In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings,favored woman! The Lord is with you!” Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.“Fear not, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. For the word of God will never fail.” Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.
“Fear not” is a common theme in the Christmas narrative. It occurs four times in a few combined chapters from the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
- Luke 1:12-13 – Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah!”
- Luke 1:30 – “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God!”
- Matthew 1:20 – “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
- Luke 2:10 – But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.
On each occasion, the words rolling off the tongues of angels.
Today, fear has a negative connotation, almost exclusively, even in Christian circles. We avoid it at all costs. It has nothing to teach us.
Advent gives us a different picture of fear, however.
Fear, rather than exclusively negative, is a natural reaction to encountering the Truth.
Write that down.
Fear happens anytime humans encounter something larger than themselves. As we become aware of our smallness in light God’s eternal vastness, our hearts open to awe and wonder. Awe and wonder are essential for any real experience of God. “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living,” says Abraham Heschel.
This presents a particular problem, however, for Christians living in an age of reason. We refuse to stand in awe of anything, not even God. We’re a technologically-advanced, highly intelligent culture, after all.
But when we lose sight of God’s eternal love and immense power, we tend to make ourselves the center of the universe. When we can’t bow down and worship God’s greatness, we will almost always worship our own.
I honestly believe that as Proverbs 9:10 says, “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom.” But these timeless words are incomprehensible, offensive even, to our culture. We will not fear God. We will not stand in awe of anything.
In doing so, we crucify wisdom.
We need a fresh image of fear. Fear can teach us, if we allow it. It can remind us who we are and loosen the chains of pride. It can awaken us to the presence of God in our midst, open our heart and mind to the things that really matter, and give us the courage to acknowledge our deepest anxieties and insecurities.
This is healthy, holy fear.
Admittedly, I avoid the KJV translation of the Bible much the same way I avoid cats (devilish creatures). I confess, however, that I prefer the KJV’s translations “fear not,” as opposed to most modern translations, “do not be afraid.”
The former is a direct assault against the toxic effects of fear. The latter is weak and watered-down, a modern-day translation that parallels our modern-day response to fear, avoid and run from it.
Say the words slowly and you can almost hear freedom.
What do you fear most, or at all? Losing your spouse. Losing your job. Your children turning away from God. Cancer. Isolation. Depression.
Now, state your fears. Write them down. And after every one, write the words, FEAR NOT.
I’ll go first.
I fear not being important, becoming a “nobody.” FEAR NOT.
I’ve been sober for four years, but every day I fear I will relapse on porn and my life will subsequently fall apart. FEAR NOT.
I’ve battled Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for four years, and every day I fear my symptoms will return and the effects of my symptoms will make me unable to keep a job and support my family. FEAR NOT.
I fear Tiffani and/or one of my kids will die suddenly. FEAR NOT.
This exercise is therapeutic. It really is. It’s a hopeful, freeing reminder that fear must finally bow to God.
This little exercise also reveals the correct response to fear: intimacy. Unfortunately, no one tells us to draw near to our fears, not even in the church. And I’m not sure why.
When we draw near to fear, we discover it has no substance. Fear is “not,” nada, nothing.
Our fears derive their power from distance, in fact. When we suppress, numb or pretend they don’t exist, we play right into fear’s hands.
Advent pulls back the curtain on fear, exposing it for what it is….nothing.
Fear has no real power over hearts. But this is only true in light of God’s presence and unending love.
We must redeem the “fear of the Lord,” a holy fear that humbles us and awaken us to awe and wonder. Only in redeeming a holy fear of God can we lay bare our heart’s deepest fears and with confidence proclaim:
What do you fear most? Write your fears down. State them aloud if that’s your thing. Then, with conviction, follow each one with, “Fear not.”
Father, I confess that I close my heart and mind to awe and wonder. Show me your glory. Remind me of your greatness. Redeem in me a holy fear. I also need the courage to confront my heart’s deepest fears. You know them, Lord. I no longer want to run from or deny them. I want to expose my fears to the Light. Amen!