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  • Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Fear of God

Advent – Generation to Generation, Week 2 of a 4-week Advent season of sermons, preached Dec 4, 2022 at the 9:30am Worship


Context

It’s the second week in Advent, and our series called “Generation to Generation.” We are grateful to Sanctified Art for their help imagining this series and offering prayers, liturgies, song suggestions, and more.


Generation to Generation is a line in Mary’s song, “God’s mercy is for those who fear God, from generation to generation.” It’s meant to remind us God is great and worthy of our worship and awe. This God was present in the lives of those who came before us. The same God is with us here and now. And this God will be faithful beside those who come after us, from generation to generation.


So let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord from…


Prayer


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 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.”[b] 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?”[c] 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[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 said 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.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God)


Sermon Fear of God?

I’ve obviously never been pregnant. I’ve been there when Jill told me she was. Most of the time, it was semi-expected news. We didn’t decide to have children as much as we decided not to not have children. The little lines on the pregnancy test were always welcomed, even if the exact timing wasn’t. There was an aspect of fear. Are we really ready for this? But we had been open to and preparing for the possibility each time, even hoping for it.


I’ve also been alongside others… friends, family members, church members, colleagues… when they got different news about pregnancy. Sometimes, the pregnancy just wouldn’t happen despite huge, expensive attempts to make sure it did. That news isn’t good, and hurts the hearts and hopes of the ones receiving it. There’s a bit of fear it might never happen with each not yet, or no.


Other times, a pregnancy appears in someone who isn’t hoping for it or ready for it. That news isn’t good, and seems to dash the dreams and desires of the ones receiving it. A woman divorcing her abusive husband finds out she’s pregnant with his child. A college student can’t remember what happened at a party late last semester, but now hears the campus doctor tell her she’s pregnant. There’s plenty of fear in these moments. What now, what to do next. Those are all tougher moments than Jill or I had to feel.


Mary was barely child-bearing age. Her family had arranged her future marriage to an older man, for money, a cultural norm at the time, in which she had no say. She was not yet with him, only promised to him. Her mother had probably been coaching her what to expect, and she had been preparing to become a wife and mother someday. But not yet, not now, and definitely, not like this.


We heard the word “perplexed” to describe Mary’s reaction to the angel and the news. Some other translations use “disturbed,” “agitated,” or “deeply troubled.” The angel simply recognizes it as fear in Mary, and says to her, “Do not be afraid!” But as Dr. Christine Hong says about this interaction, (quote) “the angel’s exclamation that Mary should not be afraid is terribly unrealistic… How could Mary not have felt fear when confronted with a celestial being? How could she avoid feeling afraid after hearing the angel’s message about her pregnancy?” (close quote)


I think that’s our point for today. Fear is a normal, healthy response to God. See, the real God’s presence is overwhelming, and has always sparked fear in God’s people. Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden. Moses bowed and hid his face in fear. The prophets responded to God’s radical, undeniable presence and call on them with humble fear. Fear, awe of God is natural, and when Mary’s first response to a messenger of God is fear, that’s okay. It could be, and probably should be, the first response of all of us to the intimate presence, radical love, and impossible demands of the true God.


That’s the other reason to be afraid. Besides the sheer awesome power and presence of this God, the true God always asks of us impossible things. God sent Noah to save the creatures of the planet from sinful humanity. God sent Moses to save the people of Israel from slavery under Egypt. God sent Jonah to prophesy to the hated people of Ninevah. God sent preachers and poets and everyday people to confront political leaders and convince them to be peaceful with enemies, welcoming of immigrants, and generous to elderly and children. This God demands impossible tasks, so we are right to be scared by this God. When Mary’s first response to carrying God’s child is fear, that’s reasonable. She’s an unwed teenage mother in a culture that stones girls caught in adultery to death. God is not even giving her a choice about it, but is pushing her into her hostile judgmental world pregnant, and her very existence will confront laws and beliefs of her culture that put her in danger, but that need to be challenged and fall so God’s kingdom can be revealed and rise.


This is the lesson every generation has to learn, over and over again. The God, the real God, the one God we know best in Jesus of Nazareth thanks to Holy Spirit, is scary. When we are in the presence of the real, true God, we will feel the shivers of fear, and awe, and wonder, and amazement. We will feel small, insignificant, humble. The awesome presence of this loving God who breathed all things into being and breathed life itself into our lungs, the presence of this God is shocking. We are right to be afraid.


And then, just as soon as the fear floods over us and squishes us down into a fetal position, we also feel the gracious, loving embrace, and we sense the encouraging smile, and we hear the warm invitation to stand and are hugged in the loving arms of God. We are welcomed like the prodigal with a ring and a cloak and a cookout! Its right for us to be afraid of this God, and its also so like God to forgive, love, and celebrate us through that justified reaction of fear, to invite us not to be afraid and instead to believe.


Then, just as we begin to trust the loving forgiveness of God, and begin to let some of our fear in the presence of God subside, another fear hits us. This God, still smiling and hugging us, invites us to drop what we were doing and become disciples, to follow, to sell everything, to be born again, to lose our lives in order to find them, to take up a cross.


Why couldn’t God just pause at the amazing forgiveness and love part, where we were afraid but are now forgiven and so we go to a party together? Because, God isn’t okay with the party being an insider event. The great party of God is for everyone, and there are still people and systems at work in the world who would rather hate than love, would rather fight than forgive, would rather keep more for themselves than share more with others. This God asks of every generation that same fearful service and sacrifice. Some generations learn it late. Other generations never seem to learn it.


Mary learned it very young, when she was just a teenage girl, about the age of Meg Taylor. Mary somehow moved in one conversation from fearful of God’s presence, to interacting carefully with God, from fearful of God’s call on her life, to “Here I am, let it be so.” A child. A teenage girl. She felt both fears of being close to God and being sent by God, but responded with faith.


That’s what this God is asking of us this Advent and Christmas season, to feel enough of the real presence of God that we are awed, humbled, even a bit afraid. Then, to feel the gentle unexpected presence of God as one of us, a babe, lying in a manger. Then to hesitate when that babe grows up and leads us and calls us to a life that is radically different than our world demands. At that point, will we fearfully deny him, or faithfully follow him? That is our calling as people of God, from Generation to Generation.


To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.


Charge

Today, I hope you felt some of the fear, awe of the presence of God, and then also felt the loving forgiveness and embrace of God. Today, I hope you feel the fear of following behind this God into the world, and the faith and hope that following leads to fullness of life.


Benediction

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 forever more.

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