ADVENT FAITH FOR THE FEARFUL
Sermon series preached during Advent 2013
At Brighton Ontario
Fellowship Christian Reformed Church
(1) “Fear Not, Mary!”:
This morning our planet stands on the brink of disaster. As a result of a United Nations Security Council resolution January 15, 1991, looms up before us a potential scheduling of Armageddon. Beyond the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, unnoticed, Libya seems poised to strike into the heart of Africa as Chad has fallen to its minions. Bangladesh, the twelfth most populous country in the world, and its most densely inhabited, is in chaos. And the rationing has been introduced in Leningrad – for the first time since the Nazi siege in 1943.
Domestically things are hardly better. Allan Greenspan informed us Wednesday that the economy was in a significant downturn, but in a recent poll a surprising number of people anticipate a depression that will repeat the 1930’s. Consumer confidence is at an unprecedented low. And our own Boston Friday surpassed the previous record for the
the annual number of murder victims.
A year ago things seems so straightforward. Eastern Europe was emerging from its shackles, we were – at least most of the country was – in the midst of the longest sustained peacetime boom in our history. The stores were filled with eager Christmas shoppers. We knew that the “Massachusetts miracle” was over but few others elsewhere saw the tell-tale signs.
Advent 1990. A time of fear. Anxiety stalks the land. But it is no different than the first Advent: the Middle East was in the first year of our Lord, BC 4, a place of hatred, passion, with alien armies occupying land whose sullen and rebellious inhabitants harbored their resentment and their anger. As the story of the First Christmas unfolds there is a constant refrain of “Fear Not”, reaching its mighty crescendo in that first Christmas Eve chorus of the angels: “Fear not for behold I bring good tidings of great joy.” Those who received the Advent herald were fearful and we resonate with their fears, for we too are fearful. Fear stalks the lives of each one of us – it comes in various sizes, types and varieties. But fear, of all human emotions, is the most basic drive of our psyche.
“Fear not, Mary!” At the annunciation, Luke tells us, the second word of the angel was one of reassurance. A frightened teenager, probably about fourteen years old, comes to grips with the most basic fear of all: that she will prove unworthy, that somehow she will fail God in the greatest hour of human history, that she will not be what she has been called to be.
For the expectation is high: “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.” “Ave Maria!” The surprise visitor announces the stupendous tidings. And in the thousands of paintings that have commemorated the scene the Virgin stands with a white rose, symbolizing her purity, her responsiveness, her eagerness to fill her appointed role. She is a picture of matchless faith and untiring obedience.
How different the original scene. How scary the expectations: can you wonder what a teenager would think, in the back hills of Galilee, receiving the emissary of Jahweh, the God of her fathers, of David her ancestor? He visits her in her home, invading from extra-terrestrial space the privacy of her domesticity.
Shalom! He speaks to her. The Lord is with you! The word increases the wonder of it all. God has a great task for you, you are to be His handmaiden. Will you fulfill that sacred task? Will it be one that you can do with courage and dignity, not failing the task.
Expectations: we have them heaped on us from the earliest days. What do you want to be when you grow up? We jostle for places for our two year olds in nursery school, try to get our 1.38 children into the best educational environment, purchase the Encyclopedia Britannica for them. We are haunted all our lives by parental expectations, expectations we have had for ourselves, expectations of our spouses, our employers, our church.
And expectations of our God. We resonate with Mary as she realizes that the spotlight of history is on her. Hail, Mary! God has something BIG mapped out for you: will you do it? Can you do it? What happens if I fail, Lord?
“But she was much perplexed by his words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Perplexed is one possible interpretation, confusion is another, and fear is a distinct probability. Leaving aside the meaning of words, the etymology, we understand the psychology. It was more than simply amazement (as some have argued) that a man would greet her in such a way. Mary is being identified with the great heroes of the Old Testament, called to fulfill God’s task of providing Redemption, a Redeemer, for His oppressed and downtrodden people. The thing is so far-fetched, intended to make her foolish, silly, a dreamer of crazy notions: deluded by her own imaginings.
