My sermon from this past Sunday (December 17, 2017) is below the fold. My text was Luke 1:26-38. The subject was the phrase spoken to Mary by the angel Gabriel: “Do not be afraid.”
LUKE 1:26-38 (NRSV)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
You’ve heard this story before. You know this story. I know you know this story. You know that I know that you know this story. You know it well, and for that reason, I want to zoom in and focus on one particular phrase. I want to focus on the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary: “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid” was a kind of catchphrase among angels in the Bible, a way of telling the person in front of them to calm down before they had a heart attack. We find an example of this earlier in this very chapter of Luke.
“When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. The angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah.’” (Luke 1:12-13, NRSV)
Angels show up, and they are glorious beings, and people nearly have a heart attack. And so the angels say “Do not be afraid.”
But it’s not just about their own appearance that angels say that. And in this passage where the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, I don’t think that it was so much his appearance that was giving Mary reason to fear. I think he spoke the words “Do not be afraid” in order to preempt the message he was about to deliver. It was a message fraught with danger. It was the news that she was pregnant.
Now remember Mary is engaged (which is legally binding), but not yet married, and so she is still living at home with her parents, and the assumption is that she would be chaste until she and Joseph came together and formed their own household. But now there’s this angel in her room telling her that she is pregnant and he tells her not to be afraid before he even gives her the news. He did this, I think because he probably knew the chain of fears that might run through her mind:
That chain of fears could have gone something like this: Joseph, knowing the child wasn’t his, would call off the marriage and leave her. For that reason, people would assume that her pregnancy was the result of sleeping around. Her parents would think the same thing and might disown her and throw her out. Friends would then forsake her. She would be shamed and either shunned or stoned (remember that’s the penalty for adultery). Even if she weren’t stoned, she would be all alone during the trials and tribulations of pregnancy. Even if she made it to term, she would be alone facing the daunting task of labor and the delivery which included the very real possibility of dying in childbirth.
I think that it’s because of that possible runaway train wreck of thoughts that Gabriel says to Mary “do not fear.” He’s trying to head all of those thoughts off. Now we don’t have those fears but we do have plenty of fears of our own. In an email/blog post, I asked you to share some of your fears with me.
It was interesting the fear most often mentioned was the name of a politician. I’m not going to name names because this is universal. We all are afraid of the political party that we oppose. They come into power, and it makes us nervous. We worry about what they are they going to do. How much trouble are they going to get us in? And then another politician comes to power, and the other side becomes fearful. It goes back and forth. Who’s in power changes. But the presence of fear doesn’t.
We also fear growing old, or at least we fear the things that go with it: we fear that we might have to go into a care home, or that we’ll outlive our retirement funds. We fear death, be it from natural causes or an accident or another mass shooting.
There’s an old country song that says “I’m not afraid of dying, it’s the thought of being dead.” I think that is possibly the stupidest lyric I have ever heard. I’m fine with being dead. But have you ever been with someone when they die? It’s not a pleasant process. I want to die in my sleep without ever knowing what hit me. But the odds are against me
We fear estrangement becoming permanent. (That adult child we’re not really speaking to at the moment, what if that doesn’t get better?) What if what if we end up being divorced from the person we thought we were gonna spend the rest of our life with? We fear that. We worry about being unloved and unlike and thus being alone. We fear that if we open ourselves up and people come to know who we really are they will leave us.
We worry about medical problems for ourselves and those we love. We worry about the cost associated with treating those medical problems even if we get better. We worry about physical pain. Let me give an example: I went to the doctor because I had to get some prescriptions refilled. The Nurse Practitioner read from a list of ailments that I suffer and on that list was general arthritis. General arthritis. I told her that I did not have general arthritis, and that’s true, but now I have something else to worry about.
We worry about losing a job and not being able to maintain our lifestyle. We worry about losing someone we love to death: a parent, a spouse, a child. We worry because we’ve seen the heartbreak that brings. We worry about the country and the world we’re leaving to our grandkids. We fear natural disasters like severe storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires. If we’re in school, we worry about failing a class or maybe the prospect of leaving for college. Or maybe the prospect of leaving for college and then failing a class. We fear change and that’s especially problematic because change is unavoidable.
