“Do Not Be Afraid!”
Luke 1:26-38, December 20th, 2020
Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
(Forth Sunday of Advent Year B Blue or Violet)
Light the Fourth Advent Candle – Love
“Listen to these holy words from the gospel according to Luke, chapter one, verses twenty-six thru thirty-eight.”
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.
“Mary and now ourselves, we are asked to ‘Not Be Afraid.” “May our hearts ‘open wide’ to these wonderfully exciting words of this gospel accounting of how Mary – became the mother of Jesus!”
“Do Not Be Afraid!”
We all know this scripture is all about the love of God… God, choosing to come live amoungst us in human form. The Baby Jesus is the embodiment of God’s holy essence… combining with the essence of the child which Mary ultimately gives birth to! Unfortunately, the whole story about the Virgin Mary and the encounter with the Angel Gabriel has raised eyebrows and doubts since the first time it was told. Writing it down in holy scripture does not make it any easier. When I was leading the high School students of a large church in Massachusetts, I can still hear the words of a well-spoken and a top student in her senior class, as she utters these words to the senior pastor. And by the way, the senior pastor was sitting amoungst the group reading the Christmas story, word for word out of the Bible; for which he had set aside special time to do. “Pastor,” she said, “I am finding this business about Mary giving birth while still being a virgin totally ridiculous!” The pastor strongly responds, “That’s the way it was written and that’s the way it is!” He then went back to his reading. From that moment forward it was clear, not one person in the room was listening to all which was being read. The pastor had ‘turned them off” as he lost their attention by refusing to respond to the most obvious concern, a concern we (even as adults) still have – as we read the scriptures. It saddens me that the senior pastor let such an opportunity to ‘have a real discussion’ with these teenagers – pass him by. Are any of us guilty of refusing to discuss reasonable questions with the younger generations when they come up!?
Hard to remember what I first thought of this scripture lesson, so many years ago, when I first heard it. Yet, many times since it has given me pause as I have worked to truly engage and grasp its intended meaning. Hearing that the Angel Gabriel said “be not afraid” makes me realize just how powerful these words were. My professors in seminary went much deeper into the passage then did the dedicated Sunday School Teacher who endeavored to help me appreciate what is written. In my New Testament classes, in Seminary, they discussed all plausible scenarios about the virgin birth story. None of which are helpful today, as you and I seek to celebrate the true meaning of this passage. I feel strongly that there is a time and place to debate and question pieces of scripture. The Bible study class, which I am starting in mid-January, will be an opportune time to get deep into this discussion. Perhaps we can grapple with the enormity of the question raised on that evening – at the senior youth group meeting. Today, let us put our concerns and questions in a proper context. Today is the Sunday before Christmas. It is a time to raise up our traditional understandings of this majestic and awesome event. Thankfully, we have been given these accountings of the birth and life of Jesus in the scriptures to study and ponder. And yes, we can, and we are encouraged to ask probing questions. Fortunately, we were blessed with the ability to reason and discern that which we hear and read, contrasting these things with our own personal experiences… as we form hypothesis, theories, and opinions.
Today, let us put our lesson in context for our use on this fourth Sunday in Advent. Was the technical aspect of Mary’s pregnancy the ultimate critical point of the story? Was it not the appearance of the angel Gabriel? Was not his sudden appearance dramatic enough to get us to sit up straight and listen!? Furthermore, was it not the astonishing news that the child was from God, and he was to be the very Son of God! Clearly, Gabriel is telling us the Holy Spirit would come upon Mary! That ought to be mystical and exciting enough for us at such a time as this! As modern Christians we have come to believe in the Triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit! Yet, it is crucial that we recognize these terms only describe the three persons of our one God. Sometimes we get too hung up on the details, the technicalities of the stories in the Bible and forget to look for the truly miraculous points that the storyteller, and eventually the writer, sought to express. When your son or daughter comes home from school and tells you about getting an A- or B+ on an examine, are you really going to be concerned about the details of the one or two questions which were answered wrong? Of course not! You are going to congratulate them on a job well done! The appearance of Gabriel in this lesson tells us of the Godly and Holy nature of the encounter. Mary is learning that she will have a son and he will be of God! How special is that!?