Have you been ever felt the fear of being made foolish? We worry about being ridiculous – weird the kids say. We try to imagine what other people will think. So we get up in front of a room full of people and forget our lines. We prepare our speech for the teacher, the boss, our significant other, and we look ridiculous. We refuse to risk, to adventure, to settle for anything more than the routine, the predictable, because we might fail. Fear of failure stalks most of us, lures us into lives of mediocrity, and haunts us to a old age filled with the regret of what might have been.
At two we worry about being separated from our parents, at three we are anxious about monsters and scary noises. At four and five we are anxious about bedwetting or the loss of mummy or daddy. At seven and eight we are afraid of being late for school or something that we have seen on TV. But in our teens we worry most about two things: our popularity and our sexuality.
Somewhere, in that great creative urge God gave us to reproduce our species that we call sexuality, there lurks the most primeval fear of failure: of being less than the man or woman we want to be. And now Mary – anticipating marriage – will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and will conceive a child – out of wedlock. Could anything be scarier, more risky, more inviting of failure?
“But she was much perplexed by his words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
“Do not fear, Mary, for you have found grace with God.”
For those who fear failure there is but one answer: grace. Grace is the gift of God that overcomes our failure. For the ultimate failure is to fail God: and grace reminds us that God has already anticipated that contingency, reaches to us where we are and promises us not a failure-proof life, but one that is prepared to risk adventure, because with every failure, there is more grace, more help, more mercy.
That is why the angel’s first word is not “Ave Maria gratia plenum”, as the Vulgate first translated it. She is not the giver of grace but the recipient of grace. It is not grace that she is to give, it is grace which she has received.[i] Nor is the medieval[ii] final clause of the Hail Mary accurate: she is not to pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. For grace enabled her to be the handmaiden of the Lord. Her prayers were answered. And ours will be answered in the same way: that amid our sense of failure, God’s grace is sufficient, His strength made perfect in our weakness.[iii]
For the believer, the fear of failure should not affect us. Easily stated, less easily practiced. Because we retreat from grace, and try to tough it out on our own. God gave Mary so great a task that she had to rely on Him. We need that same sense of dependence, of reliance, of strength. Grace is the only thing that can lead us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.
For we stand before God not with the fear of failure, but knowing that He has accepted us on the cross. The great wonder of our salvation is that it is a gift: undeserved, undeserving we are. We come to the Lord’s table with our weakness, our need, our failure and take the proffered bread and wine, and rejoice that we are also “favored ones” of God, called not as Mary was, but nevertheless summoned from the routine of our lives, to live an heroic, risky, adventurous faith: trusting God to turn our fear into faith, to control our sexuality, to free us to be His women and men as He chooses. For He says to us today as He said to Mary:
“Do not be afraid, for you have found grace with God.”
(4) Be Not Afraid, Shepherds!
Fear of the Unfamiliar
(Luke 2: 8-14)
In the drama that is the Christmas story there is one cast of actors that is usually completely ignored. And without an understanding of their role in the familiar spectacle of Christmas, little else makes sense. They are bit players, produced on stage when required, but with little significance, we wrongly feel, to the overall impact of the plot.
I refer to angels. They are there, and during this Advent season as we have progressed with the Christmas story, we have met them. Gabriel, who comes to Mary in the annunciation, startling her with the news that she is to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and conceive and bear a child. An angel who speaks in a dream to Joseph and tells him not to put Mary away. The story begins when an angel spectacularly interrupts a routine of worship, at the side of the altar nudging Zechariah into speechless wonder at the gift he and Elizabeth are about to receive. The climax of the whole narrative takes place out on a field as first one angel, then a mighty chorus of angels sing their greetings to the child in the manger. And, as the plot thickens, as danger approaches, it is an angel who warns both wisemen and father to flee the murderous anger of a threatened monarch.
Angels, you ask me? Who has seen an angel? We visualize the rosy-cheeked pudgies of Rubens’ oils, cherubs with a sweet and rounded innocence. Or we imagine angels as those frightened little darlings with their wings, stage struck as they make their entrance to the Sunday school pageants of our youth. Angels? Who can take them seriously?
