In 2020, when a deadly pandemic ravaged the earth, shut down entire cities and nations, turned our lives upside-down, and separated us from almost everyone and everything we loved, we were afraid. How could we not be?—when every rare encounter with another person outside our household and every fraught outing to the grocery store became a dance with potential illness—or worse—and each new day reminded us how little control we had over anything.
And so it was that the year’s most commonly searched phrase on online Bible apps was some version of “be not afraid.”
The single most searched, read, and saved Bible verse on one popular app was from the forty-first chapter of Isaiah, the one where God says to the people of Israel: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.
It’s enough to make you wonder how many terrified people were reciting those words as they waited for news of their critically ill loved ones whom they were not allowed to visit.
Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God.
With 2021 came vaccines and the increasing availability of rapid, at-home antigen tests, and—if not a return to normal, exactly—the beginning of a transition to a new, build-it-as-we-go normal.
Which is not to say that we stopped being afraid; fear seems to be a hardwired element of the human condition. And maybe that is why the directives “do not fear” and “do not be afraid” are the most common phrases in all our scriptures, appearing more than 300 times.
Because we are afraid, and we do fear.
Which must be why God and God’s messengers have, according to our scriptures, been telling humans not to fear as long as humans have been around.
Which is to say: God recognizes and acknowledges our fear and meets us in all the heart-pounding, stomaching-turning, life-limiting, relationship-damaging reality of it.
Which must be why, in all those 300-plus Bible mentions, “do not be afraid” is almost never a complete sentence. Whether it’s coming from the Spirit of God and through the mouth of a prophet or from the terrifying appearance of an angel, or from the lips of Jesus himself, “do not fear” is almost always followed by a “for” statement. And that statement always boils down to “for God is with you, God loves you, God’s transformative love is at work, God has a plan, or God is doing something new and absolutely amazing.”
Which is more or less what the angel Gabriel said when he showed up in the boondocks town of Nazareth to a young, engaged girl named Mary while she was, as far as we know, doing nothing more than minding her own business. If Mary wasn’t already feeling afraid of one thing or another (or 10 different things), she must have been terrified when Gabriel appeared offering greetings from God.
Which must be why Gabriel then said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
That would have been enough, don’t you think? A surprise visit from an angel to tell Mary that God really liked her. How nice.
But Gabriel had more to say:
“And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Now, all that might have sounded like so much gibberish to Mary or, to the extent that she could begin to wrap her young, innocent mind around it, frightened her even more.
But, you see, all her life Mary had heard the stories: how her people had been saved time and again through this incomplete woman or that flawed man. She had learned of burning bushes and holy silence, of dreams and signs, liars and cheats, murderers, adulterers, and prostitutes who were called by God to do extraordinary things. She could recite the places and times when God had brought down the mighty, lifted up the lowly, and made the impossible imaginable.
More than that, all her life Mary had been told that God wasn’t finished yet, that God’s Anointed One would be coming soon. More than that, everyone Mary knew—and everyone they knew—had spent their lives longing and looking for God’s Chosen One.
Which may be why she was able to skip right over the angel’s outrageously grand pronouncement and go on to the practical details. Which was why, I think, she was able to move past her fear and say “yes” to God, “yes” to life, and “yes” to the potential for more meaning, more joy, and more pain than she could possibly imagine.
And that, I think, is how we, too, can live with and beyond our many real and reasonable fears.
While science tells us that the three common responses to fear are to fight, to flee, or to freeze, our faith tells us that we will be delivered from our fears when we allow God to meet us in them, when we choose to trust that God is with us, and when we can see ourselves as part of a new, much bigger story—God’s story of scandalous love and justice, unexpected deliverance, beloved community, and a peaceful future in which the wolf shall live with the lamb; the calk and the lion will feed together; and little child shall lead them.
And when we share that story with others, when we pass it on from generation to generation, we can become the angels in someone else’s story, helping them to see their place in God’s great-big picture, reassuring them that God is with them and will not only help them through whatever is scaring them but also heal and transform them.
Fears? We all have them. But the key question has less to do with what we’re afraid of than how we will live even though we are afraid.
How can we come to know our essential belovedness and sacred worth when we are afraid that we’re good for nothing?
How can we build community when we’re afraid of difference?
How can we open our hearts and minds to the new thing God is doing within us and among us when we’re afraid nothing can replace the old?
How can we give of ourselves when we are afraid of not having enough?
How can we live confidently in the direction of our dreams when we are paralyzed by our fear of failure?
How can we give ourselves to love when we are afraid of being hurt?
I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do believe that God meets us in our fear, and I want to believe that nothing will be impossible with God.
I won’t pretend to have any of the answers, but I do believe there is freedom in naming the things that bind us, and I want to remember that all through our history God has chosen to work in and through imperfect, messed-up, well-intentioned people like you and me.
I won’t even pretend that I’m always able to trust God or to see myself in God’s story, but I’m committed to trying and to praying for the grace to become the person God knows I am. I’m committed to reminding myself and others that God says, “Be not afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through what feels like fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you, for I am your God.”
Greetings, favored ones. God is with you, and the time is nigh. Do not be afraid, but rather prepare yourselves. For hearts willing, by God indwelling, the world is about to turn.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.