one else’s transgression. Full in the face of modern preachers who have deleted the doctrine of human depravity from their sermons and have skilfully pushed sin far into the background (unless it be the glaring sin of the murderer, the extortioner, the racketeer, and the robber), straight into the teeth of those who would rule sin out as passe and disguise its sting by deceptive terms and attractive masks, the Bible asserts that “all have sinned”; it shows us that fear is the consequence of sin and that only when sin is removed, can fear be successfully exiled. How, then,—and this is the searching question that arises daily from tens of thousands of souls,—can sin be removed and its reign of terror wrenched from our hearts and lives?
THE RELEASE FROM FEAR
The answer is found in God’s great Christmas-gift and in the announcement that reverberated over Bethlehem’s plain: “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” Because the slow centuries had run their course and the “fulness of the time” brought Him who was “to save His people from their sin”; because—contradicting our poor powers of understanding—that Babe in Bethlehem is the only-begotten Son of God and the virgin-born son of Mary; because—and this is the foundation truth of Christianity—if you believe it, no matter who you are and what you are and where you are, you are saved now and forever—because “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners,” here at Bethlehem and here alone we find forgiveness, granted by pure, unearned, undeserved grace. “It is,” exults the apostle, “the gift of God.”
That first Christmas-greeting “Fear not” is but the beginning of Christ’s comforting triumph over the forces of fear. He greets His terrified disciples on the sea with the calm “Be not afraid.” He comforts a ruler in Israel grieving over his daughter’s death with the sustaining “Be not afraid.” When He sends His disciples out into the sworn hostility of the world, He raises His voice in benediction to declare: “Be not afraid.” When they show concern about food and clothes and protection, He strengthens His followers with the soothing instruction: “Fear not.” When the passion of hatred rages against Him and His, He tells His little flock: “Fear not.” And among His comforting words solemnly uttered before His resurrection was the benediction: “Be not afraid.”
This victory over fear has mightily proved its power. The most fearless and courageous hearts of all history—and I say this for those who sneeringly charge that Christian faith is weak and effeminate—have not been the leaders on bloody fields of battle, but the men of God who have faced crushing odds with unflinching heroism. To prove this truth, I could tell you of a fair-haired maiden chanting a hymn of praise to God on the sand of a bloodstained arena amid the gibes and curses of heathen hatred, a moment before Numidian lions tear her body to pieces. I could show you an intrepid young hero challenging the wrath of an empire with the cry: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.” But I shall recount only one instance of Christian bravery, which suggests itself for this season. In 1814 Samuel Marsden, the first missionary to New Zealand, began his work for Christ among the native Maoris. Unable to find a navigator with sufficient courage to take him to this land of cannibals, Marsden had purchased a small brig, and set sail for New Zealand. He arrived the day before Christmas and was greeted by a band of naked warriors, each heavily armed with clubs and spears, some displaying necklaces made of the teeth of decapitated enemies, others sporting silver coins plundered from unfortunate strangers. As Marsden approached, suddenly the warriors began their war-dance. Hideous screams rent the air, spears were brandished, faces were distorted by frenzy, every muscle, it seemed, twitched in this wild fury. That night, Christmas Eve, a solitary pioneer in the advance of Christian missions, Marsden, slept on the island, surrounded by cannibals who had devoured his countrymen. On the morning of the Savior’s birth Marsden, encircled by barbaric hostility, preached the angelic message of Christmas Day: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” For years there were no converts; death followed him at every step. Yet through cannibalism and gory feuds Marsden heard the “Fear not” of his Savior. While others would have fled for their lives in a hundred different dangers, he stayed at his post and finally saw his loyal work blessed by God in the conversion of the savages.
Amid the change and decay, the upheaval and collapse, of this headless and heedless hour, when we see men’s favors change, fortunes vanish, good names disappear, ambitions crash, and high hopes rudely blasted, I ask you to find the same joyful courage at Bethlehem. Remember, you who anxiously pace up and down along the uncertain paths of life, that this Christ-child can shelter you, so that you will be immovably secure under the omnipotence of His grace. No combination of life’s bitterest sorrows and most penetrating pains is too formidable to be swept aside by Him who brings salvation to His people. If in His name you can face the multiplied forces of sin and challenge: “You may turn my heart away from God for a while; you may beguile and overpower my lustful flesh and then seek to indict me before the tribunal of my conscience and before my God; but in the newborn Savior I have the ‘Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace’”; if you can face the battalions of hell and exult: “You may hold momentary and short-lived triumph over me when in heedless moments I give the lie to my Christian conviction, but by faith in God’s Son, who descended from the realms of heavenly splendor to the lowliness of His nativity, I receive new power and consecrated strength to tear off the bonds that would bind me to hell”; if you can face the last enemy, death, and exult: “The paralysis of your withering blight may grasp this body in its greedy clutch when I return to the dust from which I was taken, yet by the birth of this deathless Redeemer I know that I, too, will be born again into a heaven of sinless, stainless beauty”; if you can confront all these fears of life with the confidence that rests its hopes in this Child of Bethlehem, what is there left in life that can disturb you?
Your worries about food and clothing? Think of the sparrows on the housetops, the lilies of the field, and remember that, if the God who provides for them regards your soul as so eternally precious that He gave His Son for its redemption, He cannot fail to sustain you in any present and future anxiety. Are you afraid, disturbed by mounting debts and shrunken incomes? Are you apprehensive of hidden and personal problems, gnawing diseases, family troubles, and a host of other overpowering difficulties? Then, crashing through all the barricades of doubt, cry out in exultant Christmas faith: “If God spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him freely give us all things?”
Come, then, whatever your problem is, however formidable the unsympathetic forces of life may seem, wherever you may have vainly sought the dawn of help, follow the guiding shepherds to the manger. Come and believe that by accepting this Babe of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh, the Immanuel of fulfilled prophecy, as your Savior, fear is transformed into radiant faith, the tears of heart-wrung sorrow into a sparkling diadem of hope, the dead ashes of rankling bitterness into the beauty of holiness.
Come hither, ye faithful, triumphantly sing;
Come, see in the manger our Savior and King!
To Bethlehem hasten with joyful accord;
O come ye, come hither, to worship the Lord!
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.