Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
A good shepherd knows to be afraid.
Fear keeps a shepherd sharp.
The shepherds of Bethlehem who so famously watched their flocks by night were not there to play with the sheep or lounge about on the grass. The night shepherds were there to protect the sheep, listening and watching for any sign of danger, for predators in the night. Fear kept them awake and alert, listening for rustling sounds in the bushes or low growls on the horizon, for nervous bleating among the sheep, for yellow eyes blinking in the dark.
A shepherd’s fear was their first line of defense, those internal alarm bells that go off when our gut tells us something is not right. From that fear, shepherds sprung into action to beat back wolves and wild animals. From that fear, they protected their flocks. From that fear, they all reached the dawn in safety.
Shepherds carried their fear as a tool, as much as their staff or slingshot.
Fear is not always a bad thing.
Early in the pandemic, I came across an article by the Rev. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at McAfee School of Theology and a licensed clinical psychologist, an article called “the fear God gives us.” As I have wrestled with my own fear during these long months, I have returned to her article for clarity and centering.
Fear is not a bad thing, she writes, on its own, not a stupid thing, not a shameful thing. Dr. Walker-Barnes differentiates between a “spirit of fear”—when we are so suffused by fear that it permeates every reaction and interaction we have, regardless of reality—and the very natural and helpful fear that keeps us safe when dangers approach.
“The emotional experience that we label “fear” is, in fact, a remarkably complex physiological process designed to alert us to the presence of danger and enable us to respond to it,” Walker-Barnes wrote. “We were born with it. That is to say, God created us with it.”
When our senses perceive a threat, our brain’s limbic system triggers a cascade of approximately 1,500 biochemical responses that include diverting blood and oxygen away from nonessential (at that moment) organs and toward our brain, heart, liver and muscles to help us resist or escape the threat; dilating our pupils to help us see it more clearly; decreasing our sense of pain; and even producing more blood-clotting platelets to help us deal more effectively with any injuries.
In other words, the fear that triggers the limbic system makes us stronger, faster, more alert and more focused. Our ancestors would not have survived without it. This kind of fear is a gift from God that enables our survival.
Walker-Barnes was spurred to write the article by their outpouring of “faith not fear” theology that accompanied the start of the pandemic, when pastors and armchair theologians alike poured shame on anyone who chose to take precautions to keep themselves and others safe, by wearing masks or cancelling large gatherings or even acknowledging the reality of the virus at all.
I have had friends nearly apologize to me for wearing masks or avoiding large groups, as if fear in any form is something to be ashamed of. Even though their fear is keeping them—and me—safe.
“Fear is not the antithesis of faith and truth; nor does it indicate a lack of trust in God,” Walker-Barnes says. “Indeed, God created us with fear to keep us safe.”
In some ways, the shepherds were lucky. No one jeered at them if their pulses raced when wolves approached, or if they refused to leave the house without their staff. Their fear was respected, even if they themselves were sometimes looked down on, for work that was messy and brutal and smelly by turns. Shepherds were paid to be afraid, and to let that fear guide them and their flocks to safety.
I am hearing more and more from folks in the medical field that we are in frightening times. As coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths surge, our nurses, doctors, technicians, chaplains, and others are overwhelmed, and afraid. Afraid that they will have to make horrifying choices. Afraid that they will lose too many patients to bear. Afraid that they could be next, or could take it home to their loved ones. Afraid their marriages or faith or sense of self won’t survive the trauma they face each day. Afraid that it will get worse before it gets better.
We ought to respect their fear, and to carry it alongside them, in the most rational and healthy ways. The danger now is not as visible as prowling wolves or roaring lions, but it is a danger nonetheless. We would do well to have enough fear to keep ourselves and others safe. Because, paradoxically, fear can give us strength and courage: fear motivates the shepherds to face off with wolves. Fear motivates our medical personnel to show up to work each day to save the lives they can. Fear motivates us to guide our communities to safety.
There are real things to be afraid of in this world. Wolves and earthquakes. Racism and hunger. Rattlesnakes and viruses. Car crashes and atomic bombs. Cancer and conspiracies. But what we never have to fear is whether or not God cares about any of it.
You may be surprised to hear at this point that I did not set out to write a sermon about fear, but about peace. Yet what I came to determine over the week of sitting with this scripture is that the gift the shepherds’ received was not peace that erases fear, but peace that is found in the midst of fear.
The shepherds’ job was to be afraid, and when a stranger arrived in their midst, glowing with heaven’s light, they were naturally terrified. But the angel’s first words are this: “Do not fear.”
“Do not fear” the angel says, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
God knows there is much to fear in this world, I can imagine the angel thinking, but he is coming here anyway. Coming to be with you, in the middle of your fear, in the middle of your hardship, in the middle of this dark night. God is here, lying in a manger, to be with you always, to the end of the age.
What follows is one of my favorite moments in any Christmas story retelling or pageant—the shepherds crowding into that lamplit stable, to catch a glimpse of their infant savior, Mary glowing not with heavenly light but with the sweat sheen of a new mother. It’s the scene that sparked a thousand Christmas carols and paintings, and it is utter peace. In the middle of the whole Christmas story, with its angel choirs and prophetic dreams, this scene gives us the unparalleled peace of a sleeping baby.
The shepherds still had plenty to fear when they left the stable. Wolves and soldiers still prowled the edges of Bethlehem. But the shepherd’s knew now, knew in their bones, that they did not have to carry the sort of fear that erodes our faith—fear that God doesn’t care, that God doesn’t love us, that God won’t save us, however that looks. Those questions were answered 2000 years ago in the form of a tiny baby. Emmanuel is with us.
There is much to fear in this world for us still. And that fear, given appropriate reign and expression, will keep us and our communities safe. But we do not need to fear that God has abandoned us, or does not care. God is with us still. God is with us as we don our masks, and as we grieve cancelling our Christmas plans. God is with the nurses and doctors working third shift to care for our parents and grandparents. God is with the grocery workers restocking shelves. God is with the teachers rewriting lesson plans. God is with the truckers driving down dark roads. God is with us in our midnight worries and wonderings. God is with us always. We don’t have to be afraid that that will ever change.
Fear and faith are not enemies. It is possible—not just possible, but healthy and helpful—to hold faith in God’s love while honoring the power of fear to keep us safe from dangers and threats. More than that, peace can be found even in the middle of fear. Like the shepherds who found a sleeping baby in the last place a baby ought to have been, we can find peace even while dangers lurk around us.
A chaplain friend of mine is tasked with the care of hospital staff. He realized early on in this pandemic that to say “don’t be afraid” was useless and even callous. Platitudes about faith and peace didn’t help either.
So what he did was to set up a room in his hospital where nurses and technicians could step away from it all for a few minutes. Low light, and lotion for over-sanitized hands. Coloring sheets, and a wailing wall to write their sorrows on. Soft chairs, and nothing that beeped or flashed. A collection of beanie babies to hold. A weighted blanket to sit under. The items have changed as COVID restrictions have ebbed and flowed, and shared items became off limits. Sometimes all he could really offer was quiet.
The room is often empty, he told me. But sometimes he peeks his head in to find a lone nurse sleeping—or weeping—there, because what she most needed to be told was not that she shouldn’t be afraid, but just given a moment’s peace.
In the midst of all the fear, a moment’s peace.
What a gift.