A light in the darkness

Fear gives way to light and joy because of the baby born in Bethlehem. 

Jonathan R. Hein 

“They were sore afraid.” I remember reciting those words as a Lutheran elementary school student. I also remember asking my teacher what that meant—sore afraid. He took a moment, then answered, “They were so scared it hurt.”  

Not bad. Indeed, fear comes in a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is some mild uneasiness or worry. It is a nuisance, but you can live with such fear. But at the other end is crippling panic, anxiety so thick it makes you feel ill. You are sore afraid—terrified. 

The shepherd’s terror 

That type of fear—the type that makes your break out in a cold sweat—is what the shepherds experienced on that first Christmas Eve. Why? “An angel of the Lord appeared to them” (Luke 2:9). 

This is not the first time an angel appears in Luke’s gospel. In chapter 1, an angel appeared to the priest Zechariah. Zechariah “was gripped with fear” (v. 12). Throughout Scripture, when one meets an angel, fear is the normal reaction. It is not simply that the person has never seen an angel before. They have never seen holiness before. That holiness is what is so scary.  

Flaws become frighteningly visible when you hold them against the foil of perfection and power. For example, I am not afraid to play golf with my friends. They are hackers like me. My game looks just fine compared to theirs. Conversely, I would be terrified to play golf with Tiger Woods. My golf swing is hideous compared to his. The perfection of his game would expose the ugliness of mine.  

Those shepherds—face to face with a holy, perfect angel—were stripped of all illusions that they were “good people.” Their flaws, failings, and sins became all that more glaring as they looked at perfection. They knew they were far from holy.  

But there was something else that made them “sore afraid.” “The glory of the Lord shone around them.” In the darkness, they were suddenly bathed in light. But it was not a full moon or nearby bonfire. It was “the glory of the Lord.” 

You find that phrase often in the Old Testament. In Exodus 24 we read, “To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain” (v. 17). The glory of the Lord was a visible manifestation of God’s presence, and it filled the Israelites with dread. Likewise, on that first Christmas Eve, the shepherds knew they were not only in the company of an angel. God was there. Thus, the terror.  

Our fear of God 

But what makes God so scary?  

First, we are aware that God sees all and knows all. Imagine someone said to you, “I had a miniature drone following you for the past year, 24/7. It recorded everything you did and said.” Wouldn’t that be terrifying, knowing people could watch everything you did even what you did in private? Well, someone was watching. There is no “behind closed doors” to God. He is everywhere, all the time. There are no secrets you can keep from God. He can and does read your thoughts. Everything about you is exposed to him. That is scary. 

Second, we know God is our Creator. And when one creates something, it is for a purpose. The farmer plants his crop so that others might eat. The engineer designs a machine to make some sort of work easier. The artist paints to inspire others with beauty. Likewise, God made us for a purpose—to be as flawless as that holy angel, to show perfect love for God and our fellow man. But we have failed. We have not lived according to that purpose. God knows that too. That scares us. 

Third, we know that God does not let sin slide. If good tolerates evil, it ceases to be good. God is good; therefore, he must punish sin. Justice must be served. God has seen the sin you committed today. He cannot let it go. There must be punishment. It is scary truth, yet truth nonetheless.  

“The glory of the Lord shown around them, and they were terrified.” We might imagine the fear of the shepherds. Their hearts were pounding. Their legs went weak.  The silly, little things we tend to worry about in life suddenly seem just that—silly and little. They faced a legitimate reason to panic—being in the presence of an all-seeing holy God who hates sin and punishes it with breathtaking wrath.   

We have nothing to fear 

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid’ ” (Luke 2:10). 

“Angel” means “messenger.” The angel was simply sharing what God wanted the shepherds to know. Fear was unnecessary. Why? “A Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. . . . You will find a baby” (Luke 2:11,12). Yes, the glory of the Lord surrounded the shepherds that Christmas Eve, but it was not a consuming fire. God came to earth as a tiny, helpless, newborn baby. There was nothing scary about his person, nor anything scary about his purpose. He had come to be “a Savior.”  

Because God is holy, where there is sin, blood must be shed. Because God is love, he took on our flesh, so that he might have blood to shed for us, to atone for all that sin. 

The angel said, “. . . born to you.” What heart-stirring words! These were shepherds. They were not among the societal elite. No one considered them special. But their almighty God did, despite their flaws and failings. God wanted these humble shepherds to know that the Savior had come not just for some generic “world.” He came specifically for them 

And just like that, the shepherds went from being horrified to understanding they need fear nothing, not even death. Their God treasured them. “A baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” would make peace between sinners and a holy God.  

The promised Messiah would open to them—to us!—the gates of Paradise.  

We have a message to share 

I am told that having a near-death experience changes someone. A crotchety old man has a massive heart attack and survives. He’s changed—less irritable, more pleasant.  

Being inches from death helps one prioritize life correctly. The shepherds just had a near-eternal-death experience. They were forever changed, their lives reprioritized.  

“When they had seen [the child], they spread the word” (Luke 2:17). It is a dark, scary world. The shepherds had the light. They were compelled to let it shine, sharing “the good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).   

Brothers and sisters, “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). As Christmas draws nigh, meditate on that. You were a whisker away from God’s powerful hands snuffing you out. It is okay, healthy even, for that thought to send a shiver down your spine. For then, when you look into the manger, you will see more than a baby. That is the Light in the darkness. That is the Savior given to you. You will be warmed. Your fears will melt. And you will “spread the word,” just like those shepherds.  

Merry Christmas!  


Jonathan Hein, director of WELS Commission on Congregational Counseling, is a member at Trinity, Waukesha, Wisconsin.


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Author: Jonathan R. Hein
Volume 105, Number 12
Issue: December 2018

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