(continued…) When I was a child, it never would have occurred to me to be afraid of God. After all, every week at Sunday School in the old church basement we sang “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” But the more I have seen of the world and of myself, the better I understand that we might well be afraid of God. The familiar catechism phrase says “we should fear and love God,” and it is important to think about what fear might have to do with Christmas.
As I said, as a child I did not understand why the catechism said I should fear God; but I did know what it meant to fear my father. He was not mean to my siblings and me, nor was he unreasonably harsh in his discipline. But when we pushed our more lenient mother too far, and she said she would tell Dad, we knew it was time to back off. We feared getting in trouble with Dad, who always said he was from ‘the old school’ and proud of it. And his anger and strict discipline was not because he did not love us. Rather it was because he loved us all equally—and he did not want us older and stronger kids beating up on, or taking advantage of, the smaller and weaker ones, even if they were pests. Nor did he want us growing up without respect for authority, be it his own, or my mother’s, or the schoolteachers. Nor did he want us neglecting our responsibilities. So, for all sorts of good and loving reasons, he could get very angry, and his wrath was to be feared. Every little sinner needs someone like that to fear in that way.
With that in mind, just think of how anger must rise within God as he looks at what humankind has done to the good world God created and gave to us; and when he sees what his children do to each other. Imagine God’s wrath as he looks around the world and sees not one country, not one home, not one heart in the entire world that is not corrupted by sin. Think of all the wars past, present, and in the making, about to erupt any time. Think of all the countries where religious freedom is denied, and Christians are persecuted and killed for proclaiming the name of Jesus. Think of the victims of crime, abused spouses, neglected children, the hungry, and the homeless. The more we understand this, the more we might well be afraid of the wrath of God. Christmas is the story of God coming to earth. We have many reasons to fear such a coming and not welcome it.
This does not just involve all the disturbing stories on the news, but also each one of us. It is not only ‘someone else’ who makes God angry, but you and me. How angry it must make God to see us squabble and bicker in our homes over trivialities, when he has given us so much. How angry it must make God to see us, who have been blessed more than anyone on earth, still not be satisfied, but envy those who have more or better. How angry it must make God to see so many who call themselves His children ignore him, approaching their faith so half-heartedly, and seeing God as an intrusion in their important lives. How angry it must make God to see how miserable we make things for each other. The more one thinks about it, the more we might well fear the wrath of an angry God. We are so used to hearing of forgiveness and love and grace and all the other pleasant thoughts that we don’t even think about the wrath of God. Both are in God’s Word, and we must remember to ‘fear and love God.’
At Christmas time we celebrate God’s coming to us, but all common sense and logic would tell us that meeting God should be a thing to be feared and dreaded. The high standards for life God has set forth or us in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount bear no resemblance to life as it is on this planet, and God has every right and reason to come in anger and violence.
But the angel comes to Mary to tell her that God is coming, not in anger or wrath, but as a baby– a tiny, helpless, vulnerable, little baby, who cannot hurt anyone. The prophet Isaiah had foretold it when he said, “Unto us a son is given; unto us a child is born, and his name shall be (among other things) the Prince of Peace.” Years later, the angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid. You will give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus, and he will be great and he will be called the Son of the most high, and his kingdom will never end.”
The Christmas story is so familiar that if we don’t pay close attention, we can miss all of its most important lessons. And one the most important lessons, and biggest surprises, is that when God comes into this fallen and wicked world, he does not come in wrath, but says to Mary and to the shepherds and 363 other times in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.”
This does mean that God is no longer angry about our sin. There is as much of the wrath of God in the New Testament as in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament we see it all dealt with on a single afternoon, on a hill outside of Jerusalem. It happened 33 years after that ‘silent, holy night’ of Jesus’s birth; when Jesus, the grown man, was crucified and put to death. There was even more reason for God to be angry. But there and then, somehow, the justice and mercy of God came together, and the forgiveness of sins was won for all people, all who would receive it, all who would look to Jesus in faith.
And on the third day, when the tomb burst open and Jesus rose from the dead, there was again, great fear all around. But once again, the first words of the angel were, “Do not be afraid. He is risen.” God comes not in anger, but rather submits himself to the anger of men, and dies, and then he rises. And he says to you, “I have come so that you may believe in me and be saved.”