And all of these fears are real. All of these fears are possible even if they’re not probable. They’re not things you can just write off. Take a moment to think about the fears I’ve named. Add your own if you’ve got something else nagging at you.
And then remember the angel’s words: “Do not be afraid.” Know that those words still apply and that they apply to you. There will always be dangers and difficulties, there will always be something to fear, but we need not be afraid. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has made an end run around all our fears. God has outflanked them. The game, the battle, is won.
All we have to do is screw our courage to the sticking place, put aside our fear for a moment and say yes to God. Mary was not afraid and said yes to God, or perhaps she said yes to God and then became unafraid. Maybe it was some combination of the two. Maybe it’s not possible to know which came first. Maybe it works that way for us. In saying yes we become unafraid and in becoming unafraid we are ever more able to say yes.
To that end I made an insert for you to take home:
DO NOT BE AFRAID
Genesis 15:1 • Genesis 21:15-18 • Genesis 26:24-25 • Genesis 46:1-3 • Exodus 14:10-14 • Exodus 20:18-21• Deuteronomy 20:1-4 • Deuteronomy 31:6 • Joshua 1:9 • 1 Kings 17:8-16 • 2 Kings 6:15-17 • 1 Chronicles 28:20 • 2 Chronicles 20:13-17 • 2 Chronicles 32:7 • Psalm 23:4 • Psalm 27:1-3 • Psalm 56:1-4 • Psalm 118:5-9 • Proverbs 3:21-26 • Isaiah 35:3-4 • Isaiah 41:8-13 • Isaiah 43:1-7 • Isaiah 51:4-8 • Jeremiah 1:8 • Jeremiah 46:27-28 • Matthew 1:18-21 • Matthew 6:34 • Matthew 10:26-31 Matthew 14:27 • Matthew 28:1-10 • Mark 5:36 • Mark 6:45-51 • Luke 1:13 • Luke 1:30 • Luke 2:8-11 •
Luke 5:9-11 • Luke 8:49-56 • Luke 12:4-7 • Luke 12:22-32 • John 6:16-20 • John 14:25-27
Acts 18:9-10 • Romans 8:31-39 • Philippians 4:6-7 • 2 Timothy 1:7 • Hebrews 13:5-6 • Revelation 1:17-18 • Revelation 2:9-11
The above insert contains some (but by no means all) of the key places in the Bible where a version of “Be not afraid” is said by God or an agent of God to you or someone like you—and thus, through the Holy Spirit speaking through the scriptures—to you. I can assure you this works because it worked for me. Just this week, I read all the passages on this list. Do you know why I did that? I did that because I was afraid that if I didn’t do it one of you was going to go home and look this up and you’re going to find a mistake. So out of a fear of being corrected by my congregation, I checked all these passages. I was determined not to get caught in a mistake. And so when I sat down to read these passages I did not do so with a devotional attitude. I was not looking for comfort. I was looking to make sure I had not screwed up. I was not listening for God to speak to me through these passages. I was looking to make sure my insert was without error. Despite all that, what ended up happening was God spoke to me. These scriptures don’t just tell us not to be afraid. It’s not just information that they’re giving us. God still speaks to us through the Bible. The Bible is a means of grace. It’s a way we encounter God. It is a way we can open ourselves up to the experience God’s presence and God’s peace. And so when we read these passages of someone like us being told not to be afraid, we open up the possibility of hearing God speaking to us telling us “do not be afraid.”
To be clear: The Christian faith does not teach that our lives will not be perfect, not everything will go our way. After all, the child Mary bore, Jesus Christ the word made flesh, the most faithful human being who ever lived, suffered and died a horrible death.
There’s no promise that everything is going to go the way we want to. But that is not the end of the story. Christ suffered and died, but then he went through death and came out the other side more alive than ever. And so his resurrection promises us that although we must face trials and difficulties in this life, in the end, in the life to come, all will be well. For in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the world has turned a corner. What the angel said to Mary, the risen Christ says to us: Do not be afraid. Amen.