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The Radical Advent Theme: Do Not Be Afraid in a time of Upheaval

 
I first met Ernesto at church. He is extraordinarily affable and polite. He is also a polyglot with a master’s degree from Germany. Over the years, I learned more of his story. In El Salvador, he was an engineer with a wife and family. But I’ll get back to his story in a moment.

Now in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at this statement and was pondering what kind of greeting this was. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. [Luke 1:26-30 NASB]
 
We have all heard the story before: When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, the angel said, “Do not be afraid.” But isn’t it curious that this wasn’t the first thing the angel said? He didn’t lead with that, as though an angelic visitation wasn’t enough to scare the bejeezus out of her already. It was a bit risky, when you think about it. She might have just collapsed into a quivering puddle on the floor, and then how would he have delivered the most important message in the history of humankind?
 
Or perhaps the anodyne admonition to “not be afraid” had less to do with the appearance of the angel Gabriel – sans trumpet – and more about the coming upheaval in her life. Mary’s life was about to be turned up-side-down. The impact of these events in her life would not only change her life, but the course human history. And the child she would bear would also be called the “Son of the Most High” and, as we learn in the Matthew narrative, his name will be “Immanuel,” “God with us.”
 
Upheaval is a word that would also describe the country of El Salvador from colonial times to the present. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, our government supported right-wing dictatorships in Central America. These dictators and their militaries were armed with US-made weapons, they received US “counter-insurgency” training in the US, and US military personnel were in these countries as “advisors.”
 
The problem is that those weapons and military training were not used for defending the nations from external threat. They were used to target their own citizens who were perceived to be a threat to the ruling elite and their hold on power. The ruling elite told the Reagan administration these citizens were actually communist insurgents, and that Cold War rhetoric was all the excuse the Reagan administration needed to abandon sanity and support the brutal dictators.
 
Even in the first century, Rome was causing tremendous upheaval. They had garrisons throughout the Mediterranean, including Palestine. Jewish leaders were collaborating with the Romans who were known to use brutal methods to control the population. So, what does it mean to say, “Do not be afraid”? Again and again Jesus tells his followers, “do not be afraid.” In John 14 Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
 
The civil wars throughout Central America created thousands of refugees who were fleeing the violence. This created a dilemma for the Reagan administration. If the US admitted refugees based upon a justified fear of the Salvadoran government, then the administration would be admitting that they were supporting a government that was committing violations of human rights.
 
So, the Reagan administration denied asylum to thousands and returned many of those seeking asylum to their countries of origin. To no one’s surprise, those who were returned to Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador often ended up killed or disappeared. This is what sparked the sanctuary movement throughout the US.
 
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock at night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood near them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 And so the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. [Luke 2:8-11 NASB]
 
Those of us that have been fortunate enough to travel to and live with the people of El Salvador cannot help but recognize the irony of so much suffering and upheaval in a country named “The Savior.” So too, this angelic announcement came not at a time of peace and tranquility, but like El Salvador, during upheaval and suffering.
 
One day, in the capriciousness of El Salvador’s civil war (1980 – 1992) and military campaign of terror, Ernesto was arrested, jailed and interrogated. His interrogation lasted several days and included torture.
 
Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.”

14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. 15 He stayed there until the death of Herod; this happened so that what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” [Matthew 2:14-15 NASB]
 
When he was released, he was told he had 24 hours to leave the country. So, like thousands of others, he and his family did just that. But once again, like thousands of others, the US refused his asylum claim. He and his family struggled for years with the threat of deportation.
 
What does the admonition, “do not be afraid,” mean in the face of so much suffering in the world? Ernesto still carries the scars of that terror. I do not know if that angelic message has much resonance for him. But perhaps it is a message for each of us to consider in our own context.
 
In these days, there is a cacophony of voices telling us to be afraid of immigrants, CRT, books that describe the lives of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and more. Some claim that the 2020 election was stolen and that we cannot trust election results or those who administer them. Fear has become the currency of political campaigns. Stoking fear of the “other” is effective and divisive … and corrosive. Climate chaos will undoubtedly continue to fuel new surges of migration.
 
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. [I John 4:18-19 NASB]
 
In this season of Advent, may we all be a little more perfected in love so that we may hear, perhaps for the first time, the message of Jesus and the angels, “Do not be afraid.”
 
Geoff Browning is a Presbyterian minister and former campus minister at Stanford University where he taught classes on liberation theology and led student trips to Central America. He is also a parish associate at First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, the first church in the PC(USA) to declare itself a Peace Church.

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