A friend of mine named Angela told me about a time when her faith was just awakening.  Raised Catholic, she had a wistful interest in spirituality though scant knowledge of the Bible.  As she started reading the Gospels she felt a sudden fascination for everything related to Jesus.  She recounted one such day:

I worked in downtown Manhattan, and I’d even stop and listen to the street evangelists and the wild prophets who stood on the sidewalk announcing the end of the world.  Everyone else mocked them or turned away.  I stood there and soaked it in.  What if they were right?

One day I was walking to the train station with a colleague from work.  I caught a subway to Brooklyn, which ran every few minutes.  But my friend took a train, and if she missed it she’d have to wait an hour, so she was always in a hurry.  It was a blustery day, and we had our heads down against the wind.  When we crossed one street and looked up, there was one of the street prophets holding a sign, “The end is near!”

He was muttering in a raspy voice, “Jesus is coming.  Start singing.”  I put my hand out and tried to stop my friend.  “Did you hear what he said?  Jesus is coming.  We should start singing.”

She brushed off my hand and kept right on walking.  “Angela, you need to get your hearing tested.  He’s saying, ‘Jesus is coming.  Stop sinning!’”

Or did Angela get it right after all?  Reading Luke’s account of the Christmas story this year, I couldn’t help thinking of a Broadway musical.  The cast of characters—an astonished virgin, a devout in-law, a tottery old man, a choir of angels—burst into song at the news of Jesus’ birth.  Even Jesus’ kinsman John [the Baptist] “leaped for joy” in his mother Elizabeth’s womb.

Like any good musical, however, this one also has a counterpoint theme: fear.  Angels who brought the message of the first Christmas felt obliged to lead with the words, “Fear not!”  Zechariah was gripped with fear, and quite literally scared speechless.  Mary was greatly troubled.  The shepherds, terrified, cowered in the field.

If you study the songs, you can sense one reason for the fear: they lived in scary times, these witnesses of Jesus’ birth.  Mary spoke with longing of a power that could scatter the proud and bring down rulers from their thrones.  Zechariah sang about “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”  In the previous centuries a succession of empires—Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece—had tramped through the nation of Israel, leaving death and destruction in their wake.  Now Rome, the most powerful conqueror yet, occupied the land.

Roman legions ruled with brutal force, repressing dissent and even invading the sacred temple to kill troublemakers.  Although Romans did not invent the practice of crucifixion, the historian Josephus reports that they used it on an unprecedented scale, lining roads with thousands of victims.  Crucifixion caused a slow, agonizing death, and made a gruesome public display of the consequences of rebellion.
“A sword will pierce your own soul too,” the old man Simeon warned Mary, a statement she doubtless pondered during her son’s time on earth.  I wonder, in the three months that Mary spent sequestered with her relative Elizabeth, did the two expectant mothers have any inkling of the trials that awaited them?  After enduring the shame of an unwed pregnancy and the ordeal of a late-term journey, Mary would have to flee to Egypt to save her baby from Herod’s massacre.  That monarch’s successor would later behead Elizabeth’s son John as a party trick, and torment Jesus in a mocking trial.

Zechariah’s prophecy of “salvation from our enemies” did not play out as he hoped either.  Like so many who encountered Jesus, he expected a different kind of Messiah, one who would lead victorious armies astride a stallion, not ride a donkey toward crucifixion.  Yet a few decades after Jesus’ death would come Israel’s ultimate humiliation, the razing of Jerusalem and the mass suicide at Masada.

Luke knew about these defeats, of course, by the time he compiled his account of Jesus’ birth.  A good historian, he avoided flashing forward to future events and kept the focus on the present, a moment in time when joy triumphed over the background of fear.  The night of Jesus’ birth, angels filled the sky, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

“Jesus is coming, stop sinning!” muttered the street prophet in New York.  With his animal-skin wardrobe and insect diet, John the Baptist was the prototype of such wild prophets, calling from the desert for his people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  But my friend Angela heard a different message.

“Jesus is coming, start singing!”  A melody of joyous hope floated through the air that first Christmas and throughout much of Jesus’ life on earth, although not everyone heard it.  Why don’t your disciples fast and pray like John’s? his detractors asked.  Why do they go on eating and drinking—with tax collectors and sinners, no less?  Jesus had a simple answer: “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?”  A new day had come, an interlude of joy in the midst of fear.

We, too, live in scary times.  Wars, a refugee crisis, terrorism, global warming, the rise of empires, a divided nation, unstable governments—we have much reason to fear.  According to Google, on Election Day, 2016, more people searched “end times” than any other topic in the Bible.  We do well to remember the setting of the first Christmas, also marked by violence, terrorism, empires, and refugees.

