Warning! I am posting a sermon here. You are under no obligation to read this…
A church member responded to my Ask, Seek, Knock sermon of last week, with a very interesting observation. He basically said that the things I was asking him, and each of you, to do, filled him with fear. If you’ll recall, the things I suggested were to Ask for what you need from others, Seek justice for others and the Kingdom of God, and Knock on doors, in other words, build relationships with people, cross the lines of your cubicle, your office doors, your neighborhood and begin to really get to know people.
I think that the church member’s observations were really correct. We’re all scared. But courage, as you all know, isn’t the absence of fear, it’s the willingness to do something in spite of the fear.
Let’s look, for a minute, at the text for today. Here’s Mary, doing what she’s supposed to be doing, a young teen mother getting betrothed. She’s hanging in her tent one night and this happens:
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.
Imagine. An angel has just said to you, “You are highly favored.” What would your response be?
This reminds me of my own therapy. One of the things we worked on in therapy was accepting
compliments. When someone compliments me, I think in my head one of several thoughts. The first is usually, “You don’t even know me.” The second is, “Oh, sure, I can do well at this one thing, but I suck at everything else.” The third is, “I’m good at this, but it really means nothing in the world. It doesn’t change anything.”
But back to the text, Mary has just been told, “You have found favor with God.” And Mary is troubled with his words. She thought, “What kind of greeting is that?” Is that the new way that you talk to people? Does the angel have me confused with someone else? Is he just trying to suck up to get something from me?
After saying this to Mary, the angel goes on to tell her the bad news. She’s going to have a child. Okay, okay! I know it’s supposed to be good news, but imagine! Surprise! You’re pregnant, even though you’re a virgin. Explain that one to your parents. Explain that one to your betrothed. Explain it to your community. Hmmm…
She must’ve been scared to death. Of course, it didn’t preclude her from doing it anyway. She birthed this child. Watched him be different his whole life, watched his public ministry, and even tried, at one point, to convince him that he was crazy and needed to leave the ministry. Fear must’ve gotten her there.
But the angel said, “Fear not.”
I’ve polled several of my friends this week, “What is fear and what do you do to get over it?”
One friend, who is in a new relationship, said, “I have no idea!”
Another friend, on facebook, wrote, “Fear is total body shutdown which then produces no actual response or inaction. And on that note I’m going to bed.”
Another said, “Joy is a good way to combat fear.”
Another friend, a former sex worker, said, “When I see something that I’m afraid of, I have to do it! I jump in with both feet!” I said, “So, the second time you do it, you don’t feel as afraid, eh?” She replied, “Yeah, except for the things that I really hated or were bad for me. Then I remember there’s a reason why I’m afraid sometimes.”
Another friend, when asked if she’s ever afraid, said, “um, yeah! Have you ever seen that billboard that says, “Pregnant? Scared?” When I was pregnant with my first child I saw that and thought, “YES!” They weren’t talking to me, but still.
Oh, and it’s called tragic thought process apparently – when you get on a plane and you don’t only see it going down but you see it scatter into thousands of little pieces and limbs all over the places and blood everywhere – the details! I know, I have issues. Yeah, I’m scared. And yes, I drink!”
We all have our responses to fear. But the key to facing fear is just that: feel it and do it anyway.
I’ve thought about all the ways I respond when I’m afraid. I avoid. I run. I duck. I rarely even identify that I’m afraid. I’ll call it annoyance. Or anger. But what it really boils down to is fear. But you know, fear is a lot easier to handle if you just recognize it for what it is.
Then I like to sit down and find out exactly what I’m afraid of. What are the possibilities for the situation? If I X then Y might happen. But what are the other options? Like my friend who is afraid of getting on airplanes, who has the tragic thought process… If I get on this plane, it might crash. There might be bodies scattered into thousands of little pieces and limbs all over the place and blood everywhere. But then I ask, what if I don’t get on the plane? Well, I won’t be able to do this thing that I really want to do. I won’t see the people I’m hoping to see. I won’t get paid. And then, to top it all off, I think, “Fear will win.”
Because if we don’t do the things that we are afraid of, Fear Wins. And fear is the opposite of love.
Mary’s first response to fear was to discount that which was said. “Who me?” She thought when the angel said, “You have found favor with God.”
Mary has a second response to her fear. She goes to see a good friend and relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, in a lot of ways, has way more to fear than Mary does. Elizabeth’s husband has lost his ability to speak while she’s been pregnant. She’s old, and we all know that older pregnancies are higher risk. She’s gonna have to raise this child, how long will she actually be around?
But by being with someone else who was afraid, and facing their fears together, in community, Mary and Elizabeth were able to conquer their fears. Of course, the conquering of fear is the winning of love. And as she wins at love, Mary sings her song:
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
I have to say that it’s amazing work that God completed in the birth of Christ. However, the work that Mary did, overcoming her fear, was an even greater feat.
There was a another response to my facebook request on how to deal with fear. My friend John, who is a police officer in Atlanta, said, and I quote here, “I’m getting really tired of all the murder and mayhem in my job.” His recommendation for combating fear? Get good life insurance.
And what is the best life insurance? Faith in God. God doesn’t leave us. Ever. If God is with us, who can be against us?
May we follow Mary’s lead.