The Hopes and Fears

You likely have those things that, when they come along, you know that Christmas has arrived. Maybe it is a decoration, a specific food, a particular song, or a certain smell in the air—whatever it may be, when it is present, Christmas is here.

For my brother and me, when we were children, it was “The Wish Book.” My mother would bring home that thick catalog full of nothing but toys. My brother and I would sit on the couch together with the book between us. (Legs touching, mind you. None of the usual “He’s on my side!” or “He’s touching me!” The Wish Book Peace Accord brought a temporary cease-fire to the usual sibling rivalry.) And for hours, we would look, page by page, at all the offerings. Dreaming. Wishing. Anticipating. Christmas is a time of anticipation. It is a time of waiting. It is a time of hope.

When we use the word “hope,” we must understand that the biblical use of the word is far different from the use of the word in English today. When we use the word “hope,” we usually mean wishful thinking in uncertain circumstances.

“I hope the severe weather misses us.”

“I hope all the family can make it in for Christmas.”

“I hope we have that great sweet potato casserole again this year.”

“I hope my great aunt does not make that Jell-O salad…again…ever…”

All of those are based on wishful thinking in uncertain circumstances.

Biblical hope, on the other hand, is different. Biblical hope is a confident and favorable expectation of a future reality. We have assurance that a good thing is coming, and we wait for the reveal. We anticipate the fulfillment. This kind of mindset does not say, “I hope so,” but “I know so.” We can say, when the Bible makes a promise, that we can look forward to that promise coming true; it will become reality, and it will be a good thing when it does happen. Why? Because we are not basing our hope upon our uncertain circumstances but upon the character of the unchanging God.

Biblical hope is a lot like a gift waiting for you, but you just don’t have it in your possession just yet. The present has your name on it, and one day you will finally get to see what is wrapped in that ribbon and covered with paper.

Christmas Eve is full of anticipation because the hope and the realization are so close to meeting finally. You have waited all year, and now the fulfillment is hours away. Christmas is a time of unwrapping, of unveiling, of revealing. Christmas Eve looks forward to that moment. But the hope of that first Christmas did not start the night before, or even the year before, but many, many years earlier.

The prophets throughout the Old Testament spoke of a coming Messiah. They looked forward to the One who would come and set everything right, but even they did not understand all the details fully. Peter writes that these prophets searched their own writings for a clue about the details concerning the Messiah:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories (1 Peter 1:10-11).

The finer points of Christ’s arrival were wrapped up in mystery to be revealed by God at a time of his choosing. But the prophets did speak of his coming. After all the other prophets pass from the scene, we come to the last prophet in the last book of the Old Testament, Malachi.

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming,” says the LORD of hosts…”And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 3:1, 4:6).

The promise was for one to come and make the way ready for the Messiah. This promise was not just a promise to mend families, but the hearts of the fathers also refers to the faith of their fathers, the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob–the faith in God that their fathers held.

After Malachi’s revelation, God “goes off the air.” For 400 years, there was no new revelation from God. No divine unveiling. No angelic messengers. No fresh word.

Only silence.

But let us not forget that there was still activity during this time. Israel still worshiped God, continued to make sacrifices and religiously followed the Law while the rest of the world raged on.

Don’t think for a moment that God was inactive though. He was preparing the world’s stage for the revelation of the greatest gift of all at the exact moment he had planned before the first “let-there-be” echoed through the universe. Paul writes in Galatians, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son…” (4:4). This was no accidental or incidental event, but a grand orchestration by the Creator, Sustainer and Provider. 

During these 400 years of silence, the Greeks rose to power. Alexander the Great conquered much of the eastern world, and Israel landed in the hands of the Greeks after wresting control of Persia. As a result, Greek culture (including the Greek language) spread to the far corners of the earth.

The Ptolemaic dynasty arose in Egypt, Cleopatra became queen, and then was queen no more. During this time, the Roman war machine conquered the Greeks and took from them the lands in Europe, Asia and Israel too, and while there was no new word from God, he was at work.

