Do Not Be Afraid!”

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Rembrandt, sketch of the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel

Luke 1:26-38 (1:30) – November 29, 2020

            This week, we read one of the most familiar of the narratives in the New Testament. From the first chapter of Luke:  “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

            Imagine yourself as Mary, a teenage girl. Perhaps doing housework, cooking in the kitchen, or folding laundry. When, out of nowhere, an angel appears. Out of the clear blue sky, something completely supernatural happens! She is wondering at the angel’s words. What kind of a greeting is this, anyway? Here she was, probably in the middle of an ordinary day, with the angel Gabriel paying a surprise visit to her!

            I would like to compare Mary’s surprise situation to many people, in the current day. Specifically, to my friend, several years ago. Out of the clear blue sky, she found out that she needed surgery. Before the beginning of October, she was traveling along, blithely, no serious cares or concerns. After the first week in October? Her life was turned upside down, with a serious medical situation, followed by major surgery.

            How often does something like that happen? Perhaps not a medical emergency in your life, or a loved one’s life, but some other situation out of a clear blue sky.

            But let’s return to Mary. Or, more directly, to the angel Gabriel and what the next words out of his mouth are: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.”

            I should think, if I had the opportunity to see an angel, I probably would be afraid, too! Practically every time an angel visits someone in the Bible, “Do not be afraid!” is one of the first things out of their mouths! Gabriel continues: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

            Understandably, Mary’s response—quite sensible, under the circumstances—“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?”

            I can see Mary’s point. Truth to tell, it’s hard to beat a virgin birth! We can look at other places in the Scriptures, and see other miracles. We can look at the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus when He was an adult, and acknowledge the fact that He did miracles, regularly. But—here we have Mary, herself, wondering how on earth this miracle is going to happen to her?

            The angel has an answer for Mary, sure enough. “The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” In brief, here we have the angel describing the divine plan for a miraculous conception. Mary expresses doubt, Gabriel explains God’s plan in greater detail, Mary consents, and the angel departs.

This whole narrative makes me want to ask Mary so many questions.

How soon did you tell your parents you were pregnant? Did you tell Joseph about the pregnancy yourself, or did the gossipmongers of Nazareth take care of that for you? Was there anyone in the village who believed your story? For that matter, after the angel Gabriel left, did you doubt his visitation to you? Did you think it was a dream? What about the townspeople’s response—did you fear for your life, since people could have thought you were an adulteress?

The Gospel of Luke is silent on this matter. It leaves us with so many unanswered questions! All we know is what Mary said to the angel. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled,” was her response.

An unmarried girl who was pregnant was not just looked down on but actively persecuted. She knows that she takes the risk of being rejected as a slut, as a tramp, as unworthy of polite company, as a result of this new openness to God’s surprise activity in her life.

            Yet, we can see that Mary exemplifies the kind of response to God’s surprises that I would like in my own life.

Though—out of a clear blue sky—God completely spun Mary’s life around, though Mary knew that her life would never be what she expected it to be before, she nevertheless said “yes” to God in faith. Yes, she worshiped God (especially in her prayer, which comes after our Scripture reading for today.) She models the heart of worship, the giving of ourselves to the one who has given everything to us.

Mary’s example challenges and encourages us to have the courage to say to the Lord: “Be it to me according to Your word!” Remember, Mary realizes there is something special about to happen, that God’s plan must take precedence over her own. She accepts the challenge with hope and faith as she realizes she will be carrying the Messiah her people have longed for.

            I’d like to remind all of us here today that Mary—a normal, ordinary teenager—was visited by an angel out of a clear blue sky. She was an ordinary person who was willing to say “yes” to God, to respond to God’s call willingly and with courage, and go forward in faith.

            It doesn’t matter what our situations are, today. God can come into any of our lives out of the clear blue sky. God can rush right in, abruptly, with no warning. We all—each one of us—are encouraged to respond to God in the same way as Mary did. To agree with God willingly, with hope, and go forward in faith. Are you ready to say “yes” to God, when God calls? Say yes, in faith!  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Mary and Joseph, Unafraid

“Mary and Joseph, Unafraid”

angel with trumpet

Luke 1:26-31, Matthew 1:19-21 – August 5, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When a woman is pregnant and expecting a baby, it can be a marvelous experience. However, an unexpected pregnancy can be surprising, even worrisome. I know I have heard of several unplanned pregnancies over the years, and I suspect many of you have, too. An added complication can occur when the parents of the unexpected baby are not married.

That was exactly Mary and Joseph’s situation. Both were unmarried, only engaged. Both were very much involved with the birth of this unexpected baby. And, both had angels appear to them, telling them “Be not afraid!”

