Who doesn’t love “A Charlie Brown Christmas”? Who doesn’t smile at Charlie Brown’s sad attempt to put on a meaningful Christmas play, Lucy and Schroeder at the piano, Snoopy’s festive doghouse, and Vince Guaraldi’s unforgettable music?
But the part of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that everyone (every Christian, at least) especially loves is the scene where Linus, on stage in a spotlight, recites the King James version of Luke 2:8–14 from memory. For several years now, the internet has been extremely excited over one particular aspect of this scene: when Linus quotes the angel as saying, “Fear not”. Because at that very moment, Linus drops his security blanket—something the average viewer (that would be me) completely missed over nearly 50 consecutive years of watching this Christmas special on TV.
And that is certainly something, that dropping of the blanket, that symbolic moment of separation from our fears, of no longer needing false security when we cling to the one true Savior. (Here’s a good explanation of this scene, along with a video clip.)
But there’s another part of that scene that has always tugged at my word-loving heart over the years, ever since the first time I heard it. As a child, I wasn’t familiar with the Bible, and Linus’s speech in King James English sounded exotic and thrilling to me. While it was all pretty exhilarating, I had a favorite part; in fact, I still do. For this reason, and this reason only, do I strongly desire every Christmas day to hear the story of Jesus’s birth read aloud from a King James Bible.
Does anyone else love the phrase, “sore afraid” as much as I do?
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.” (Luke 2:8, 9)
As a child (and well into my pre-Christian adulthood), I assumed that “sore afraid” was unique to the Bible, a somewhat religious or God-inspired wording. But there’s nothing especially religious or mysterious about this phrase. The archaic adverb “sore” simply means extremely, terribly, or severely, as in (one of the very few ways we still use this word today): “When you leave, you will be sorely missed.”
In Linus’s recitation, the shepherds were sore afraid for the same reason that several people in other parts of the Bible were terribly afraid: because they had seen the glory of the Lord in the form of an angel—an awesome and fear-inducing sight.
In other Bible versions, these same shepherds are variously described as terribly frightened, terrified, very afraid, filled with great fear, and terror-stricken. And (back to the KJV now) the angel’s response is the same as the response of other angels even within the Christmas story itself, which is a quick and reassuring, “Fear not,” followed by an explanation: “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2:10)
Compare this pattern to angels earlier in the same story:
“Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.” (Luke 1:13)
“And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30)
But those who took intimate part in the first Christmas story aren’t the only Biblical characters who were sore afraid. In the King James Bible, there are fourteen passages that use this phrase. Abimelech’s men were sore afraid because he had been threatened with death for unknowingly taking Abraham’s wife Sarah (Gen. 20:8). In Exodus, the children of Israel were sore afraid when they realized that they were being pursued by Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 14:10). The men of Israel, when they saw Goliath’s immense size and strength, were sore afraid (1 Sam. 17:24). In battle, when King Saul asked his armorbearer to kill him before his enemies could do so, the armorbearer was sore afraid and refused (1 Chron. 10:4). When Peter, James, and John heard the voice of God at the transfiguration of Christ, they were sore afraid (Matt. 17:6).
Perhaps this phrase resonates with us even today because we are not immune from terrible fear. We fully understand the implications of “sore afraid” because we are susceptible to fear’s paralyzing, debilitating effects, we often feel powerless in its grip, and we feel helpless to prevent it or eliminate it in our lives. Fear is a powerful, awful emotion, unavoidable at times even for those who are otherwise strong and mature in the faith.
Two different responses to being sore afraid
Most of the time when the Bible notes someone to be sore afraid, the narrative simply acknowledges their state and moves on. But in two instances, we’re given additional information as to their response to fear.
When the children of Israel, led out of Egypt by Moses, realized that Pharaoh’s army was pursuing them, they “cried out to the Lord” (Ex. 14:10). It would be wonderful to end this paragraph here, with a gentle reminder that in times of great fear, we ought to follow their example, cry out to God, and all will eventually be well. Sadly, though, instead of waiting for God’s answer or to see what he had in mind, the children of Israel immediately began complaining to Moses, insisting that they would have been better off staying in Egypt as slaves than to face death in the wilderness (v. 11, 12). Moses responds, angel-like, “Fear not, … the Lord will fight for you,” followed quickly by the pointed admonition, “You have only to be silent.” Which reminds us that even when we are sore afraid, our cries to God are better followed with patience, listening, and a quiet heart rather than complaining, second-guessing, or stirring up trouble among people who are also scared.
Missionary Amy Carmichael looks at a quite different biblical instance of being sore afraid in her devotional book, Whispers of His Power (Sept. 13 entry). In Mark 9:6–8 (and in the Matthew reference above), Peter, James, and John were sore afraid at the transfiguration of Jesus. Peter, of all people, was nearly speechless with fright and immediately offered to build three tabernacles right on the spot, for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But then, “… there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son: hear him.’ And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves.” (v. 7, 8) The three disciples, alone and fearful in the shadow of a cloud, are not actually alone at all. Carmichael points out that it’s in these exact circumstances that we experience, as never before, “Jesus only with myself.” She suggests that we respond with thanks to the Lord Jesus who is always with us. Because, she says, what we read in the Bible “finds us where we are, meets our deepest needs, and speaks to us with a voice utterly different from any other voice.”
Which brings us back to Linus on that empty stage at Christmastime. To his friend’s frustrated cry of “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”, he answers in a voice utterly different from the world’s. When we are sore afraid, the answer to our fear and loneliness is Jesus, who is with us—at Christmas and always.
Image by Kati from Pixabay