You can’t go anywhere in the world these days without a reason to be afraid staring you in the face. Here in Germany, people are worried about all the money they’re giving to other parts of Europe as an attempt to hold the economic EU together. This is taking it’s toll here in a similar way that the fears of the fiscal cliff are taking their toll in America, especially as the clock ticks and we hear nothing other than how some elements of our political system are so entrenched in their ideology that they’re unwilling to compromise. Beyond the economy, there are wars and rumors of wars on every continent, and they’re affecting not just soldiers, but women and children. There’s an ocean of suffering all around us because of oppression, greed, and lust. The whole thing can feel disempowering, as if we’re in a raft, caught in a current, heading towards a waterfall, and all we can do is watch as tragedies unfold.
Of course there are many personal reasons for fear too, reasons that have to do with our jobs, health, or relationships. Like the global issues, many of us find ourselves in situations which seem overwhelming and we feel powerless to do anything. This sense of impotence only serves to intensify our fears and whenever we’re acting out from the space of fear, we’re headed down a wrong path. The fruits of fear include greed (as having excess resources becomes the new normal, ‘just in case the world ends’), violence (“it’s kill or be killed, and I’m not ‘gonna be killed”), depression (this world is horrible and there’s not a thing I can do about it), addiction (“the easiest way to conquer fear is to drown it in alcohol, or sex, or reality TV”), or anxiety (our mind runs endlessly when we should be sleeping). The fruits of fear are not pretty, but in a power hungry and predatory world, these fruits are everywhere.
Then along comes the angel heralding the birth of Christ, offering the profound exhortation: “Do not be afraid”. This isn’t an exhortation towards some sort of groundless positive thinking, nor is it a call to look within ourselves for some internal storehouse of wisdom and strength. Both these paths are, in the end, fruitless. Most of us who look within ourselves find that eventually the wellspring of hope that’s rooted in our own strength, or wisdom, or charisma, runs dry. I’m faced, eventually, with the realization that I don’t have what it takes, that I’m not an endless river of hope and power. I can only live on hype and caffeine for a limited time. I may have 5 hours of energy, but hello? What about hour six?
“Do not be afraid” is an impossible statement if it stands alone. The good news though (the gospel) is that this unlivable statement becomes livable precisely because it doesn’t stand alone. The angel brings “tidings of good news, of great joy, for all people”, and that news has to do with the arrival of a savior.
If we’ve grown up in the church, the sad fact is that we have perhaps shrunk the notion of savior to something about Jesus changing our destiny after we die, with perhaps a heavy dose of moralism thrown in for this present time. This shrunken notion of savior, though, is precisely why so many who claim to know Christ are still so afraid, day by day, in this world. Let’s recover the bigness of salvation, and hence the bigness of our savior:
1. He saves us from ourselves, as Christ lives within us, enabling us to overcome the gravity of our own tendencies towards lust, self-pity, greed, anxiety, and all the rest that are rooted, in the end, in the fear that we’re alone in this world. If ever there was glad news on this planet it’s that we are not alone. We have, in Christ, a companion who is able to be all that we need in order to be whole. If I can have the confidence that Christ is transforming me so that I’ll have the capacity to be a blessing in this world, then my fear of remaining forever stuck in the quicksand of my own greed and lust vanishes and I’m able to relax, believing that God is transforming me, from glory to glory. Do you believe this? Such confidence, it seems, is critical to banishing fear.
2. He saves us from the fear of death. We read of those who are subject to slavery because of the fear of death, which is a way of saying that if this life is all there is, we’re destined towards inevitably anxiety and fear because we’re destined, sooner or later, to die. In contrast to that, Paul declares that he’s not worried about dying because he believes so fully in the inevitably of resurrection and restoration and eternal life in and with Christ. To live is Christ, to die is gain, is a remarkable and liberating statement. Do you believe this?
3. He saves us from the toil of self seeking. Jesus told us that we live in a world that’s asking the wrong questions: What shall we eat that’s cheap and filling? What shall we drink that’ll either take us up for five hours or mellow us out at the end of a hard day? What shall we wear that’s cheap and fashionable? What shall we do to protect ourselves from the fiscal cliff?
He invites us to allow Christ’s reign to be expressed through us, and through our lives together as the people of God. This kind of living will surely lead us to ask different questions entirely, leading us to a set of priorities that run contrary to conventional wisdom. Seek the reign, and you’ll begin to look at every choice through an entirely different lens. Instead of self-interest, you’ll be asking how your food choices, other shopping choices, and the use of your time will contribute or detract from God’s good reign being made visible. The promise of Jesus is that we’ll be freed from the anxieties of self-centered living because by pursuing God’s kingdom purposes, we’ll find that God provides for us – all we need, for all we’re called to do and be. This too is tremendously liberating.
4. He is saving the world from its own self-doom. The earth is reeling from over consumption. Our collective choices are destroying oceans, water tables and air quality. As a result, the earth groans, and we groan too, because we’re not made to live like this, and our planet’s not made to support life like this. Fortunately, the savior doesn’t just save spirit, he comes to make all things new. Thus can we anticipate a new way of living where everyone has enough, where war disappears and justice reigns, where health, and peace, and celebration become the new normal in the cosmos saturated with the glory of God. The world and life for which we were made is coming, and we can celebrate that coming even before it arrives, making us advent people who live in the confidence of tomorrow today. Such a perspective has no room for fear in spite of everything I read in today’s paper.