And we preachers do not help. It is fifteen years ago that Billy Graham wrote a book titled Angels in which he stated[iv] “I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on angels.” In spite of the frequency with which they are mentioned in the Bible – 175 times alone in the New Testament – to say nothing of the practical help that it is claimed they provide the believer in their faith journey – this conspiracy of silence on the part of those who occupy the pulpit is surprising. It would appear we clergy are embarrassed by angels.
The angels out on the Judean hillside were no bit players in the Christmas drama. Their choir was not a boys’ choir of fresh faced child sopranos singing their virginal notes across the sepulchre arches of some Gothic cathedral. They were the apocalyptic angels of which John speaks in the Revelation, described by one recent writer as “vast, fiery, sea-striding creatures with hell in their nostrils and heaven in their eyes.”[v]
The cradle of Bethlehem leads to the cross of Calvary. The borrowed manger points to a requisitioned Tomb. The Mother suckled by her child anticipates a weeping Mother prepared with spices to anoint the body of her crucified Son. And at each scene there are angels, bracketing those thirty-three years of life with their presence, beginning to end. They are there with Him when He needs them: in times of stress and loneliness – out in the wilderness when tempted[vi] and in the Garden[vii] as He prepares Himself for the obedience of death on a cross. Angels who announced His advent on the Judean hillside, angels who explained His departure to followers who watched His return to heaven.
And their message is always the same. We have heard them say it to faith-less Zechariah, to amazed Mary, to embarrassed Joseph. It is a single word, now repeated in our text to shepherds for whom “sudden dread had seized their troubled minds”. It is that greatest “Fear Not!”
They had cause for fear, these shepherds out on the hills keeping watch over their flocks by night. Shepherds were not the usual recipients of a heavenly host of angels. Angels came and spoke to prophets like Zechariah locked into the narrow cells of their reveries, or to rulers of the realm like Daniel dreaming their dreams and seeing their visions. But to shepherds? Again, remove the nostalgia, eliminate the sentimentality. Jesus may have described himself as the good Shepherd, but there were plenty of bad ones around. It was as if God decided to give a special audience to a gang of motor cycle enthusiasts, pot-bellied and scarred with visible tatoos and, invisibly, the evidence of too much self-indulgence.
No wonder they were fearful! Once we see both shepherds and angels in their true light we grasp something of the enormity of their encounter that first Christmas Eve. They meet head on: angels flinging down to earth with power and in great glory their celestial challenge to all the denizens of darkness. And shepherds – surely an inappropriate a group to receive this message. Powerless, rebellious, even angry – outcasts of society without meaningful work, lacking self-fulfillment, underemployed, forced to fraternize with unclean animals and to exist on a mere pittance.
“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” The song of Mary reechoes in the song of the angelic choir singing to “silly” shepherds. They are the ones, God seems to be saying through his messengers – for that is the literal meaning of “angel” – that he is deliberately going to snub the wealthy, the power-full for the weak and the powerless.
“Fear came upon them.” It is only the child-like who can understand that fear, for whom the message of Christmas reverberates with its wonder and its mystery this morning. It is not the sophisticated, the intellectual, who can stop and marvel at the angelic hosts that surround us. Fear is the only adequate response to the serendipity of God’s grace, breaking into human history as it did at Christmas.
And then their message: “Fear not”. Theirs was the fear of the unexpected, the unexplained, the unexplainable. God breaking through in human history, crashing into the routine of their lives, spectacularly smashing their schedules, their expectations. The time has come! The Desire of all nations is being born! The Dayspring from on high has visited us. He came – as He comes today – to hearts prepared to hear the angels all around them, to listen to the heavenly chorus. To be surprised by joy, by tidings of great joy which shall be to us and to all of humankind.
Yes, I believe that there are angels all around us this morning – as visible to the eye of faith as they were that first Christmas Eve outside Bethlehem. They summon us to worship Christ, dazzling us by their radiance, challenging us to a faith that is constantly encouraged, strengthened, empowered, by their ministries. “Angels”, Eugene Peterson wrote recently, “are for encouragement, not for entertainment.”[viii]
“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow.
