“This saber-rattling with North Korea really has me scared.” “I’m worried that with this new tax plan, I will have to quit graduate school.” “I live in fear every day that my son will be deported.” “Of course, I carry a gun. I ‘m afraid someone will just up and open fire on some crowd I‘m in. No place is safe and it scares me.” “I’m thinking of selling my condo on the beach; I’m worried about what climate change is doing to the sea level.” “I have to have more tests but I’m really scared that it’s cancer.” These are all things I have heard people say just in the last week.
Worry and fear seem to be particularly pronounced in the current climate of our country and the world. And, let’s be honest, there is much to be worried and fearful about! From national and international tensions to the dis-ease in our own bodies and the body politic, to the mundane worries and anxiety that clinically affect nearly 20% of the American population, the world feels like a mightily insecure and, frankly, scary place.
In a 1933 sermon, in the fearful climate of Berlin on the eve of the Nazi’s rise to power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes fear in this stark way, “Fear is the archenemy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.”
While hell rejoices. That’s right. The “powers and principalities” that shut down and destroy human flourishing win when we succumb to fear however completely justified and appropriate that fear is. Our resistance to what Bonhoeffer called “our archenemy –fear” is a spiritual confrontation. And the stakes are high.
Which may be why the Biblical messenger’s comfort and command is so often, “Do not be afraid.” On the lips of prophets and angels and Jesus himself, this is a central message of the Biblical witness. Frederick Buechner captures the tension of living fearlessly in a fearsome world in this way, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, later in that same sermon to his Berlin congregation in Christmastide of 1933, tells us why we do not have to succumb to fear. “The human being doesn’t have to be afraid; we should not be afraid! That is what makes humans different from all other creatures. In the midst of every situation where there is no way out, where nothing is clear, where it is our fault, we know that there is hope, and this hope is called: “Thy will be done, yes, thy will is being done.” God stands above all, his thoughts unswayed, his Word unstayed, his will forever our ground and hope. Do you ask: How do you know? Then we name the name of the One who makes fear and anxiety themselves tremble with fear and puts them to flight. We name the One who overcame fear and led it captive in the victory procession, who nailed it to the cross and committed it to oblivion; we name the One who is the shout of victory of humankind redeemed from the fear of death—Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Living One. He alone is Lord over fear; it knows him as its master; it gives way to him alone. So look to Christ when you are afraid, think of Christ, keep him before your eyes, call upon Christ and pray to him, believe that he is with you now, helping you . . . Then fear will grow pale and fade away, and you will be free, through your faith in our strong and living Savior, Jesus Christ.”
In my tradition, Sunday marked the beginning of Advent – a four week season of anticipation and active waiting for Christ’s birth in a manger and his coming again in glory. Advent invites us to be attentive to the signs and wonders of God-with-us in this beautiful and terrible world and to work in the kingdoms of this world for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. A world of justice and shalom. In this season, think of Christ, God-with-us, here and now in all our worry and fear, here and now in our scary and worrisome world, and let Christ, the Lord over fear, set you free!