Just imagine: Mary and Joseph, considering the exact same unexpected situation, with two very different reactions and quite separate expectations. We are not told, but I cannot help but wonder whether Mary’s fear and Joseph’s fear of the unknown was compounded by fear for the other. How were their fears for the other encountered, and addressed? [1]

Both Mary and Joseph have angels suddenly come upon them. Both angels immediately say, “Be not afraid!” This occurrence is starting to become familiar to us by now, after two months of this summer sermon series. The sight of angels must be terrifying, since the first words out of their mouths is almost always, “Be not afraid!”

Mary must have been completely flabbergasted at the appearance of the angel. Even though she had heard about miraculous and angelic appearances in synagogue on the Sabbath for years, it’s a quite different thing to have it actually happen to her. Mary probably was interrupted while she went about her usual routine at home.

In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel—God’s special messenger angel—comes to Mary and reassures her with the words “Be not afraid!” In this longer narrative of the birth of Jesus, the angels come to several people (and one group of people). What is more, according to commentator Shively Smith, “the simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 24-25); miracles to those not looking for miracles, as in the case of Mary (Luke 1:26-27); and even disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds (Luke 2:8).” [2]

Matthew tells us that Joseph was interrupted by the angel of the Lord in a dream. From the short, spare account of Matthew—only a verse and a half!—we do find out that Joseph was called a righteous man. Joseph certainly was considering the unexpected news that Mary had brought to him. Both Joseph and Mary considering the same situation, but in different circumstances.

We all realize that today’s cultural references are different from those of first-century Palestine. The cultural marriage practices of the Jews of that time were patriarchal and highlighted the joining together of two families, not of two individuals, as marriage is seen today here in the United States. Nevertheless, we can see how God breaks apart first-century cultural practices and societal expectations through this miraculous birth narrative.

Joseph was, indeed, a righteous man. When his fiancée Mary first came to him with this unexpected news, he first thought she had been unfaithful. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that the first thing anyone would think of? Either that, or that Mary had been raped, which is even more unpleasant and shocking. (But, the Gospel doesn’t go there.) Joseph does not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. So, how to deal with this unexpected situation?  

I suspect the situation was looking pretty desperate to Joseph. That is where the angel of the Lord steps in—or, flies in—to the situation.  The angel reassures Joseph that the baby within Mary’s uterus is indeed holy, conceived of the Holy Spirit. What is more, that the baby will be the Messiah! The words of the angel: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is quite similar to other appearances of supernatural wonder in the Gospel of Luke. Commentator Shively Smith tells us “each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel (Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:32).” [3]

Let us come back to Mary and Joseph, two individuals going through a difficult, even traumatic time, in terms of society’s expectations as well as cultural norms. This is a different way of thinking about the birth of Jesus than that we are used to, every Christmas. Commentator David Lose tells us “let’s not forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced, or the fear and hurt that Mary would likely have also felt as they sorted out their divinely complex relationship.” [4]

On one hand, Mary has this assurance of supernatural power and presence within her from the angel. On the other, Joseph gets a reassurance of supernatural power and presence concerning Mary from the angel. We might presume from all this that there is some far greater plan that neither Mary nor Joseph has any clear idea about. The injunction “Be not afraid!” is a part of this greater plan.

A supernatural plan, a plan that overarches all time and space, whereby the Savior of the world is going to enter in to our everyday lives, and blow apart every cultural norm and societal expectation. It blows our minds, just thinking about the birth of Jesus, two thousand years later. The encouragement “Be not afraid?” Don’t be afraid to step forward with TRUST, as part of a larger plan that comes from above.

You think the situations we find ourselves in today are complex? God understands the complexity and the ins and outs of every situation, every predicament, every sadness and trauma and difficulty each of us might find ourselves in. As we take a closer look at Mary and Joseph, we see that they are not just figures from some stained glass window, but instead flesh and blood people with the same emotions and fears and family difficulties we might have today.

“And the more we can imagine them as people like us — with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance — the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them — that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, and yet whom God uses nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.” [5]

The angel’s words, “Be not afraid!” We can take them to heart, too, and be encouraged, reassured, that God is with us, today, just as much as God was with people in bible times, just as much as God was with Mary and Joseph, all the way through their wonderful and frightening and even shocking experiences. Even though we may go through all kinds of things, God will never leave us, nor forsake us. Be not afraid!

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 97.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Do Not Be Afraid!

“Do Not Be Afraid!”

Luke 1-38 annunciation icon

Luke 1:26-38 (1:30) – December 17, 2017

Pictures of Christmas in the church bring to mind all sorts of things: Joseph and Mary entering a crowded Bethlehem, shepherds abiding in the fields, pictures of the Nativity scene. All manner of different pictures. But—we still haven’t gotten to Christmas. Christmas has not arrived yet. We are still in the waiting period; we are still in the third week of Advent.

Our Gospel reading—and presentation this morning—comes to us from the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. We look on with Mary, the teenaged girl engaged to Joseph, when she has a heavenly visitation. This Annunciation, or visit from the angel Gabriel, has been the subject of paintings, stained glass windows, mosaics, and other forms of artwork for centuries. About as long as the Gospel of Luke has been written down.

