These powerful words are spoken by angels more than once in the first chapters of Luke. First to Zechariah, who, when he saw the angel standing at the right side of the altar of incense, was, in fact, terrified and was overwhelmed by fear (Luke 1:12). And later when an angel appeared to the shepherds ‘keeping watch over their flock by night’ — again we hear they were terrified. (Luke 2:9) Indeed, it gives one pause to hear that Mary did not have the same altogether reasonable response to the sudden appearance of an angel. For as we listen closely, we hear Mary described as merely ‘perplexed.’ Even so, the next words out of the angel’s mouth are “Do not be afraid.” Perhaps even before she knew she needed those words, they were spoken.
And oh, how we all yearn to not have reason to be afraid.
On Friday afternoon I drove back from the cemetery with a local funeral director. Our conversation in those brief moments centered around community matters — about a number of prominent retailers who are shutting down and about the fact that the city we call home is not really growing. And she said, “Well, you know, they just came out with a list that says that DeKalb is the twelfth most dangerous city in the state of Illinois.”
I have to say that I didn’t think of her words again until later that day. I had run out for a few groceries. I glanced down at my watch as I carried my bags out to the car and realized it was 10:30. Her words echoed in my mind as I found myself glancing around to be sure all was well.
Now I suppose that fear in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. At the very least, it can deepen our awareness about our surroundings and that can’t be all bad. In fact, the fears which haunt me too much of the time are not, on first glance, much like the fear that Zechariah or Mary or the shepherds might legitimately have felt. No, my fears usually stem from a sense of God’s absence — not God’s presence as all three of these clearly experienced with the visitation of angels.
And so today I would offer an example of where one might have experienced God’s absence, but instead, the command to not be afraid was somehow heard. Or at least it appeared to be so in the courage that was displayed.
So here is how it was. I spent two hours sitting on a hard bench at the DeKalb County Courthouse on Wednesday morning. Oh yes, that time and place seemed as far away as it could possibly be from Angel’s Announcement to Mary — in spite of the decorated Christmas tree right outside the courtroom. In fact, it seemed like exactly the sort of time and place where such urging to not be afraid would be so every welcome. For fear was all over that time as I sat together with a family, extended family and friends. They came and sat and waited for something that would take but a few minutes: the appearance of the man who had sold their son, brother, grandson, nephew, neighbor, friend the heroin which took his life.
Courtrooms are fascinating places for about fifteen minutes — maybe twenty. On this Wednesday morning the judge went through a couple of dozen cases in the first hour — most of them with those whose fates were in question appearing by live feed from the County Jail across the street — making decisions about bail. Again, this is interesting for a little while and then the names and the charges and the circumstances start to blur. Next came several people who were appearing in person. Now these were a little harder to hear. Even though the details evaded me, I found it exhausting to look such human misery in the face for so long. I really don’t know how those who do this all the time keep their spirits intact. I found it profoundly wearing to pick up on the fear which showed in the faces and postures of so many.
Finally, a man was led in wearing leg irons and a striped uniform. He was surrounded by corrections officers. It took but a few minutes to grant a continuance. And through it all a grieving mother — who had every reason to be afraid as she laid eyes on one who was, at least in part, responsible for the pain she will always carry now— through it all she sat in the front row with tears streaming down her face. When the man turned around I could see the look of terror and rage in his eyes. It seemed to me that what I saw in him was carried by most everyone who paused in that courtroom last Wednesday morning. Indeed, as I said, I felt it, too, as the minutes turned to hours. I felt it, too, as so many troubled and troubling stories passed before my eyes.
At first I wondered what it would be if the Angel Gabriel were to show up in the courtroom and make his announcement, “Do not be afraid.” And then I realized he already had. Especially in the heart of a grieving mother who like Zechariah and Mary and the Shepherds heard that call as more than words to be at peace but to move and to do. For while grief has been her ever present companion in the last year and more, she has heard the call to change the world. To give her heart’s energy to stamp out the use of heroin in our community and beyond. I have watched her do this: advocating and organizing and telling her story. In fact, I sat with her one day as she spoke of the man who we saw in leg irons on Wednesday morning. She did not speak of vengeance then — but only hoped this would be a wake up call for him to turn his life around before it was too late.
I don’t know how one becomes ‘unafraid’ in the face of what should otherwise terrify us. We do not hear, of course, that Mary was ever actually afraid. Even so, it seems to me, she must have been. Young, unmarried, and pregnant as she was in that time and place, Mary had every reason to be afraid. But Mary, along with all those others who have heard the Angel’s urging to leave fear behind apparently did just that. She did just that as she heard God’s own call to something more than what she could possibly have imagined all on her own.
With Zechariah beside the altar and with those shepherds late at night. In an out of the way place with Mary and in a courtroom on a Wednesday morning. Oh yes, in all sorts of ordinary times and places we find we yearn for this message still: “Do not be Afraid.” I have to say I’m still searching for reasons why so many of those sad and sorry people should not have been afraid at our County Courthouse on Wednesday morning, but this much I trust. God’s promises hold true. This being so, God was there, too. And as I said, Zechariah and Mary and the Shepherds may well have had reason to be afraid. It’s just that fear did not stop them as they moved ahead in following the angels’ urging.
And so it is that I imagine this to be our call in these last days of Advent. You and I are to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open for the certain truth that fear has no place among us whom the Angel Gabriel has visited. At least not fear that keeps us from being about what we are called to be about.
I have to admit, I’m not there yet, of course. I am sometimes still afraid and so I do still need to hear the Angel’s Announcement. But there is this. I’m working hard to see the signs of a time when fear will no longer hold sway. And I am encouraged by the witness of those who don’t let even reasonable fear stand in the way of doing what needs to be done. Not even in the most fearful of places.
- Where in your life do you most need to hear the Angel’s Announcement “Do not be afraid!” ?
- When have you heard that announcement and believed it and moved ahead in spite of the fear fear?
- Where in the world have you encountered people who heard this announcement? Where would you most like to speak the words ‘Do not be afraid’ and be believed?