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When Fear is a Good Thing

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

all those who practice it have a good understanding. Psalm 111:10a, NRSV

Image by Ambroz on Pixabay

This has been a strange December. A friend of mine has told me that he’s just plain tired right now. He feels grief over those he knows that have died from COVID or who are hospitalized with it. His life as he knows it has been put on hold, and he misses the informal conversations he used to have with colleagues or friends over a cup of coffee.

We are now in the midst of Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child. Advent has always been more of a journey than a destination, yet this is a year during which we especially recognize the journey.

In the Gospel of Matthew we learn what things were like for Joseph, living in a first century world in which an unwed mother was not only frowned upon, but often killed. Joseph had been ready to quietly dismiss Mary as his betrothed, yet upon hearing from an angel, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” (Mt 1:20, NRSV) he changed his plans. It was the beginning of a journey that couldn’t have been easy in Joseph’s world…a journey upon which he must have been judged, held in low esteem by those around him, and generally denigrated.

Mary’s story can be found in the Gospel of Luke. She too, was visited by an angel who told her, “Do not be afraid.” (Lk 1:30, NRSV) Mary’s attitude upon hearing the angel’s words were, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38, NRSV) Despite Mary’s acquiescence to the angel, the journey ahead of her was not an easy one either…people would have made many assumptions about her condition and put her down as well.

In scripture we are moved very quickly from the appearance of an angel to Joseph or Mary and then to the birth of Jesus. Really?! There were nine whole months in between! These were months during which Mary might have experienced morning sickness or acid reflux or simply having to go to the bathroom all the time! (We never read about that part of the journey to Bethlehem…just sayin’!)

In Topeka it has been nine months of waiting…nine months of living with COVID…nine months of safely distancing ourselves from friends and family and informal gatherings and mass gatherings and celebrations. The virus spread slowly at first, but now it’s everywhere, and people all over the United States are waiting. Many of us are wondering what Christmas will be like this year and who will be there.

During this nine months we have moved from hearing about the virus to experiencing its presence in our midst. We’ve learned of the COVID-related deaths of people we know. Friends or family may have caught the virus, or perhaps we or someone we know has experienced quarantine. It’s a wearing time…many of us are tired and/or grieving and/or depressed…we just want the world to right itself again. And we are sooooo ready for this tiny little baby named Jesus to be born. There is nothing like new life to lift the fatigue of depression!

Our culture tells us that the way to handle our fear, grief, and depression is to enhance our appearance with a new outfit, or shop online for Christmas gifts, or gather at home around a takeout meal from our favorite local restaurant. All these things can distract us briefly from our fears, but they are temporary fixes, and soon we are faced with reality again.

From Psalm 111:10 we read, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I don’t know about you but I wonder how much more fear in a time of fear can be helpful? Yet when we look at the Hebrew word that is translated fear, we find that it can mean “reverence.” Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines reverence as “especially profound adoring awed respect.” ( ) This kind of “fear” must have been what Joseph experienced when an angel changed his mind about dismissing Mary. This kind of “fear” must have impacted Mary’s response to the angel that visited her.

For Mary and Joseph, “profound adoring awed respect” for God was at the center of their lives…so much so that when they had an encounter with God they listened.

You and I live in a culture where it’s commonplace to put lots of things other than God in the center of our lives. The competition and loudness of those things often drown out the voice of God.

Instead God often speaks through unexpected places…a word from a friend, a story from a stranger, a line in a book or a movie. Sometimes we hear God through several synchronous events in our lives. During the pandemic it’s important to make time and space for these encounters to occur. Invite a friend to virtual coffee on a Facetime call. Carve out 30 minutes a day to read a book that really speaks to you. Make a phone call. Write a letter. Listen to music that inspires you. Rest…

Sometimes when we’re waiting it seems that God is silent…and that’s when it’s easiest to turn away and fill our lives with all kinds of noise, trying to replace God’s presence.

During the pandemic it may seem that God is silent, but I have to believe that instead, God is quietly holding us all together, tending to our grief and fear and depression and waiting for those moments that we might be open to listen to new ideas and new ways of being in the world.

The birth of Jesus signified something new, vulnerable, and fragile that God was introducing to the world. God is up to something new even now. God never stops creating. God never stops working toward a just, kind, peaceful, loving world.

During Advent take some time to recognize that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Watch for God, listen for God, open your heart to God, and prepare for newness of life.

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