In the early hours of June 12, 2016, an angry, armed, self-radicalized ISIS sympathizer entered an LGBT nightclub in Orlando and opened fire. Before his shooting rampage ended forty-nine innocent people were dead. Fifty-three were fighting for their lives.
Ever since 9/11 we live with a subliminal fear of terrorism. That fear breaks out into the open with renewed intensity when there is another mass shooting. As I write, the nation is in mourning as we try to fathom the shooter’s motive and the avalanche of grief that descended on loved ones of the slain. Sorrow and fear mingle in our hearts for we know full well the potential for more violence always looms. It doesn’t help when some politicians use alarmist rhetoric to stoke and exploit our fears for political gain.
Against the backdrop of real and imagined fears, it seems mystifying that “fear not” is the most frequent exhortation in scripture. Is this just religious rhetoric? Didn’t the writers of scripture understand that we live on a perilous planet where there is much to fear?
To be honest, I struggle to put “fear not” together with the awful things that happen and because sometimes the very things we fear do happen. That has me pondering again the biblical narratives where “fear not” is spoken to women.
My thoughts have settled on Mary of Nazareth. She heard “fear not” from the angel when she learned she would be the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:30). What did Mary have to fear? No doubt the sudden appearance of the angel was terrifying, and the message, while thrilling, was deeply disturbing since her pregnancy wouldn’t involve Joseph. What happens to a young unmarried girl who turns up pregnant in full-fledged patriarchal cultures? Mary had plenty to fear—rejection, poverty, even the threat of a brutal slow death by stoning if Joseph chose to defend his male honor.
Remarkably Mary rejected fear and courageously embraced God’s call.
In Mary’s story and stories of others, “fear not” is no pious call to super spirituality. It doesn’t mean putting one’s head in the sand and living in denial of reality. Nor is “fear not” a chastisement for experiencing fear in the first place, as though believers are immune to fear. To the contrary, it is a recognition that fear and reasons for it are real and come to all of us.
“Fear not” is a call to courage despite our fears.
Why? Because we and the women we read about in the Bible have kingdom work to do. Fear gets in the way of what God is calling us to be and do in the world he loves. Instead of pressing forward and engaging the mission he entrusts to us, fear immobilizes and leaves us cowering in the face of threats.
Turns out, Mary’s story included many other fears she had to battle. In the end, her very worst fears came true when the promised son she bore was executed in an act of outrageous injustice. Surely the angel’s “fear not” came to mind with each new crisis.
Fear is our battle too.
If, as Christians claim, evil, sin and death are on their last legs and God promises a peaceful and redeemed future, then we are freed to love, serve, and forgive, despite rejections and sufferings. We are freed to be strong in grace, defiant in love, courageous against injustice.” —Professor John Barton, Pepperdine U
We live in a dangerous world where brutality can leap out of the shadows when we least expect it. The place the Orlando LGBT community thought was safe became a killing field. We can be prudent and cautious, but we can’t always control our environment. Frankly, we have good reason to fear. But we have solid reasons for courage too. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Aslan is on the move.” This is God’s world, and he is moving to reclaim it. His rescue operation started in earnest when the angel said “fear not” and Mary courageously threw herself, heart and soul, into God’s call. The whole world stands in her debt.
We are called to join that mission too. So we cannot allow fear of any kind to govern who we are or how we live. God summons us to be women of hope and courage, for we have kingdom work to do. “Fear not” emancipates us from fear and frees us to move forward with courage.
The angel’s admonition to Mary speaks to God’s daughters today. “Fear not.”
For more about the ezer, see “The Return of the Ezer“