From Fear to Hope:
Embracing Fear

(Article Originally Posted December 1, 2016)

Fear, Hope, and Politics

Even after our yearly ritual of stuffing our faces and spending tons of money we don’t have on things we don’t need, many are still reeling from one of the most vitriolic political seasons in recent memory. And as we learned from the 2016 campaign season, fear can still weave a powerful and compelling narrative. The politics of fear and othering are still very much alive and well. Hope remains a precious commodity and at times can feel more like blind naiveté than anything else.

From Fear to Hope

But Advent is a season of hope—a season of affirming that God is with us in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  However, this hope can never be divorced from fear. After the election was over and we all knew the results, I saw a swath of posts from people reminding those in shock and fear, “Jesus is still on the throne,” or, “God is still in control.” While I can appreciate the sentiment on some level, it’s insensitive at best, and dismissive of the very real (and I think very justified) fears that many people have following the election.

You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people.

God Chooses Those Who Are Not

While in our election we chose between two absurdly wealthy people hailing from seats of enormous power and influence, in Advent we celebrate God’s choice of an unwed teenager from the backwoods of Galilee to carry God’s own self and continue the story of salvation. Mary was no one important, nor was she of particularly noble stock.[1] When I think of Mary I think of so many kids I’ve met in youth ministry, raised in neighborhoods that feel so devoid of hope.

I think of the girls whose lives changed drastically because they got pregnant in middle or high school. I think of the boys who, in trying to grow up too fast, embraced the toxic cultural narratives of what it means to be a man. I think of one kid in particular (now an adult) whom I used to tutor at an after-school program my wife ran.

I visited him in jail a few weeks ago as he awaits a trial that will likely result in him spending too much of his life in prison. “He was such a good kid,” I repeated to myself, as if ritualizing his goodness and value would somehow transfigure his bleak future. And if I’m being honest, the pessimist in me wonders how many of those kids had any hope to begin with because of the powerfully intersecting systems designed to keep the lowly in their lowly states and the powerful on their thrones.

Be Not Afraid…?

In the midst of my pessimism emerges a messenger from God who brings good news of great joy. The angel greets Mary and, noticing her confusion, offers a word of comfort, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” The angel’s exhortation here feels a bit dismissive—a bit like those “God is still in control” social media posts—especially given the loaded political language of the birth announcement. The angel tells Mary not only that she will bear a son (1:31), but also that he will take up the throne of his ancestor David (1:32), and that he “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (1:33). In other words, she has pretty good reason to fear even beyond her angelic visit.

Peace Through Conflict

In the midst of our harmonized and sanitized Christmas pageants we easily overlook just how charged the language is here. It echoes some of what we know about Jewish messianic expectations, especially regarding the restoration of the Davidic throne.[2] The news heralded by the angel is one of an alternative kingdom and a new king who will restore Israel to its former glory . American Christians tend to spiritualize this proclamation, but we shouldn’t lose sight of just how politically loaded it is. The Advent of the one called the Son of God is supposed to signal peace on earth (2:14).

And if we’re still unclear about what this all means, the unwed pregnant teenager parses it for us. The Advent of this child is supposed to signal for us a great upheaval of how we order ourselves and our societies. Mary’s Magnificat (1:46–55) extols God as the one who “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (1:48), whose “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50), who “has scattered the proud” (1:51), “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (1:52), and who “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (1:53). Quite simply, if this isn’t our understanding of who God is and what the coming of the Christ child means, we’re doing it wrong.

Hope Meets Us in Fear

Advent is about moving from fear to hope, but notice where the movement begins: fear. You may not understand the fear that some are feeling right now because you don’t belong to a community that has genuine reasons for concern. You may have written off the some of the things that happened during the campaign season as “just talk.” But if you don’t feel that fear right now there’s a good chance you’re not spending time with the right people. The movement from fear to hope means wading through the deep waters of fear to mine for hope, no matter how fragile it might be. It means listening, really listening, to the fear of those relegated to the margins and those for whom rhetoric has already become reality.

I think this Advent season should be an invitation for us to embrace fear rather than simply dismissing it—unless you’re an angel, dismissing people’s fears is not your job. If you don’t feel that fear right now, go find a community that does and spend some time there.  That’s where God is born and hope might be found.

 

Footnotes

[1] However one solves the tensions between Matthew and Luke’s genealogies, Mary is never explicitly connected to the Davidic line in either.

[2] The best scholarly treatment of Jewish messianic expectations during this period is from John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2 ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).


About the Author: Sheldon Steen

sheldon-steen

Sheldon Steen is part-time PC(USA) pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee, FL and a full-time PhD student at Florida State University studying Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. He and his wife Mary have been married for over ten years and they have three really, really ridiculously good looking children. In his free time he is a mediocre homebrewer and a professional power napper.

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