In many of these paintings, the teenaged girl Mary often looks relaxed and comfortable. She’s holding a book, she’s sewing, she’s arranging flowers, she is hardly startled at all. [1] Consider this situation another way. What are the first words out of the angel Gabriel’s mouth? “Do not be afraid, Mary!”

Look at another picture of Mary and the angel Gabriel, in the modern-day image of the Annunciation painted by Benedictine priest, John Giuliani. “In his rendition of the Annunciation, Have No Fear, Father Giuliani depicts Gabriel coming down from heaven, feet first, aimed right at Mary’s face, with a stem of lilies outstretched like a sword. For her part, Mary nearly falls out of her chair as she shields her face from Gabriel’s descent. The chair is pushed back on only two legs, swept over by the force of the messenger’s entry into time. It’s not as pretty a picture as the ones on Christmas cards, but it might be more accurate.” [2]

Before we go further into this Gospel reading, we need to consider Mary. A teenaged girl, can we even consider how frightened Mary must have been after she was greeted this way by a heavenly visitor, an angel? I am not sure, but I suspect I would have been at least as frightened as Mary at the totally unexpected visit of the angel.  How do you think you might feel if an angel appeared to you?

The separate branches of the Christian faith think of Mary in different ways.

I grew up on the northwest side of Chicago. For me, surrounded as I was by Roman Catholics, I knew that Catholics considered the Virgin Mary to be an extra-special woman. It was not until years later that I learned exactly how: “for Roman Catholics, Mary is a Co-Redeemer with Christ whose job description is to act as a go-between with us sinners on earth and God in heaven. During the Middle Ages, Mary became important in the prayer lives of the common folk, as one who could empathize with their plight and mediate forgiveness. In the councils of the Church through the centuries, she gradually gained supernatural qualities.” [3]

Again, we are getting way ahead of ourselves! Here in Luke chapter one, Mary is still a teenager. The angel Gabriel has just left. She travels to see her older cousin, and now we come to another great picture from the life of Mary. We have the Visitation of the Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth, another picture that has been painted countless times throughout the centuries.

Women are so often overlooked, when we consider the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, as well as in general society, women are forgotten, ignored, shunted aside, and treated as second-class citizens. That is, unless we are reading the Gospel of Luke. Luke lifts up the characters of Mary and Elizabeth, and provides a memorable exchange.

“God is already at work to overturn the world’s structures and expectations.” [4]

At our neighboring church here in Morton Grove, St. Martha’s Catholic Church and Shrine of All Saints, we would discover something else about Mary—and about her cousin Elizabeth, and about many women of many periods and cultures. We would see that in many pictures at St. Martha’s Church, each woman has a covering on her head. Similar to certain cultural standards of dress today, many religious women cover their heads. Like religious Christian women today—like many Catholic nuns, and like many Orthodox women all over the world. We have religious Jewish women who cover—like observant married Jewish women. And, we know some observant Muslim women today, here in our area as well as in other places, cover their heads. They wear hijab. Head coverings. Just like Mary and Elizabeth did.

Returning to the many pictures and other artworks that portray the Virgin Mary, many of them show Mary interrupted from reading. A book is something that has been in pictures of Mary for centuries. Mary remembered as a literate young woman.

What a wonderful thing to tell our children and our children’s children! We have it on good authority that Mary could, indeed, read. Many Jewish women of that time could, unlike their contemporaries in other places. What a wonderful opportunity for the young Jesus to have both an earthly mother and father who were literate and able to teach their children.

Is there anything better that what Gabriel said?  The angel “assured Mary that God’s Holy Spirit would be with her. Even though she was frightened, Gabriel promised that God would take care of Mary. Mary learned from the Bible about God’s love, so she knew that she could trust the words of the angel when he said “Don’t be afraid!” [5]

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth adds some intelligent and insightful comments.  “When Elizabeth says, ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,’ she implicitly contrasts Mary’s trust in God’s power and promise with her own husband Zechariah’s skeptical questioning.” [6]

The high-powered priest Zechariah was skeptical when the angel came to him, a few months before. He asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. In contrast, Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her, and then gave her willing consent. Zechariah the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the girl from a poor family believed what the angel Gabriel said. “Her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless her and to bless the whole world through her. Elizabeth celebrates Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God.[7]

We know God’s call is not always convenient. And sometimes, God asks us to set aside everything we think we know about reality in order to accomplish the Divine agenda. Such was the case with Mary. Thankfully, we know the end of the story. All of us can listen to the angel when he tells us “Do not be afraid!” Those are good words for all of us to take to heart.

 

[1] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[2] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[3] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/mary-reluctant-prophet-alyce-mckenzie-12-17-2012.html  “Mary, the Reluctant Prophet,” Alyce M. McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2012.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

[5] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Three. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2723  Judith Jones

 

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)