This past week I received a year end solicitation letter which began with this sentence:
“Let me just put it out there – it’s been a tough year.
(And, no it wasn’t from the church.)
I anticipated the next line to say something like…
We faced unexpected expenses…
We found ourselves with less support…
We responded to additional needs…
And now we need your help.
Instead the second sentence read:
Ebola. ISIS. Unaccompanied children at the border. Gridlock and partisanship in Congress. And we could add Syria and Nigeria and Ferguson and Staten Island and hands up and I can’t breathe. Let me just put it out there – it’s been a tough year.
Then, alongside all those headlines in the news which bring tears to our eyes or a knot to our stomach, we hear these two words from the Bible: Fear Not. I find myself thinking about these two words a lot at this time of the year. Not only because of the world in which we live, but because these two words seem to be a recurring refrain which runs through the Gospel narrative we remember and read as we move through these Advent days towards the celebration of Christmas. And, maybe even deeper than that. Those two words – Fear Not – may be a recurring theme that runs through the entire Gospel witness.
The world can be, and sometimes is, a scary place.
It was for Mary.
It was for Joseph.
It was for the shepherds in the field abiding.
It was for the disciples when they huddled together at the foot of the cross.
And, it is for us.
In the face of the world as it is, only a fool would not, at least, be cautious, if not out and out afraid. And, since I do my best to take the witness of the Bible seriously even if it means I sometimes find myself in an intense lover’s quarrel with some of what it says, foolish is not a word I usually use as a modifier for God. And so right smack dab in the middle of Advent I am left to wonder what in the world these two words mean and what they have to say to me…and to us…today.
As I thought about it this week, here is what I began to realize.
The Fear Not of the angels is not said about the world per se, but about God.
Not God as somehow vengeful or vindictive or angry or condemning you or me to hell if we do something wrong. I will leave that kind of God to others. That is not a God I can believe in.
But the Fear Not is about that intersection of the world as it is…
Ebola. ISIS. Unaccompanied children at the border. Syria. Nigeria. Hands up. I can’t breathe.
And, what Jesus called the Kingdom of God which Marcus Borg defines as what the world would be like if God were in charge and Caesar was not. Whoever and wherever Caesar is today.
The Kingdom of God, which we pray for each week.
The Kingdom of God where all have enough and all have a place.
The Kingdom of God where swords are remade into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
The Kingdom of God where the world would be more what it looks like from space than what we see when we look at a map. And, so very different from the world you and I encounter each day.
The intersection between those two world views is the place where it is scary.
Power and prestige are never relinquished easily.
Standing hard for peace creates tension and conflict.
Peeling back layers of misconceptions and misunderstanding about others is painful.
Dropping off food for the food pantry is easy. Grappling with the stark reality of why so many are hungry and then trying to do something about it is hard.
It is into that space, between those two worlds, that the angel comes.
In the Gospel narrative, the Fear not of the angels is not about the birth of the child, however we imagine that birth happened, but about what that child, when grown, would dream and do and teach. And then turn and bid you and me to do the same.
“Fear not.” The angel says.
But, I can tell you, at least for myself, for the toe I occasionally push into that space between those two worlds, what is and what might be, it is a scary place to stand and sometimes even just being close to that space I get a knot in my stomach.
“Fear not.” The angel says.
But somehow, and God only knows how, Mary found the courage to say yes.
As did Joseph. As did Jesus. As did Peter. As did Paul.
As did Dorothy. As did Martin. As did Nelson. As does Francis.
And, as did so many others from that moment until this.
So, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, maybe we can find the courage and the strength to do the same.
“Fear Not.” The angel says.
For who you are called to be and where you are called to stand in that complicated and scary boundary between the world as it is and God’s Kingdom come.
Fear not because that is the place where God already is.