Jesus’ family hustled him off to Egypt to escape violence.  Nowadays, most of Jesus’ followers are fleeing the region.  Not long ago Bethlehem and Nazareth had a population 80 percent Christian; now only a small minority remains.  The seven locations where John addressed letters in Revelation have few if any believers left, and Christians in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria have virtually disappeared as a cultural force.  The media daily report hostilities against Christians in far-flung places such as China and Pakistan.  At such a time, joy can get swallowed up by fear.

While suffering from an illness that he believed would soon kill him, the poet John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, wrote a meditation on Jesus’ resurrection.  He turned to Matthew’s account of the women who discovered Jesus’ empty tomb: they hurried away from the scene “very frightened but also filled with great joy…”  In their “two legs of fear and joy” Donne saw a pattern for himself.  He who had conducted so many funerals had every good reason to fear the bubonic plague ravaging London.  Could he somehow trust God to keep his fear from triumphing over joy?  Can I?

Reading the accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection back-to-back, I note that Jesus began and ended life wrapped in restraints: the swaddling clothes in a manger, the burial shroud in a tomb.  In order to visit earth, he fully accepted its constraints—the story of Christmas, and also of the cross.  In order to restore earth, he broke out of the constraints, casting off the burial clothes to herald a new era that would end in hope and glory.  In Henri Nouwen’s words, “The resurrection of Jesus is God’s sign breaking through every form of human fatalism and despair.”

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time,” wrote the apostle Paul to the tiny knot of Jesus-followers in Rome, some of whom would be fed to lions or crucified like their master.  Mary would have liked that analogy.  As she held the baby Jesus, the childbirth pain receded into memory and her fears gave way to incautious joy.

I am listening to familiar Christmas carols differently this year.  “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains the line, “The hopes and fears of all the years do rest on thee tonight.”  Kurt Vonnegut used that phrase with a tone of bitter irony in his novel Cat’s Cradle: a nuclear physicist hears office workers singing it at a Christmas party.  Do the carolers really believe that the hopes and fears of all the years, which can be obliterated if one person presses the wrong button, rest on a Bethlehem newborn?  Do I?

Then this carol, which celebrates the message that my friend Angela misheard:

Joy to the world!  The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing….

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders, of his love.

May we remember that bright good news, this uneasy Christmas year.

[The Jesus I Never Knew]



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12 responses to “Joy to a Fear-Filled World”

  1. Deb says:

    “Jesus is coming. We should start singing.” is fabulous.

    Last night, I think I was able to talk a whole family into not blackballing each other and it turned out that I was able to show them that all of their perceptions about what happened and what was said was so far off that they all need to get their hearing and vision and thinking checked about each other.

    I was thinking about a glass being half empty or half full, but all of them were looking at 3/4 full glasses and were calling the glasses almost empty. They were focusing so much on what is wrong with each other that they were pointing to the small flaws each other had and skipping the whole long list of good things about each other.

    It brought me back to this entry, because “The end is near” sign is a type of eye glasses to see the world through and so is the “Jesus is coming. We should start singing.” The we should start singing eye glasses is the glass is so full it is overflowing type of equation.

    I have been negative about the Body of Christ, because of getting my mind so injured in the church and feeling so looked down on by the current culture, but by God’s grace, I started making a list of each of the people who injured me so that I can make a list of all of their positive attributes, because if God is going to use me to take logs out of a whole group of people’s eyes, I know He is going to want me to examine my own eyes for logs.

    I am sorry for invading your blog for so long. You are seeing one of my biggest sins and this is the one I get blackballed for and I need to keep trying to stop. I may never be welcomed in church again, because I did this a few times to other people, but I am horrified that I have been doing it to Philip Yancey.

    I found more brain research sites and I am going to continue to work on healing my brain, because I know that fear and feeling alone is why I do it.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Deb, expressing opinions and baring your soul on my blog are not sins! I read every word, and am glad you have a platform for airing what’s inside. Perhaps others will be touched or encouraged to do likewise. –Philip

  2. Philip Yancey says:

    Your passion, your thirst is so evident, and that makes you vulnerable to the damage you describe. Recognizing that is a step toward healing, Deb. I pray that God will put people in your path who can help with that process. –Philip

  3. Deb says:

    Just listened to the podcast about race and politics and grace and I am crying.

    You used the word “toxic” about the church community you were a part of and I just really got mentally injured by two toxic churches and what I can’t explain is that they didn’t start off toxic.

    I am wondering if it was Townsend or politics or “toxic” people teachings or leadership teachings….

