Merry Christmas, friends!! Today, I have a gift for you: a guest post from my best friend, Josie! ENJOY!
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.” Luke 2:10-11
I’m in the training class for children’s Sunday school teachers at our church. In preparing for the Advent season (yes, preparing for the preparing), we reviewed the three common components of the angels’ messages proclaiming Jesus’ birth, both in the annunciation to Mary and the announcement to the shepherds:
- Do not be afraid.
- God is near.
The three simple points struck me as very beautiful . . . but also very applicable, for shepherds, for children, for me.
Before my own daughters were born, I worked with children from unstable households in a rough neighborhood. At that small non-profit ministry, our first and most important task, before moving on to math or reading or character development, was to provide safety. A neurologist once visited our staff meeting to describe how, for those kids—and all kids, including my own—their brains work to obtain primary needs first: safety, food. So, once we provide a consistent environment with firm boundaries, once they know that we’ll still be there tomorrow with enough food so that they won’t need to fight for it, only then can those little brains stop fearing and move on to learn something new, to explore, to delight in the world around them.
And there the message of the angels begins: Be not afraid. It’s a salient directive not only because of the fact that these heavenly messengers must’ve been terrifying to behold—my mom’s Bible study leader likes to remind them: Angels are not beautiful women! They’re fierce warriors!—and not only because of what I know about child development, but also because of what I know about myself. I have not seen any fierce or deadly beings lately, unless you count brown recluse spiders or the ROUSs in The Princess Bride. And I’ve never gone hungry or unsheltered. Even so, my default mode is to operate out of fear. Fears may be serious (professional setbacks, parenting concerns, strained relationships) or trivial (Will these people like our house? Will they think it’s quirky and full of character, thus we’re artsy and cultured? Or that it’s small and shabby, and thus . . . what does that mean about us??).
Fear of rejection; fear of loneliness; often, the fear simply translates: protect, protect, protect. Turn into myself. I’m happy enough with my own company; I don’t need to forge new friendships. I won’t let my children do anything dangerous or be anywhere questionable. I won’t reach out to my husband in the middle of this relational dry spell. It would be useless.
How’s that working out? Not the best M.O., when it comes down to it. As with children, when fear drives you, there’s no room for anything else. But fortunately, scripture tells us the opposite works as well: perfect love drives out all fear.
Rejoice. Because of God’s perfect love, rather than fearing, I ought to “rejoice always.” Rejoice in what God has already done; rejoice in the gifts He’s given.
Our pastor described God’s grace to us being like a father who’s given his son a shiny new bicycle for his birthday. How does the father want the boy to respond to this gift? Say thank you, sure, but then go ride! Does he want him instead to visit all the neighbors and tell them what great parents he has? No, that was not the point of the gift (though the neighbors may see the boy and his joy riding, and make their own inferences). Unwrap it, accept it, delight in it.
Do I accept God’s gifts this way? And not just gifts of prosperity or the prayer of Jabez to expand my borders— but God’s gifts of His creation, the people in my life, and greatest of all, the gift of Himself? As we move further up and further into these gifts, we delight in them through personal prayer, through life with the church and in the liturgy—but we must start at the beginning: just open and enjoy.
Rejoice. This is all very well and good . . . with the good. There’s much to be thankful for, and I do want to work on my “attitude of gratitude” like Oprah and everyone else. But what of the bad? What about my friend struggling with addiction and mental illness, who’s destroyed her marriage? What about the despair, the brain tumors, the lost relationships? What about the hurt in my own marriage and the guilt as I daily fail to be patient and kind to my daughters (whom I love more than anything else)? Am I expected still to rejoice in the face of these things? I don’t know. But, wait—I haven’t made it to the third piece of the angels’ news.
God is near. My rejoicing does not need to look like Oprah or Pollyanna. It is not based on the strength of my own conviction to remain positive always. It is based on a person—but not me, hallelujah. What a relief.
Last year during Advent, I was nine months pregnant waiting on our second daughter. I struggled with mild depression both during pregnancy and postpartum, and was finding it difficult to embrace the hope of the Christmas season. As I sat one December morning with a notebook and Bible in a feeble attempt at devotional time, I thought about how far I felt from God. I felt nothing. On the other hand I was aware all the time of my physical discomfort at the end of this pregnancy: all clothes were itchy, ill-fitting, bothersome. No position—sitting, standing, sleeping—felt good. Sweet little baby, love her so, was assaulting my ribcage and crowding my lungs. I thought about Jesus’ mama, Mary, waiting like me. I was a little bitter that her maternity-wear options were most likely better than mine. (Just big robes, right?)
As I felt my baby move inside me, my epiphany came. God is near. He came physically, as real as my belly and the gritty miracle of birth. “Feeling God” took a new meaning: not emotion, but physical sensation. He was here, He gave all of Himself, even unto death—and more remarkable to me, even unto birth!
The shepherds responded to the celestial messengers by going to find the baby lying in the manger. And then “they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”
We’ve heard the what the angels told the shepherds, that a Savior was born in the most unlikely place. Sometimes all we can do is wonder at this good news, and especially at the way we meet God in the lowest, most unlikely places and times.
Be not afraid. God is here, and He will be here tomorrow. He will fulfill all your needs; don’t fret. Enjoy what He’s given; don’t strive. Rejoice that He gives all of Himself. Rejoice, even in suffering, that our God joins us in it, the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. God is not distant, but near: physically present through the crazy mystery of the Incarnation, as close as a baby kicking and crowding Mary’s lungs.