Angels appear throughout the Christmas story, and whenever they appear the first thing they say is "Do not be afraid." This happens four times during the events of the birth of Jesus. When an angel appears to Zechariah, to inform him that his elderly wife is going to have a baby boy (John the Baptist), who is going to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, he first says to Zechariah, "Do not be afraid."
When the Angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she is to bear a child, who is to be the son of God, he says "Do not be afraid."
When the angels appear to the shepherds to declare the birth of Jesus, they say "Fear not."
And when an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, he says "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit" (Mt 1:20)
If there is one message to take from the Christmas story, a message which we need to hear today, it is this: "Do not be afraid".
We live in a world where there is great uncertainty, and where people are concerned about the future.
There are growing tensions between North and South Korea, and ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Closer to home, there are fears about the state of our economy and terrorism. As we slowly emerge from one of the worst recessions in living memory, the Government has been forced to make painful cut backs, which affects us all. Many people have been made redundant, and many more are anxious about their futures. We have seen students taking to our streets, in protest to the increase in tuition fees, and there is the prospect that we may see more scenes like this in the coming year. And in our own personal lives too this year will have been marked as all years are by the usual mix of joy and sorrow of triumph and disaster.
So the words of the angels to "Do not be afraid" are very relevant for us today.
But why should we not be afraid? The angels go on to say "I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)
This is the incredible message of Christmas. The creator of the universe, the eternal and everlasting God came into the world as one of us. Born not into wealth or power but squalor and poverty. Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter. A more lowly place of birth could not exist.
The all powerful, all mighty God, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who was larger than the universe became a tiny infant. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the care of a young couple. Emmanuel, God with us.
Jesus' birth, reminds us that God came to the world in order to make himself available, to be accessible to everyone.
And the promise Jesus gave to us was that he would be with us always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20). This does not mean that life will be plain sailing, or that we will be protected from disappointments and setbacks along the way, but it does mean that God is with us in those situations. God loves us, and is with us no matter where the journey takes us, taking our hands and walking beside us, guiding and sustaining us. There is no better news. There is no greater security.
Just as God is to be found in a vulnerable and helpless child, shut out in the darkness and the cold and the grime of a stable, so he is to be found in any situation. In whatever circumstances we have to face, he is always saying to us: 'Do not be afraid. I am with you'. When we realise this, it helps to bring new life and hope to our lives, as well as the promise of a new future.
The message of the angels to us is 'Do not be afraid! To those living with the fear of war, do not be afraid! To those who are struggling to make ends meet – do not be afraid. To those who have lost their jobs - do not be afraid. To the hungry, homeless, sick and suffering in our world – do not be afraid. To the lonely and grieving – do not be afraid. Why? Because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.