Readings 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16-end; Luke 1:26-38
“Do not be afraid”
There can be no doubt that this has been a year of fear and anxiety. We have spent most of this year following all the rules and guidelines about preventing the spread of Covid, quite rightly so, but there is no doubt that the virus has caused many people not just to be cautious but to be afraid. I have spoken to those who have spent so long shielding that the thought of venturing out and interacting with others on any level is a source of genuine concern.
Now, fear can serve a positive purpose. Bringing my children up I wanted them to have a healthy fear of playing with fire or getting into stranger’s cars.
A healthy fear can keep us safe – it can stop us from getting burnt – but an unhealthy fear can hold us back – it can stop us from getting warm at all.
So, I want to pose a very simple question this morning: Apart from Covid, what is it that you fear?
And the supplementary question: How is that fear holding you back?
Because, we should make no mistake about it; we live in a society which thrives on our fear, and, in my view, much of that fear is unhealthy and cripples us as individuals and prevents us from fully reflecting the image and purpose of God in our lives.
What do I mean when I say we live in a society which thrives on our fear?
On a national level we are taught to live in fear of other nations, sometimes with more justification than others. For most of my younger life we lived in fear of the Soviet Union, to the extent that I remember my parents looking at brochures for nuclear shelters to go in the garden. That cold war fear between East and West saw hundreds of billions spent on defence whilst children in the third world starved.
Since 2001 we have come to fear militant Islam and have spent billions in campaigns in the Middle East with varying degrees of success.
In recent years I think we have been led to start fearing immigrants once again. When poor and desperate souls wash up on the beaches of this very county in inflatable boats at least half of the media and the internet would have us believe that they have come to destroy our way of life – rather ignoring the fact that their way of life has often been destroyed first.
The advertising industry is almost wholly based on making us fearful about what will happen if we do not buy their products. As parents we are taught to fear that unless we buy the right things for our children that they, and by extension we, will be failures and social outcasts.
And in many ways English culture makes us fearful – afraid that if we say the wrong thing to the wrong person using the wrong pronunciation that we will be adversely judged. Of course, the biggest fear for all English people is that of being embarrassed and when you are English there are simply so many ways in which one can be embarrassed!
What is one of the worst social faux pas that an English person can commit in polite society? Talking about faith. There is a cartoon doing the rounds which basically says that the best way to get a seat and plenty of space on public transport is to wear a T-shirt saying: “Let’s talk about Jesus.” Can clear a bus in seconds. But when we talk about the growth and life of the church we always need to ask the question, when did I last say anything about my faith to a non-Christian?
Fear holds us back.
Because of fear, we become increasingly curtailed in our thoughts and actions in both the public and private sphere.
We are not alone in that and many cultures have very strict rules about acceptable behaviour and some have very strict punishments for deviation which go well beyond English embarrassment. In the Jewish culture of 2000 years ago the punishment for adultery or having a child outside marriage was death by stoning – we know that Jesus encountered and saved a woman on the verge of being stoned for adultery.
But when the Angel Gabriel appeared to a young Mary he told her that God’s plan for her was to bear a child out of wedlock and not even by her betrothed. The consequences for Mary could have been huge – she was stepping well outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour. But when Gabriel appeared to Mary he also said something else:
“Do not be afraid.”
I think that he was saying not only that Mary should not be afraid of the fact that an Angel had appeared in her room unannounced, although that must have been quite terrifying, but also not to be afraid of what God was calling her to do. God, through his messenger, was telling Mary to put her fears aside and to trust him and his plans for her and the world through her.
It is important to re-iterate, as I am always keen to avoid schmaltz and platitudes, that trusting God and his plans does not mean an easy ride. Mary’s ‘yes’ made her into the bearer of God, it gave her the joy of the Magnificat, the wonder of the presentation at the Temple and the mystery of bringing up the child Jesus who lingered at the Temple as a boy to teach the rabbis, but it also gave her the pain of journeying to Bethlehem and giving birth in less than ideal circumstances, it gave her the fear of fleeing to Egypt as a refugee from Herod’s killing spree and it gave her the pain of being at the foot of the cross. Saying yes to God means finding our deepest joy in playing our part in his plan for us and for the world, but it does not mean a future free of pain or challenge. That is not how God works.
But what if Mary had been overwhelmed by fear of the Angel or fear of her calling or fear of its consequences? I believe that God did not take away Mary’s free will and she could have allowed her fear to make her say no. How would God have worked out his plan for the world otherwise? Of course, we don’t know but if Mary had let fear rule the day I suspect that we would not know of her or Joseph or even the man Jesus at all.
But Mary said ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
This was not an act of weakness but a choice of great courage and strength, and one that changed the world forever.
Mary became the bearer of God, in Greek, the Theotokos. In our first reading we heard an exchange about the dwelling place of God. This was before the Temple had been built in Jerusalem and the presence of God dwelt in the ark of the covenant and moved around with his people. If we believe that Jesus is also God then, in a very real way, by bearing him in her womb Mary became a new ark of a new covenant. Many people in the Protestant tradition are keen to downplay the role of Mary, at least outside school nativity plays, but the Angel told Mary that God ‘highly favoured’ her. If God highly favoured Mary and choose her not only to bear him into the world but to nurture Jesus and to stick with him from the first to the last and beyond then who are we to say otherwise?
A fearful ‘no’ is a dead end. A putting aside of fear and saying ‘yes’ to God prepares the way of the Lord into the world. In addition to Mary, many of the stories in the bible, and many of the saints’ lives throughout the history of the church, are the stories of those who put aside their fears and said yes to God despite the cost. It is only when we say yes to God despite our fear that the Kingdom of God, in us and in the world, can grow, because it will never be forced upon us.
What is God calling you to, how is he calling you to express, develop and live out your faith in this world? And what is it that you are afraid of and how is your fear holding you back from responding to God?
Let us truly hear the message of the angels to not be afraid and, like Mary, to let our yes to God bring forth Christ into the world.