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!

Terrified!

Matthew 17:1-9 – February 26, 2017

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“Terrified!”

When my children were young, I would always read them a bedtime story, every night. That was part of our process of going to bed. Sometimes I’d read chapters from books like Winnie the Pooh or the Wizard of Oz, and sometimes storybooks or fairy tales from the library. Some of the stories would have some really scary things in them! A little like the Gospel reading from Matthew, today, where the three disciples were terrified on top of the mountain! There are certain things that scare us almost to death. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

In many of the stories we know, some people often like to find a character they can relate to. A sympathetic character, or one who displays some qualities each of us might have. Who hasn’t been frightened, like Piglet, or puzzled, like Pooh Bear, or excited, like Tigger? In today’s Gospel reading, we have several characters. Is it possible to find some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

In today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus, and we have Peter, James, and his brother John. Jesus takes them up a trail on a mountain, up to the top. There, they have a stunning, supernatural encounter.

That day does not start that way. That day was probably like many other days among Jesus and His group of followers. Hectic, a bit crowded, perhaps even some people already waiting in line to see the Rabbi, have some prayer, even hoping for a healing. Unknown to everyone else, Jesus slips away with the three disciples.

Remember how we often choose a character from a story and try to relate to them, or find some similarity with a characteristic of theirs? I thought one of the commentators on this Gospel passage had some excellent points. Alyce McKenzie said: “If you know what it is like to be tired, to have people seeking you out for what you can do for them, and other people criticizing you and working against you, if you have ever been filled with dread at what lies ahead, you have a little something in common with Jesus. If you know what it’s like to feel those things as a direct result of serving God, then you have even more in common with Jesus.” [1]

While this little group is climbing the mountain, I suspect these three disciples are a bit proud that their Rabbi Jesus has singled them out, amidst all of the other disciples and followers. Wouldn’t you be proud? Perhaps, even congratulating yourself that you are a confidant of Jesus?

After the four people reach the mountaintop, something happens. Now, remember, Peter, James and John are not used to watching television or movies. They do not know anything about fancy costumes that look like they come from outer space, or special effects with light and fireworks, or super sound systems like we have in the United States, today.

Just imagine people like Peter, James and John, having no concept of any of these modern things. Next, I invite you to close your eyes. Try to put yourself in the company of the three disciples, on top of the mountain, in your mind. Are you there? “There was Jesus, transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”

I can think of at least a dozen supernatural encounters—right off the top of my head—in both the Old and the New Testaments. You know, where people come face to face with angels, or hear the voice of God, or see the burning bush. Here on top of the mountain, these three disciples already knew that Jesus was a man from God. Only a few days before, Peter had even testified to that fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised One of God.

In all of these supernatural encounters throughout the Bible, angels always say “Don’t be afraid!” to whomever they meet. I bet when the angels break in to the everyday, ordinary world, that must be the scariest thing those people have ever seen! Even though Peter, James and John had walked with Jesus, learned from Jesus, and lived with Jesus for many months, by this time, I suspect they are scared at the events that are happening!

We have Jesus—transfigured, or literally translated from Greek, metamorphoomai, the verb “to undergo a metamorphosis.” We are not quite sure exactly how Jesus looked, except that we are told He glowed with a glory reserved for angels, for things from heaven. It’s as if a switch were flipped, and Jesus was lit from the inside with bright, white super-sunshine.

Is it any wonder that Peter started babbling, and said the first thing that came into his head? “Um, Lord, it is good that we are here. Look, look, I’ll put up three booths, or tents, so we can worship You and Moses and Elijah right here!” Good old foot-in-mouth Peter. Sure to speak before he thinks, letting his mouth run away with him. (Does that sound like anyone you know? Is that a situation in this story that you especially relate to?)

The bright and shining Jesus was talking to Elijah and Moses. Remember Moses, and how he had led the people of Israel for forty years around the wilderness? Yes, “Moses, who had seen God face to face on Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Revelation, and whose face had shone.” Dr. Alyce McKenzie tells us “that Moses hadn’t wanted to be a prophet in the first place and had made excuses to God to get out of it. (If you know what it’s like to make excuses to God, you have a little something in common with Moses.)“ [2]

But, wait! There’s even more! “While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” If you thought the appearance of Jesus in radiant form wasn’t enough, imagine the stentorian voice of God booming all around! This is it. Right here.

Can you imagine Peter, James and John even more afraid than they were before? Absolutely terrified? They fall on their faces at this heavenly voice. It isn’t even a sound system, with squawking speakers all around, but instead the resounding voice of God from heaven.

And then—everything supernatural goes away. It’s all over. Only Jesus remains, in His normal, everyday clothes.

I can tell you how Peter remembered this awesome, terrifying experience, several decades later. He writes to his fellow believers in a letter, “18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” But then, Peter couldn’t stay on the mountaintop forever, worshiping the Lord. Peter—and James, and John—needed to come down into the real world, into the mundane, every day. And, do the real, sometimes difficult, work of God’s kingdom.

Remember what I said about characters in a story, and about us finding some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

Whether we are up on the mountain today, with the bright shining, heavenly Jesus, or down on the earth in a sad or difficult place, the love of Jesus shines in our hearts. Jesus remains.

He is with us, just as He promised. Not “maybe,” not “I wish so, or “I hope so.” But, Jesus promises to be right by our sides, always, through thick and thin, through good times and bad. “In Him we behold what we want to become. In us Jesus lives as a presence that empowers us to become what God would have us become.” [3]

And for that, we can surely say “alleluia, amen!”

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[3] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

@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!)