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing.”[ix]
Corrie ten Boom experienced that reality. Charged for sheltering Jews in wartime Holland, she was sent to the Nazi Ravensbruck prison camp. She writes:
“Together we entered the terrifying building. At a table were women who took away all our possessions. Everyone had to undress completely and then go to a room where her hair was checked.
I asked a woman who was busy checking the possessions of the new arrivals if I might use the toilet. She pointed to a door, and I discovered that the convenience was nothing more than a hole in the shower-room floor. Betsie – her sister – stayed close beside me all the time. Suddenly I had an inspiration, ‘Quick, take off your woolen underwear,’ I whispered to her. I rolled it up with mine and laid the bundle in a corner with my little Bible. The spot was alive with cockroaches, but I didn’t worry about that. I felt wonderfully relieved and happy. ‘The Lord is busy answering our prayers, Betsie,’ I whispered. ‘We shall not have to make the sacrifice of all our clothes.’
We hurried back to the row of women waiting to be undressed. A little later, after we had had our showers and put on our shirts and shabby dresses, I hid the roll of underwear and my Bible under my dress. It did bulge out obviously through my dress; but I prayed, ‘Lord, cause now thine angels to surround me; and let them not be transparent today, for the guards must not see me.’ I felt perfectly at ease. Calmly I passed the guards. Everyone was checked, from the front, the sides, the back. Not a bulge escaped the eyes of the guard. The woman just in front of me had hidden a woolen vest under her dress; it was taken from her. They let me pass, for they did not see me. Betsie, right behind me, was searched.
But outside awaited another danger. On each side of the door were women who looked everyone over for a second time. They felt over the body of each one who passed. I knew they would not see me, for the angels were still surrounding me. I was not even surprised when they passed me by; but within me rose the jubilant cry, ‘O Lord, if Thou dost so answer prayer, I can face even Ravensbruck unafraid.'”[x]
Fear not! How greatly we impoverish our Christian lives by failing to hear the angel speaking to us. Fear not. I bring you good news of great joy. We neglect the ministry of angels to our spiritual peril. As parents our Lord tells us that each of our children has her or his guardian angel[xi]. They are there, rejoicing at our faithful witness, as sinners repent[xii]. And they will be there at the moment of death to escort us, as believers, into the presence of their Lord and ours[xiii]. There is an angel for Newton Presbyterian Church as there was for the churches of the Revelation.
Listen then to the angelic chorus, be strengthened by their encouragement, and marvel anew today at the divine mystery. God’s coming in human flesh, recorded by mighty angels, was to shepherds. And for each of us today, touching the invisible, atune with eternity the word comes fresh and clear:
“Do not be afraid: for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
(5) Herod Was Frightened
Fear of the Threatened
(Matthew 2: 3)
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
It seemed a long time off into the distant future when the Beatles sang it twenty five years ago. But in 1990 they passed an important threshold of chronology. John Lennon, had he lived, would have been 50. The Beatles have reached their half century. Their sixties are, presumably, just around the corner. Perhaps with more feeling today they would sing:
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
I don’t know why the sixty-fourth year received such prominence. Could it have been the year before retirement? Those fears that come over the best of us that we will not be needed, that life is somehow closing down on us, that life’s work is concluded, that whatever we have achieved is now complete, ready for the record.
“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”
Sixty-four years of age. Herod, as the Christmas story unfolds, is 68. He has ruled Palestine over thirty years. He will be known as “Herod The Great” to distinguish from other, lesser, Herod’s. But his reign is now coming to an end. Unpopular, ill with arteriosclerosis, and paranoid, he plots the murders of his children. As Caesar Augustus admitted: “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.” It was a pun: pig and son sound the same in Greek. But it was a reference to the fact that pork was not kosher for the Jews. And Herod was not regarded as anything other than a quisling, a traitor, half-Jew that he was and in spite of his rebuilding of the Temple.
