Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Faith Beyond Fear
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Lessons of Luke
A four-week Advent sermon series on Luke 1
Week 2 of 4, preached December 6, 2020 for the 9:30am Worship
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is that special season that starts the Christian year right before Christmas. The word Advent means, coming to, or coming toward, and in this season we are waiting and preparing for God to come to us… as a babe born in a manger long ago, as a teacher, brother, and friend even today, and as Lord and leader of God’s holy beloved community someday.
For this Season of Advent, we are listening to the Lessons of Luke chapter 1 to help us wait and be ready for the birth of Jesus in Chapter 2. Last week, Rev. Caitlan read and preached the often overlooked start of Luke 1, where Zechariah and Elizabeth are promised a child, John, in their old age. Caitlan helped us hear that old story in a new way, and asked us if this year, because of all the oddities and changes in our world, if we could open our ears and minds to hear the whole Christmas story in a new way.
Today, I’ll pick up right where Caitlan left off. Let’s pray, then listen for the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Luke 1:26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a teenage girl who was promised to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The young girl’s name was Mary. 28 And Gabriel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 Ans she was very perplexed by his words and wondered about 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 rest upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[d] will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 Even now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was believed to be barren. 37 See, 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.
Sermon Faith Beyond Fear
I’m still searching for the right English word for Mary’s reaction. One translation, the one we used today, offered perplexed… Mary was much perplexed by his words… Perplexed is how I feel when I can get any more numbers in a Sudoku. Perplexed is how I felt this week when I was trying to decipher all the historical district documentation requirements on our 1888 home. Perplexed is how many grandmothers or grandfathers feel when their grandchildren begin describing how to do something on the computer or iPhone, or how to TicToc or Snapchat. No, perplexed isn’t the right word for what Mary was feeling on this surprise encounter with a message from God.
Another translation suggested, confused as in “Mary was confused by his greeting. She’s maybe 13 years old, not a child, not a woman, promised to a man but not married yet. And a voice, a presence, overwhelms her and invades her consciousness, and calls her out as special to God in some way. “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you.” She could be confused by his greeting, that he appeared at all and called her favored, but I don’t think “confused” quite covers the sudden and overwhelming presence of a strange presence and voice in her world very well at all.
The next line might help us. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid.” That’s what she was… not just perplexed, as if she was trying to figure out why she didn’t hear the door open… and not just confused, as in why would this person be meeting with me. No, she was afraid. There was a stranger in her room who approached in stealth mode and is now trying to sweet-talk her. She was afraid.
That’s okay with me, to think of Mary as afraid. We tend to want to picture her as meek, trusting, serene. But I imagine God chose her for her toughness, and resourcefulness as well. She was not a naïve, gullible gal. She had enough wits about her to be afraid at this intrusion, and also had enough courage and openness about her to gauge the messenger and to listen to the message being brought to her.
Fear is a reasonable first reaction when a close encounter with God occurs. God is so other. We humans typically don’t naturally like things that are other, things or people that are significantly different from us, thus all our -isms… classism, racism, sexism… those are all embodiments of our fear of the other. And God is more other from all of us that we can imagine. To be confronted with that otherness is startling, and causes fear to bloom inside us quickly, almost instinctively.
When I say God is other, I mean God’s love is so pure, our concepts of love are shattered in comparison. We realize just how unloving we really are to one another sometimes. God’s holiness is so beautiful we cannot help but recognize and realize our own sinfulness in comparison. God’s power is so merciful and abundant, we realize just how powerless and dependent on God we really are. God’s otherness is shocking and leads to a first reaction of fear. Some call it awe, but we can call Mary’s reaction fear.
Now, when God comes close, God anticipates our fear, but God doesn’t visit us to instill fear. God’s visits are meant to encourage faith. The intended action from an encounter with God is not an action that flows from that fear, but an act of faith, that moves us to act faithfully despite the fear. The fear itself is not silly or bad or wrong. Fear of God is natural, expected, anticipated, but fear is not to be the deciding factor in what and how we shall live and act and speak as a result of the fearful encounter with God.
Are you with me still?
