And they were sore afraid.
I remember asking our grandfather, Rev. O.F. Owens, what Luke meant when he wrote that the shepherds were sore afraid (Luke 2:9, KJV). Of course this was more than sixty years ago and we didn't have the more recent Bible translations to decipher the King James English. Now, I know it means they were terrified, filled with great fear, hyper-frightened. At the time he explained that the shepherds were gripped by a fear that made their bones rattle and ache. You know, sore afraid. Then he said, "Boo". Made sense to me.
Truth is, we live in fearful times. In a survey conducted by the Morning Consult of 1,999 Americans on October 15-17, 2016 (go here for the actual polling information as reported by Vox.com) our fears run the gamut of expected worries. In the shadow of last year's election 61% of those surveyed feared corrupt government above the rest of the polling options, perhaps a reflection of the national uncertainty after such a nasty election. What is somewhat humorous is that 42% feared clowns more than terrorist attacks, gun rights infringement, death of a family member, economic collapse, Obamacare, biological warfare, climate change, or such dreaded phobias as heights, needles, spousal cheating, or ghosts. Two things were obvious from reviewing this research. One, Vox.com may lean a little left in formulating their survey options. And, two, the spate of weird clown sightings around the nation between August and Halloween must have triggered this trendy clown thing.
More seriously, livescience.com reports that 19.2 million American adults, 8.2% of the adult population, deal with extreme fear, something frightful in the phobic category. These range from #1, a fear of dentists, down through a list of animal phobias, fear of thunder and lightening, flight, the dark, harrowing heights, other people, scary places (like elevators), creepy crawlies (spiders, etc), and snakes. For many years Forbes and other media sources close to the business pulse of the nation listed a fear of speaking in front of people as our greatest dread. All of this fearsome stuff has led some observers in the psychological community to label us the "culture of anxiety". One site, fearof.net posts a list of the 100 top phobias in the American population. If you want to grow a little more anxious you can study it here. Happy holidays.
An angel spoke words of comfort to the sore afraid shepherds that night outside of Bethlehem. Luke recorded it this way---
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great
joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby
wrapped in swaddling cloths 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, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Luke 2:10-14, ESV
it is a familiar word from God to his people throughout Scripture, the admonition, "Fear not". And, who wouldn't be trembling when confronted by the heavenly host in a shepherds field in Judea. As a sidebar I've often thought it may be the reason that angels appear to us humans in disguise, you know "unawares" as noted in Hebrews 13:2, so that we wouldn't be scared out of our wits in their presence. But, the point is that in history God had always brought his people through harrowing times with the reminder that he was with them and that they should not fear.
Studies affirm the debilitating force of fear when it reigns over humans. Psychology Today magazine explains that fear is the outcome of an anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience (see www.psychologytoday.com). Just as fear can invade our minds and hearts and paralyze us, it can also grinch the joys, peace, and hopes that should rightly attend the celebration of Christ in this blessed season. Ask the child screaming in Santa's lap if he or she is feeling so jolly right now.
And so, God gives us ample words of encouragement to lighten the weight of our many fears. Someone has said that there are 365 combinations of "fear not" or "Do not be afraid" in the Bible, one for every day of the calendar year. Now, I haven't counted them and many Bible teachers label this claim as urban legend passed down through the generations to amplify the biblical truth of God affirming his provision for our fearful times. Who knows? But, this is true. God has promised his presence to guide and direct the lives of his people. His word to us in every generation is, "Fear not", and it is certainly a word we need to hear in this complicated world.
The events of Christ's birth were stupendous then, and form the central miracle of redemptive history to this day. Life is this fallen world is fearsome at many levels, no doubt. Still, what the angel spoke to the shepherds that night in Bethlehem is the comforting word he has spoken to his people throughout history. And, it is his word to us now. Paul spoke a power word to his younger colleague Timothy about the fear that can distract and overshadow us---
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7, ESV
Through the prophet Isaiah, God gave a word to the nation of Israel---
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will
strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous
Isaiah 41:10, ESV
it is the season of good news of great joy. We must not permit our fears to grinch those virtues from us as we celebrate it.
There's a verse that has been special to Harriet and me since our sons murder six years ago. it reminds us of the stance we should have as fear and anxiety invade our lives. Peter wrote,
Humble yourselves, then, under God’s mighty hand, so that he will lift you up in his own
good time. Leave all your worries with him, because he cares for you.
1 Peter 5:6-7, ESV
It is the humble recognition of his provision for us that enables courage in a world when we can so easily be sore afraid.