Enter the magi. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” “King of the Jews?” Herod becomes apoplectic. That was the very title, thirty years previously at the commencement of his reign, that the Romans had given him. “King of the Jews? The very idea!”
“When King Herod heard this he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.” The most recent translation[xiv] has translated the Greek correctly. The word returns us to the initial fear at the beginning of the Advent story: it is the fear of the aging Zechariah of Luke 1:13. It is not the phobic fear of Mary, Joseph or Zechariah’s neighbors, or the shepherds. It is the fear of the elderly, facing the inevitability of old age, the slowing step, the reality of being replaced. It is the fear of the threatened.
(1) THE MYTH OF MASTERY
Herod The Great was a man in charge during the thirty-three years of his reign. He erected palaces, constructed fortresses, engineered aqueducts. His crowning achievements were the port of Caesarea and the rebuilding of the Temple. In the early years of his reign he was determined to win the respect and even love of his people. He remitted taxes in times of famine, even selling his dinnerware to buy food for the populace.
But it all turned to ashes as he grew older. Taxation increased, the place was increasingly notorious for intrigue and plot. And at the time the Christmas narrative begins he was at his palace, the Herodium, southeast of Bethlehem, where he was arranging his own tomb. He changed his will three times, attempted suicide, and shortly after the events described here were played out, he contracted a loathesome disease which, we are told in contemporary accounts, ulcerated his digestive system, inflamed his abdomen, rotted his privates, and blocked his breathing. After a last feverish convulsion he died.
Youth is a time when we think ourselves immortal. You can tell that by the way teenagers sometimes drive. Getting old is something that happens to other people. But age has a way of catching up with each of us: indeed the only universal experience that will affect everyone of us is that we will grow old. Mastery of our lives is a myth.
There is an old Puritan saying that “What we weave in time, we wear in eternity.” That could perhaps also be stated that “What we weave in youth, we wear in old age.” It is frightening true that the advance of years has a way of exaggerating our personality. Tiny cracks in the plaster of our early years, become gaping holes as time accelerates. We are unable to mask the flaws, camouflage the selfishness by the niceties of social convention. We prepare for our end at our beginning.
That was what Herod, confronted by the magi, was suddenly forced to recognize. As the words of W. B. Yeats have it:
“‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?'”
(2) THE FEAR OF THE FOUND OUT
It is at that point that we can understand the fear of Herod: old age stalking him, seeking to bring low its prey. What will I leave behind me: what sort of a reputation will remain? Even his children cannot be trusted, and he seeks to eliminate his sons. And then that throbbing question: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
“When king Herod heard this he was frightened. Literally the word means “stirred up”. There is anger in that fear, as when Jesus at Lazarus’ grave is confronted with the disbelief[xv] of the crowds who gather to mourn, without hope and without faith. It is the terror of the disciples when their neat and comfortable assumptions about the supernatural are challenged as they see a stranger walking across the Lake of Galilee to them and they cry out “It is a ghost!” only to see Jesus walking towards them. And he says to them: “It is I, take heart, do not be afraid!”[xvi]
[i]. Plummer, Alfred; The Gospel According to S. Luke: ICC; Edinburgh (T & T Clark), 1922; page 22.
[ii]. The first clause of the Hail Mary is from verse 28, the second from verse 42, and the third was added in the fifteenth century and authorized by Pope Pius V in 1568.
[iii]. II Corinthians 12:9.
[iv]. Angels; New York (Doubleday), 1975; page 17.
[v]. Peterson, Eugene; Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and The Praying Imagination; San Francisco (Harper’s), 1989; page 104.
[vi]. Mark 1:13.
[vii]. Luke 22:43.
[viii]. Op. cit.; page 105.
[ix]. Third verse of “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” by Edmund H. Sears.
[x]. From A Prisoner and Yet …; Fort Washington, PA (Christian Literature Crusade), 1954; page 34.
[xi]. Matthew 18:10.
[xii]. Luke 15:10.
[xiii]. Luke 16:22.
[xiv]. New Revised Standard Version.
[xv]. John 11:33.
[xvi]. Mark 6:50.