Saturday, December 5, 2020

“Do Not Be Afraid: Hold Hope” - November 29, 2020

Text: Luke 1:26-45


In this, the strangest year of most of our lives, we are entering into the season of Advent.  And like most everything else this year, Advent is going to be different this time around.  Christmas is going to be different.  But it seems to me that with many of the usual festivities and much of the typical hoopla set aside this year, we may have a chance to experience this season in a new and perhaps a deeper way.

Advent is a word that means coming.  This is a time of beginning.  Today is the beginning of a new liturgical year.  And you know, with all that has happened and all that is going on right now, this is really welcome.  We could use a new start, we could use a new beginning about right now.

The beginning that we read about in our scripture this morning comes about in a most unlikely way.  The angel Gabriel is sent to a town in Galilee, in northern Israel, far from the center of power in Jerusalem, to the town of Nazareth.  The angel appears to a young woman who had been promised in marriage to a man named Joseph but was not yet married.  The young woman’s name was Mary.  And the angel Gabriel has a message that is nearly beyond belief.  

We have heard Gabriel’s words before, heard them many times.  We usually hear them around this time of year.  But I want us to think especially about these words this morning, and specifically about three things that Gabriel says.

“The first is Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”
Mary is called favored.  The Lord has regarded her.  What an amazing thing – to be thought of, to be regarded, to be viewed by God with favor.  The literal meaning is to be graced by God.  This is rendered in some translations as “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

Here is Mary, maybe 13 years old, promised by her family to marry the carpenter Joseph.  She really would have had no say in the matter.  She lives in an occupied nation, in an unimportant town.   Life is hard.  Roman oppression is a daily part of life.  

Of course Mary is startled.  Anybody would be.  But as much as being startled by the appearance of an angel, it is startling that the angel appears to her of all people.  And say that God has regarded her.  Favored her.  Graced her.

If the reading didn’t go any farther than that, we would have reason for hope.  Because here is the thing: God has not regarded her because she has a beautiful voice.  Not because she has been an exemplary student.  Not because she has done a great deal of important work.  Not because she has a sweet jump shot.  Not because she has been born to wealth or to a well-connected family.  God has regarded her, God has favored her, because that is what God does.  This isn’t about Mary as much as this is about God.

And God regards each one of us.  God favors and graces each one of us.  Our lives matter.  Our lives matter to God.  Not because we are brilliant or talented or skilled or beautiful or especially worthy or hardworking.  God regards us, God favors us, because of who God is.  This is what God does.

“Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you!” The scripture says that Mary was perplexed, which is no doubt an understatement.  We would all be scared to death, I think.  And what does the angel say?  “Do not be afraid.”

We have actually heard these words in scripture several times already this fall.  Abraham and Sarah followed God to a new land.  They face struggles and as they get beyond child-bearing age they have a hard time holding on to God’s promise that they will be parents of a great nation.  But God says to them, “Do not be afraid.  I will be your shield.  Look towards heaven and count the stars…So shall your descendants be.”

Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and years later, they were reunited with him when they traveled to Egypt to buy food.  After their father Isaac died, they were afraid that Joseph would exact revenge, but speaking words that for them were words from God, he said, “Do not be afraid!  Even though you intended it for harm, God meant it for good.”

Then there was Elijah, speaking to the widow of Zarephath, who was ready to prepare bread with the last of her remaining flour and oil for a meager last meal for her and her son, and then get ready to die of starvation in a time of extreme famine.   Elijah spoke God’s word for her: “Do not be afraid.  The jar of flour will not fail, the jug of oil will not run empty until there is rain.  You will have food to eat and you and your son will live.”

Do not be afraid.  We hear these words time and again, and especially in the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke, which we will be looking at throughout these Sundays of Advent.  Earlier in the first chapter of Luke, an angel had appeared to the old priest Zechariah.  He was terrified, but what did the angel say to him?  “Do not be afraid.”  The angel Gabriel told him that the Lord had heard his prayers and that in her old age his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a child – who would be John the Baptist.

And now the angel Gabriel comes to Mary.  And what does he say?  Of course.  He speaks these same words: “Do not be afraid.”

Why is it that these words are repeated over and over in scripture?  And why do angels almost always say these words?

Well for one thing, the appearance of an angel is no doubt scary.  If an angel appears to you, your mind immediately races - what is happening?  You may be filled with dread and you certainly feel a healthy dose of fear.

But there is more to it.  God and God’s messengers again and again say, “Do not be afraid” because truth be told, there are a lot of things in our world that can inspire fear.  There are 101 reasons to feel anxiety and worry.  In the year of our Lord 2020, a message from God of “Do not be afraid” is needed more than ever.  

I think it is safe to say that there has been plenty to worry over this year.  Illness.  Loss – loss of income, loss of jobs, loss of so many things we may enjoy.  Loss of life.  Injustice.  Loneliness.  General turmoil in our culture.  We need an angel to come and tell us, “Do not be afraid.”

Last week, looking back on the year that isn’t even finished, Anne Lamott wrote, “This was the most astonishing, distressing, transforming, nerve-wracking, heartbreaking and generous year possible.”  That pretty well covers it.

Many of us did not get together with extended family for Thanksgiving.  Today we are meeting for the 38th Sunday in a row by Zoom.  These are not normal times.  And just as the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary, we hear God’s words to us: Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  I am with you.

One more word from the angel Gabriel.  Mary, of course, had a hard time believing what she was hearing.  Her son will be called Son of the Most High?  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever?

What was being described wasn’t just wildly improbable; it was completely impossible.  On a simply logistical standpoint, Mary says, “I don’t even have a husband yet.” But the angel said: “Nothing is impossible for God.”

We have actually heard those words before too.  They appear one other place in scripture.  Again, back in Genesis with Abraham and Sarah, who kept hearing these promises but weren’t seeing the promise come to pass.  Until one day three visitors show up and tell Abram that when they stop by about this time next year, Sarai will have a son.  Sarai overhears and laughs out loud because by now the thought is preposterous.  And the visitors, angels, say “Why is she laughing?  Nothing is impossible for God.”  They named the child Isaac, which means Laughter.

Just as an angel had spoken these words to her ancestors about an unlikely birth, an angel comes to Mary and says, “Nothing is impossible for God.”  And in the midst of uncertainty, these are words to hold on to.  Words of hope.

Mary went to visit her older relative Elizabeth.  Only Elizabeth could understand the miracle of this child Mary was carrying.  Only Mary could understand the miracle of this child Elizabeth was carrying.  
 They share so much.  And there is so much they do not know.  They don’t know what to think of the angel who brought news of God’s favor.  They don’t know why they have been chosen.  They don’t know who their children will become, though they have some clues.  They don’t know how being mothers will change them.  They don’t know how their children will change the world, or how the world will change their children.  They don’t know how their hearts will soar, and ache, and break for the children they are carrying.  They don’t know how the community will react – whether they will be supported or run out of town as their surprising pregnancies became known.

But they know each other.  They are filled with joy for one another.  And they know that in the midst of so much unknown, there was an incredible and extraordinary gift from God.  There was overwhelming grace.

Nothing is impossible for God.  This is all about hope.

When we are filled with fear, nothing is impossible for God.

When we don’t know how we can make it through the pain we are facing, nothing is impossible for God.

When we don’t see a way forward, when we can’t imagine a solution, nothing is impossible for God.

Mary’s son changed the world.  He brought hope to the hopeless.  And for that he suffered and died.  But hope was not lost.  Because nothing is impossible for God.

Do not be afraid.  God looks upon you with favor.  Nothing is impossible for God.  So hold on to hope.  Amen.

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