Do not be afraid

Passage: II Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Luke 1:26-38
Date: December 18, 2005
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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Promises, holy promises-in a sense, that is what our understanding of Christmas is about. So, before we read the gospel, we need to listen to the Hebrew scripture, lines memorized and remembered as Christ-followers sought to understand him.

In today's tiny bit of II Samuel, King David has finally secured the nation's borders for the first time, and has established Jerusalem as its capitol. With the help of the Phoenician king, Hiram of Tyre, he has constructed a great palace of cedar. Resting comfortably there, David remembered the holiest object in all of Israel: the ark of the covenant. It symbolized and at times held God's presence. It went before the people in the wilderness, and led them into battle. It was the center for national worship. But, it sat in a tent, not a beautiful appropriate temple. The tent, of course, reminded the people of their history, their moving and wandering, their being led by Yahweh, God. It was a powerful unifying force. But David wanted more than a tent. He desired to build a house for the Lord. Listen to this episode, as David chooses to move ahead, then is reminded of his origins, and given a promise about the house of David. II Samuel 7:1-11, 16.

Two birth stories open Luke's gospel. For minds and hearts steeped in Hebrew faith, echoes of earlier birth stories vibrate within: Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, Samson to his mother Leah, and Samuel, to his mother Hannah. All were understood as unforseen gifts, actions of God's power. This divine connection of promise and birth weaves its way through scripture.

In the beginning of chapter 1, Elizabeth and her priest husband, Zechariah, find themselves beyond child-bearing years. To be barren in that society was more than a personal failure. It brought dishonor, and it meant that there would be no offspring to carry the name and to care for parents in old age, if they lived that long. The angel Gabriel, one of three named in the Old Testament (angels were divine messengers) spoke to Zechariah. Opening words: "Do not be afraid." For me, these are among the most grace-filled important words in all of scripture, and they appear over and over. "Do not be afraid." In Matthew, the first words in Joseph's dream were, "Do not be afraid." To the shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night? "Do not be afraid." We sort of skip over that as a divine nicety. In the process, we do not hear them for ourselves, to ourselves. And much of the time, we live in fear. (By the way, I suspect that was the single most important factor in the last presidential election: running on campaigns of fear, not hope, which candidate could make us feel less fearful, more secure?) After the "Do not be afraid," Zechariah was told he will be a daddy. He expressed some doubts, and lost his ability to speak for the next nine months. Elizabeth decided to leave town until the amazing gift pregnancy became obvious. Luke tells us that she was somehow related to a young woman named Mary. Here is where our reading begins. Listen for God's assuring, startling good news: 26-38.

Familiarity takes the startles out of what we hear. In a clipped way, like it is very normal, the writer names Galilee and then the village of Nazareth as the angel's destination. Out of Rome's way, like Harney county or North Powder, Oregon are to Washington, DC. To a young woman, maybe as young as twelve, ordinary. Like nearly every female, she hoped to marry honorably, to bear children including at least one male, and to live into old age, maybe 35 or 40. Her father had arranged with another family for her to be married to a man named Joseph. The public contract had been established, witnessed, and the bride price paid. In the village, she was already known as his wife. As long as she kept her reputation clean, they would be married within the year. If something happened, he would divorce her and dishonor her and her family for generations. Pretty ordinary. Everything was set. Her future was known.

In a walk or a flight, or whatever angles do-Gabriel appeared. "Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you." The NRSV translates that Mary was "much perplexed" by his words. I'll bet. The Greek says, "deeply troubled." The angel continued, "Do not be afraid." Before we laugh at what a stupid thing that is to say because she had to be terrified at the sight and sound of an angel, it is good to remember: In all of human history, and in our day, except in the "enlightened technologically advanced west," most people know that reality has a numinous dimension. So, the appearance of an angel, a heavenly voice, while not an every day occurrence, would not seem nearly as terrifying to them as to us. Nonetheless, I cannot imagine that she was not disturbed. Thus, "Do not be afraid, Mary."

Frederick Buechner suggests that Mary is not the only one in this scene to be trembling. He writes:

She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he'd been entrusted with the message to give her, and he gave it... As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. (Journal for Preachers, Advent 2005, p. 13)

Often, because this is so known and loved, we read the text rather blithely, without considering the monument of the situation.

Gabriel told her what "favored" meant: Not the good life, social standing, a happy marriage and several children including sons. No, it meant that she would have a baby and name him a very traditional name, Jesus. Then the implications of his life: greatness, called Son of the Most High. God will give him the throne of his ancestor David-that house of David promise we heard in II Samuel. He will rule over the house of Jacob, that is, Israel, forever.

Recently Dr. David Cortes-Fuentes reminded me of Mary's civil context. That is, when we hear the angel, we think religious, mostly. But Roman religious language permeated the culture, and there could be no ignorance if its parallels. A Roman stele dedicated to Augustus Caesar in Asia read: "Whereas Providence...has...adorned our lives with the highest good, Augustus...and has in her beneficence granted us and those who have come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order, with the result that the birthday of our God signals the beginning of good news for the world because of him." . (Advent devotions, SFTS, 2005, Dec. 18) In Mary's world, Augustus Caesar was acclaimed as that god. Civil religion considered him the only savior, divine good news. Gabriel announced to a nobody that she would give birth to God's rival to Caesar. The announcement was far more than nice spirituality, and we often miss it. She probably did not. No wonder Gabriel was shaking under his great wings, waiting.

I wonder how long he had to wait. The text seems to indicate Mary's response was pretty rapid. But, we also have come to know Mary as someone who pondered things in her heart. I would not be surprised if even Gabriel had to wait, and in a sense, all of the heavenly host with him. God did not assault Mary, but waited her consent. God needed Mary to agree. In this sense, the radical inbreaking of God, the beginning of the new creation, rested on this ordinary 12-year-old's free decision. Finally, after what might have seemed like an eternity, she responded in faith: "Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." Kathleen Norris comments on Mary's response:

She does not lose her voice, but finds it...she asserts herself before God, saying, "Here am I"...Mary proceeds-as we must do in life-making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. (Journal for Preachers, same)

I wonder how often she had to repeat to herself what the angel had said, "Do not be afraid."? As she went to Elizabeth and learned more. As she told Joseph she was with child. As people must have questioned her pregnancy. As Jesus grew. As he began his very brief ministry late in life. As opposition mounted and she worried for his safety, perhaps even his sanity. As she watched him die, not as Great, not as Son of the Most High, not as one on the throne of David. I wonder how often she yelled at God, "What do you mean, ‘do not be afraid'?" I wonder how often she cried to God in her fear for Jesus, for herself, for his people. Then, where did the ponderings of her heart take her that Easter morning and beyond? "Do not be afraid," she was told. "All things are possible with God." Her fears and even her despair along the way were no match for a God such as this, a God who favors the ordinary to accomplish holy purposes.

This fourth Sunday of marking our waiting time, of remembering, we pause. We pause to thank God for this peasant girl, for her willingness to listen to the message from God. She would be favored only if she gave herself obediently in response to God's call. She had to choose to trust, "Do not be afraid." The glory of Christmas came about because ordinary people were willing to respond to God's claim on their lives. We pause to thank God for Mary, who became the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. For too long, we Protestants have avoided her essential role in our faith, to our own spiritual impoverishment. We pause to thank God for being such a God. We are not abandoned to our own devices. In the child growing in Mary's womb, God has sent Jesus as our deliverer, as the one who will reign forever and ever. Friends, this is the good news to us and to the world. Do not be afraid. Rejoice and be glad. Our Redeemer has come. Amen.