What do you think of when you think of the word ‘heaven’? Traditionally, the word heaven has been used to talk not just about the place where God is, but also simply to talk about that great big blue (or grey, as it is now in the British winter) thing that’s ‘up there’ – and just as the sky feels a long way away, so heaven is often thought of as being a long way away, wherever it might be. But given the chance… wouldn’t we all like to get a glimpse of heaven? Wouldn’t it be great if heaven weren’t so far away?
So what would happen if heaven were to break through into our world? Well that’s exactly what we see when the angels appear throughout the Christmas story. There are three times in Luke’s story of Christmas when angels come down from heaven and physically appear before individuals: Zechariah (Luke 1:12), Mary (Luke 1:29) and the shepherds (Luke 2:9) Both Zechariah and the shepherds respond with fear, and although Mary is not explicitly spoken of as being afraid, the angel’s first words to her are ‘Do not be afraid’. Our common, cultural mindset depicts heaven as a tame place, of warm thoughts and fuzzy feelings. But throughout the Bible, we clearly see that when heaven breaks through into our world, the response it brings about in people is one of great fear. And really, it is no wonder, because we have been afraid ever since the beginning, when Adam and Eve disobeyed, realized their nakedness (Genesis 3:7-10), and hid from the presence of God because they were afraid. The mere presence of a single angelic creature caused such great fear… one can only imagine what would happen were the whole of heaven unleashed and opened up into our world. Surely it would be a frightening thing for heaven to enounter earth.
That is what makes the birth of Jesus so extraordinarily spectacular. That in Jesus, not just some heavenly being, but God himself, who created all things and by whose strength all things are held together, broke through into our world. In all his fulness, God entered into our world, and those who saw him were not afraid but instead were able to marvel at a small baby lying in a manger. In Jesus, where one would rightly expect to be afraid, we are instead invited to come and embrace and enjoy intimate fellowship with God. So it is that we sing of Emmanuel (‘which means God with us’)… so it is that he was named Jesus (which means ‘the Lord is salvation’). Instead of fear, we are able to sing of ”peace on earth and mercy mild’, because at the birth of Jesus is God’s grand plan of ‘God and sinners reconciled’. Ever since mankind’s first disobedience, there has existed fear of God in the heart of every person, but here in Jesus we find that God himself has come to conquer our fears and to bring us back into peace with himself.