    They teach people to avoid toxic people nowadays almost everywhere and to set boundaries and blackball people, and they don’t bring them back like 2 Corinthians said to.

    We went from Billy Graham inviting people “Just as I am” to Franklin Graham doing politics.

    I see so many people blackballing everybody who annoys them. Families around me are breaking apart.

    My sister-in-law decided to blackball my other sister-in-law, because she felt it needed to happen, even though my other sister-in-law didn’t really do anything. She did it in a way as to gather the whole family against that sister-in-law. Around the same time, my co-worker tried to do that to my brother and would have succeeded, if I hadn’t stopped the process. My friend’s father died a few months ago and my friends family have all decided to blackball one sister and they are working to separate the whole family from her and they can’t give me one “big sin” she did. She did such small things that I can’t even handle it. Christians left and right and left and right are blackballing people who didn’t do anything specific because they don’t like the “type” of person they are. They don’t just blackball them, they gather and blackball collectively and destroy their image to everyone.

    I spent my whole early walk reading about people like Darlene Rose and Elizabeth Elliot and all these people who forgave and turned the other cheek at such a radical level and, you have turned me away from looking at these communities and away from politics and away from the frustration of what is happening in race in our country.

    I would have stumbled if I hadn’t come back here.

  4. Philip…
    Just finishing my first novel (Historical Fiction). In my file is your personal letter after you spoke in Grand Rapids at Zondervan years ago. Once again your blog nailed the mood of thinking, passionate Christians and gave us the peace of Christ that passes human understanding in fear filled times.
    Merci – Dankeschoen – eucharisteo(root is “Good Grace”) – my 113 page mss is four stories of people facing death…like our good friend Walter Wangerin. The clear blog on fearful sinners singing for joy was so helpful.

  5. Jesse Dedel says:

    Thank you, Philip! Ever since the day I got my copy of the Student Bible your writings have been a great blessing to me. They have brought great clarity and a deeper appreciation of the texts of Scripture. God bless you and use you more and more to bless many more lives as you use your considerable gifts of writing, fueled by your God-given depth of insight for His glory!

  6. leslie sibanda says:

    Thank you brother Philip for your influence and writings which inspire and encourage. My name is Leslie Sibanda and l am lawyer born and residing in Zimbabwe. l had a powerful encounter with God on 21 December 2016. God has given me a gift to teach his word and l want to study theology. Can you recommend any excellent colleges or universities that l could study with?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Tyndale House at Oxford has a good program. Wheaton College, Westmont, Gordon, Azusa, and Whitworth are some here in the US that I’m familiar with. Go for it!

  7. Bane Angles says:

    I love you my brother, though I have never met you. Through your books, videos, articles, and blogs my heart has been warmed, my faith stretched and reassured. I can relate to you in so many ways. Your influence can be seen in my preaching, my teaching at a Christian University, and perhaps most importantly in my spiritual life. Thank you, I hope to someday meet you, but then again I feel like I already have. Bless you

  8. Aleks Tan says:

    Thank you, Philip, for these thoughtful words that ministered to me and my wife, Daphne. Joy-filled Christmas greetings from all of us at OMF Literature in the Philippines.

  9. Neil Fichthorn says:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed your books and writings which I have read in other places (Daily Bread). I love your approach. Today a friend sent me your post on “Joy to a Fear-Filled World” and, once again, I was impressed and felt a kinship in thinking…until you quoted “Joy to the World”! It certainly fits your though process but is very misleading. One day I realized that the lyrics are not talking about Christ’s birth at all, rather Christ’s millennial reign. As a person who likes to check things out (as do you), I looked it up on Wikipedia and found this:”Joy to the World” is a popular Christmas carol.[1] The words are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on the second half of Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. Watts wrote the words of “Joy to the World” as a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a song celebrating his first coming.[2] The nations are called to celebrate because God’s faithfulness to the house of Israel has brought salvation to the world.[3]”

    As stated earlier, I admire your thoughts and writings. Correct me on this one if I’m wrong.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      You’re not wrong, and thank you for this clarification. I had always seen it as similar to Messiah, by Handel, from whom some of the music came. You’re probably familiar with the double-fulfillment character of prophecy, where clues may refer to more than one event (e.g. the nation of Israel contemporary to the prophets and a future restoration, which some apply to the church). Handel’s famous work certainly did that–and the Messianic psalms often do as well. The one portion I quoted, “Let every heart prepare him room,” seems to me to refer to an in-between time, but can be taken either way. I checked further, and what you say is true. You’re a sharp reader, thanks! Funny how these things happen. Handel’s Messiah was written for Easter. Go figure… –Philip

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