The first ‘fear not’ visitation was the Archangel Gabriel’s visit to the priest Zechariah announcing that his prayer – his decades-long prayer for a child had been heard. The news, designed to bring ‘joy and delight’ to Zechariah, first produced fright. So what’s up with that? Why the scare? Do you have to be off-balance – in order to receive good news?
I can relate to Gabriel’s mission. As a boy, if I knew my older sister was going into our unfinished basement, say to get something from the freezer, I would run around the outside to get there first. I would crouch or stand hushed in a shadow so that when she walked by… well, you get the picture. I, like the Angel Gabriel, wanted to bring joy and delight… just not to my sister. Read the passage (Luke 1) and see if it doesn’t sound like a similar set-up. Zechariah just happens to be chosen by ‘lot’ to burn incense in the temple, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Remember only the priests actually entered the temple interior – approximately 30 x 60 – a dimly lit sacred space. Imagine this elderly priest, after extensive preparation, padding solemnly into this supposedly ‘empty’ chamber, while the crowd waits outside. Is this not a perfect time for a scare?
I can’t help but picture Gabriel, with his back to the Holy of Holies, holding his breath (if archangels breathe) waiting until Zechariah gets within an arm’s length and then he jumps out. Well, Luke doesn’t say that Gabriel ‘jumps out’, but rather, “Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” But that’s even better! I would have given anything to ‘suddenly be standing there at the right of the freezer’.
Luke tell us, in strong language, Zechariah’s response; he ‘was startled and gripped with fear.’ Then Gabriel says, ‘Do not fear… your prayer has been heard…”
So if God didn’t want Zechariah to be afraid – why ambush him in a dark room? Why send an arch-angel? I believe God wanted to knock Zechariah off-balance. In fact, I believe that ‘off-balance’ is the only way that we will hear good news. And sometimes not even then.
In Zechariah’s case, the good news was that he would be given a son. But this was difficult for Zechariah to receive. His first reaction is to object. “How can I be sure of this?” he questions. A moment before, Zechariah was immobilized with fear, but now he is challenging an Archangel? Knocked off-balance, Zechariah quickly tries to recover. He is looking to regain his balance; he is trying to regain control. He wants a guarantee before he believes. He wants to dictate the terms of the gift. And so you have to wonder, what does Zechariah want more – the child or the control?
That’s why God scared him in the first place. God is showing Zechariah a central truth. Receiving is about trusting, you have to let go of control. You cannot have both.
This is true when you receive any gift. But it is especially true when the gift is a child. Any parent knows, you begin losing control immediately upon conception (sometimes right before…). You think that having a child means that you will take the child places – to the park, hardware store, grandmas. You think you will teach them about life. But the opposite is true. The child takes you places. The child will take you to fears, angers and jealousies you did not think possible of yourself. And they will take you to heart-rending passion you thought you could hide. You will find yourself applauding loudly the most awful acting. You will cry crocodile tears over endearments scrawled on smudged cards. And you will be driven to deep shame over displays of wanton selfish bickering and then the next moment feel chest-bursting pride at your child’s act of compassion to a bug or sibling. You find that the child which is so yours in looks and moodiness, is so not yours. They grow up. They have a life of their own. You cannot receive the gift of a child without simultaneously letting go of them.
Zechariah and Elisabeth would have found this out soon enough with a toddler. And if they lived long enough, they would have seen their son John – full of the Spirit from the womb – begin to dress and eat strangely – and cry out a message that shook one kingdom out and another in. They would have seen this baby boy thicken into a shaggy-maned man whose voice thundered repentance; calling a nation to lose their hearts to God all the while he was to lose his head. Yes, John – their gift from God, was their boy, but never their possession. He was to be a joy and delight to them, but never on their terms. In order to receive the gift of God, you must first lose control.
And that is why God intentionally frightened Zechariah. He had to empty the old man’s hands in order to fill them. Christmas begins with a scare. God wants to empty our hands so that He can fill them to. In order to receive the gift of God’s salvation, then you begin by doing the most terrifying human act. You drop control. To gain your life – you have to let go of it.
You must receive into your life – the life of the Christ child that will grow up in you in unexpected ways. You must let his life take you to all the places you dare not go alone – into all the fears and angers, all the jealousy and selfish bickering. And then, the most scary part of all, you must let him stand and rejoice over your fumbling attempts at love and laugh crocodile tears as He receives your endearments.
That’s what really knocks you off-balance. The unbelievable good news that God offers His life as a gift exposes our foolish attempt to gain it on our own. It is frightening that we might chose control over His love. So hear the news. God wants us. He wants us to be His child – His delight and joy. This is why Gabriel sneaks up on Zechariah. This is why John lost his head. This is why Christ was born.
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. In addition to counseling individuals and couples, Roger teaches and leads discussion groups about applying the Bible to everyday life. He is a licensed professional counselor, holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean, and they have seven children.