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” /Luke 2: 30 &31/ Personally, God has done some rather dramatic, and meaningful things in my life. The least of which is my standing here today as your pastor. I believe I have felt the presence of God in very special ways several times. Even with this said, the angel Gabriel has never come into my town, looked me up and started to speak with me about utterly unbelievable events, events which would occur ‘in the future’ within my journey of faith and life. I strongly believe it is better that we do not know what will happen tomorrow… as we may not be able to handle the information. Thus, if Gabriel comes to my home tonight, tomorrow, or the next day, I am unsure as to how I would react. It is not hard to believe that I might be frightened by such an appearance. Yes, fear is the opposite of faith, but you and me, we are only human! We would all be startled by such an appearance, and possibly frightened or fearful for a moment! For the writer of this ancient story, of this event, to point out that Gabriel may have needed to calm Mary down, with these words, seems very plausible. Just like the response of that high school senior so long ago, the announcement by the angel Gabriel is astonishing to say the least!
What are we to do with our lesson today? Marvel at it to be sure! There was such certainty about the Jesus stories, which were primarily an oral tradition, passed on for nearly ‘thirty years’ before being written down in a way that they could survive the centuries since Jesus’ birth. Written down so that we might ponder this majestic and mystical event. That in of itself is amazing to contemplate! We could meditate on its meaning for a long time and perhaps learn little else other than the ‘ultimate message’ here for us today. Love, God’s love for humankind, is the central theme played out in this dialogue between Gabriel and Mary. Up until this point in history the coming of a Savior, the Messiah, was a ‘prophecy’ written down in what we know as the Old Testament writings. A long, long time before Jesus. As the stories of his birth grew, out of his adult ministry, and the inspiring teachings, the miracles which occurred during those years, they were ultimately passed to us to ponder and help us ‘come to believe’ in who Jesus truly was. When we do so… we are left with the clarity ‘that’ our God loved humankind back then and still loves us today! All shown in this outpouring of holy love from God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer! Even as I use these words to begin describing the fullness of God’s love, they fall short of the breadth, the depth, abundance, and completeness of God’s love for all of humankind.
Here we are on this beautiful Sunday morning, in this majestic climate and location of this our beautiful church, here in Palm Bay Florida. Yes! We need to be reminded of God’s love! Despite the Florida sunshine, there are a lot of human realities that we are experiencing as a people and there are situations and issues which we each face. The shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic still looms over us as a people. All around the world, in which we live, the sickness and the loss of lives overshadow our season of preparation for our annual Christmas celebration. The arduous, grueling, and tiring process of our presidential election has been stressful for all Americans. We truly need some respite from it all. We need this pause as we are reminded of God’s love. A love that goes deep. A love that has shown itself throughout the bumpy journey of humankind – throughout history. Let us celebrate in the amazing announcement carried to us through the written words of the Angel Gabriel, sent by God to speak with Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” /Luke 2:28/
Yes! We need to hear the words of our scripture lesson today! And the Angel Gabriel said unto Mary, said unto us: “Be not afraid!”, Do Not Be afraid! For nine long months we have been fearful; fearful of a virus, fearful of economic calamity, fearful of discontent and disease between one another. Neighbors pitted against neighbors, for what we each believe and for what we do not believe. Tensions have been high regarding what we raise up as justice and/or the lack of justice, righteousness verses corruption and dishonesty. Words such as racial profiling, and systemic racism, being spoken about with conflicting views. These are difficult times, and we need all that the scriptures offer us. We need all that our traditions lift-up for us. We need our power of reasoning to discern and discuss, seeking resolution for all these things of which we speak of. But most of all – we need to be reminded of God’s love for us, God’s faithfulness. Let us allow the positive message of God’s announcing that through the Holy Spirit’s power, God is here with us, has been with us and will continue to be with us, as we celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus! Amen.