The Romans, though militarily harsh, created a time of great peace. Their road system linked the distant lands of the empire in a way that had never been imagined before. Most of the people of civilized earth were joined with a unified way to travel and trade, and the common language of the Greeks provided a unified method of communication. When you consider that there also existed a depraved cultural morality so thoroughly devoid of merit that the pagans even spoke out against it, we come to understand that the world, in every way, was primed for a message of hope.

The culmination of all the orchestrated events had arrived. The fullness of time. The exact right moment. As a priest was doing his duty, the divine silence was broken and a ray of light pierced the prophetic darkness…

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John…

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:5-13, 16-17).

When the angel’s voice ended the heavenly hush, the first words spoken were “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” The name “Zechariah” means “The Lord has remembered.”

The silent waiting of hundreds of years was broken by the statement, “Do not be afraid, the Lord has remembered.”

Your prayers have been heard.

Do not be afraid.

The promise will be fulfilled.

Do not be afraid.

This child will grow up to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah.

Do not be afraid, because the Lord has remembered.

Zechariah did not have all the details. That is where faith comes in. Always and always our fear will square off against our faith. But Zechariah was not alone in receiving a visit from an angel. Later, Mary received a message that pushed the boundaries of her faith as well…

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy–the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:26-38).

It is hard to imagine what Mary must have felt. Surely, she had heard that the Messiah would come one day, and she, like all of Israel, was waiting for his appearance. But to hear that she herself would give birth to the King of the Universe as he would come and dwell among his people in the flesh was a staggering thought.

She was fearful, confused and overwhelmed. How can this be?

Do not be afraid.

The child to be born will be called holy.

Do not be afraid.

He is the Son of God.

Do not be afraid, for nothing will be impossible with God.

Mary surrendered to the truth, to the call, even without a complete understanding: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Faith wins. This faith was not required by Mary alone, but by Joseph as well…

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25).

This was not the way Joseph had planned things to go. Legally bound to Mary, he had discovered that she was pregnant. But, instead of publicly shaming her, he decided to quietly dissolve their bond and the completion of their marriage. With another angelic visitation came another revelation to the man wrestling with his next course of action.

Take her as your wife.

Do not be afraid.

This is of God.

Do not be afraid.

You shall call His name Jesus.

Do not be afraid, for he will save his people from their sins.  

It was not Joseph’s plan, but it was God’s plan. Joseph was willing to upend all his dreams and desires for something — for Someone — far better. A wise person once said, “When you surrender your desires to God, he will always give you what is best for eternity.” In Jesus, God gave Joseph and Mary and all the world what was truly best for eternity, even in the midst of doubts, fears and uncertainty.

The connectivity of these threads of Scripture reminds me of the line in the song “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that runs like this: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  

At that manger, that night, all the hopes and fears of the world met. That little infant drawing his first breath in human form, a breath smelling of night air, hay and animals, was the same God who gave breath to all the living. This tiny baby grew to be a man, a man who just before breathing his last, cried out that he paid for all sin and settled the divine price for justice with his very life.

In Christ, all our hopes and fears still meet, and in him, we find that he is the fulfillment of all our hopes and that he is greater than all our fears. As you look ahead to tomorrow, and all the days to come, you may be fearful about what that time holds. What would you voice to him? What would those fears of the future sound like for you?

“I keep praying but get no answer. I have been waiting for so very long. It seems like God has forgotten me.”

Do not be afraid, because the Lord has remembered.

“It seems like my life is out of control. I am overwhelmed with worry. There does not seem to be any way anything will ever change.”

Do not be afraid, for nothing will be impossible with God.

“My past mistakes are weighing me down. I have hurt too many people, even those I love. I don’t know if I can be forgiven.”

Do not be afraid, for He will save His people from their sins.  

No matter what you face, regardless of the things that may rise up in your heart and mind, even if a person or event or circumstance threatens to shake your comfort, peace, or every moment of your Christmas season, your life and the lives of those you love most, know this to be true: He remembers you. He is Lord. He is Savior. He is Immanuel – God with us. 

As you look forward with great hope and anticipation, or great doubt and fear, of what lies ahead, let me echo what has been said to so many so many times before…

Do not be afraid, for Christ has come, and he is with you.

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