See, if God wanted our fear, God or God’s messenger would say, “Good, you’re afraid, and you should be!” That’s not what Gabriel says to Mary. The angel of God says, “Do not be afraid.” Meaning, it's okay that you felt fear as your first reaction, but don’t let fear have control of your second reaction. Let faith guide you through and despite the fear.
See, fear instantly imagines doom and gloom. Fear is designed to make us believe things will not work out, things will fail, things will be hard, we might get hurt, negative image after negative image. Fear is essential for our survival. It does keep us safe from real threats. And God is so different and so other, an encounter will God will create fear in us. It’s okay to be afraid when God comes close.
But, God comes close not to relish in our being afraid, and doesn’t take pride in our fear, and doesn’t use our fear to scare or threaten us into obedience. That isn’t loving. The real presence of God causes fear in us, but encourages us to trust our way beyond the fear, “Do not be afraid…”
I have people ask me how to know if something is really God or not. That’s a tough question to answer. I cannot give a litmus test for deciding yes or no to whether an encounter or message was from God. But there are two things this story tells us about encounters with God.
First, we will be afraid. Just because we are afraid, does not mean it isn’t God. In fact, if it doesn’t cause us some fear, some gulp-like reaction, it probably isn’t God. The God we worship is awe-inspiring, so if we are not inspired to awe, to fear, somewhat, it probably isn’t God.
Second, and at the same time, if someone, or some thought, or some feeling is trying to make us afraid, or relishes in our fears, or feeds our fears, then it isn’t God. The real presence of God causes fear but is followed by assurance. God does not downplay or shame us for being afraid, but loves and leads and encourages forward to loving faithful despite our fear. If you are afraid, and someone, or some thought, or some feeling acknowledges your fear and is trying to encourage you to act in faith anyway, that’s very much like this real message from God.
Most of us, when afraid, are apt to say that whatever we just thought or felt or heard or imagined simply isn’t possible… there is no way that we can or will be able to do this. But faith, faith lifts us up above the fear and says all things are possible with God.
Fear resists when God’s spirit comes across us and promises changes to us. The Holy Spirit would be resting on Mary. Whether she liked it or not, that change was coming. Fear would fight that change. Faith understands God’s changes are for the better, and if God is leading the change in our lives, then God will continue to lead us into and through those changes toward God’s good intentions on the other side.
Fear asks questions to protect and defend what we already have, what we think we already know, what we already believe and hold as true. Fear is afraid of new discoveries, in that if one little part of what we’ve always held, what we’ve known, what we’ve believed is removed, well, our whole way of life might collapse. Fear is afraid of what we may not know. Faith is okay being changed for the better, doing hard things, even when we do not fully understand the guidance.
Fear also worries too much about what other people will think or say. They will think I’m weird or crazy. So fear makes us silent about our encounters with God. Faith cannot help but talk to others about our experiences with God. Next week, Mary immediately goes to Elizabeth to talk to her, and to see the promises of God coming true. Fear would have kept Mary home, hidden. Faith sends Mary to Elizabeth, to be with her and to share with her the miracle in both their bellies.
Fear demands its own way. A fearful Mary would have insisted God not do this, and let her go on with her life as planned. She had a fiancée and a wedding date. Maybe she had picked out the flowers, and the reception meal already. Fear would have made Mary demand life go on unchanged. Faith led her to say despite her fear, “Let it be me according to your will, God.”
Faith trumps fear. Faith trusts. Faith asks questions to help believe, that remember anything is possible with God. Faith defers to the will of God. And that kind of faith is not our own. This kind of faith is a gift of God. Sometimes we do not know what to do with this gift, how to open it, how to use it. But Jesus the Christ, conceived by Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary, lived a life and died a death of amazing faithfulness despite his fear. Now, that same Jesus lends to us his faith. Those who are children of God are not measured by our own faith or faithfulness, but by the faith and faithfulness of Jesus the Christ, who came through his fears, even fear of death, and in so doing, opened up true life for the whole world.
Your fear may be alerting you to the real presence of God. Do not act out of fear, but out of faith, not your own, but the faithfulness of Jesus the Christ, who believed in you, long before you could believe in him.
To this God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown