Sermon delivered by David Burrow December 8, 2013 - First Congregational Church, Algona, Iowa
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Most weeks in our church we use readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of readings used in congregations of at least two dozen Protestant denominations around the world. The past couple weeks I’ve deviated from that lectionary, though. Last week I actually did the readings for the second week of Advent, mostly because the ones designated for the first week just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Since I’d already used what the readings Protestants had designated for today, I decided that today I’d use the gospel that the Roman Catholic Church designates for this date.
For Catholics December 8 is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a concept even a lot of devout Catholics misunderstand. In Catholic doctrine the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Mary, not of Jesus Christ. The idea is that Jesus’ mother was conceived free of the stain of original sin. What confuses people, though, is that the Gospel assigned to that holy day is actually the Annunciation, which refers to Jesus’ conception, not Mary’s.
Many Protestants will rather cattily point out that Catholics need to use this Gospel because in fact there is no reference at all to Mary’s conception in the Bible. Catholics in return will point out that the Bible is only one of many sources on which they base their faith. Some Catholics might even go on to point out that they are at least honest about that—while many Protestants claim that everything they do is based in Scripture, when in fact a lot of it really isn’t. They’ll also tell you the Gospel is appropriate because it tells of Mary’s obedience to God and the special calling she had to be the mother of Jesus.
For most of us Protestants it doesn’t really matter if Mary was conceived free of original sin or if she remained a virgin through her life. That doesn’t mean Mary isn’t important to Protestants, though. Jesus’ birth from a simple woman is what brings humanity to God, and the belief in that miracle is something all Christians share. What’s more, Christians of all backgrounds will agree that Mary’s obedience to God sets an example that both men and women would do well to emulate. There aren’t a lot of women that are revered in ancient religions, and Mary is certainly the top female in the Bible. It’s interesting that Mary is venerated even in non-Christian religions like Islam. The Koran cites Mary more than any other woman and regards her as a model of virtue and righteousness.
That said, my reason for choosing this scripture today isn’t really about Mary. Instead it’s because the Annunciation is the first of many appearances during the Christmas season of an angel. As is almost always true, the angelic encounter begins with the line “Do not be afraid”, or for those of us who grew up with older versions of the Bible, “Fear not.”
Some scholars will tell you that the reason angels had to say “Fear not” is because those heavenly beings were very scary creatures—more like the creepy gargoyles in medieval architecture than svelte winged harpists we see on Christmas cards. The next time you refer to a friend or relative with the phrase “she’s an angel”, you might remember that most of the Bible’s depictions of those creatures are far from flattering.
While it may be that the angels were downright scary, I’d like to think that their pleas to “fear not” and “don’t be afraid” weren’t just directed to Mary and the shepherds, but to all of us. Throughout the Bible angels are God’s messengers, and their words here can be seen as advice to us to be brave and strong.
Indeed, “Fear not” and “don’t be afraid” come up over and over again in the Bible. There are websites and blogs that claim the phrase actually appears 365 times throughout the holy book—one for every day of the year. While the idea of having a daily command to be courageous is certainly reassuring, like so many things you can find online, it’s simply not true. Someone just made up the number because they thought it sounded cool, and it got repeated over and over again. A researcher in Kansas found that there are actually eighty Bible verses where God directs us not to fear. It may not occur 365 times, but “fear not” does appear in the Bible nearly as often as “love” does, so it’s a message God obviously wants us to pay attention to.
Telling us to overcome our fear is one of many ways the Bible goes against our modern culture. Everywhere we look people are telling us we should be afraid. Nowhere is this more true than with our political leaders. I’m always amused because my interests and memberships put me on mailing lists from both liberal and conservative organizations. Barely a day goes by when I don’t get appeals from opposing groups, asking for my money or my vote. Mostly those end up in the recycling bin, but when I do read them it seems that both sides would have me believe our country is in the worst shape it’s ever been in. They rarely explain anything specific they would do to make things better, but they want me to live in constant fear of their opponents’ horrible agenda.
Newscasters also seem to thrive on spreading fear. Good news is boring, so every crime, disease, or natural disaster, or political or celebrity scandal is sensationalized as the worst ever. As proof of this, you can look up the phrase “trial of the century” on Wikipedia, and you’ll find sixteen different famous court cases in the past hundred years—and that’s far from all the trials that have been given that title. Weather events are given new names like “Superstorm” that make them sound more menacing, and we can’t forget the dire predictions of “Carmegeddon” when they closed a freeway in Los Angeles over a weekend.
If you really want to worry, just watch some commercials. Advertisers are constantly playing on our apprehensions and dreads. The world to them is a truly horrible place, and everyone is constantly judging us—even more than they did back in junior high—and, unless we pull out our credit card, we should be very, very afraid. They’d have us believe that unless we drive the right car, have the whitest teeth, and buy our kids the coolest Christmas gifts, we can’t possibly fit in. What’s more, we’re sure to die miserably and soon unless we see our doctor about the latest miracle drugs—and, of course, ignore all those fast-talking side effects.
… And then there’s those kids today. Both the politicians and newscasters would have you believe they’re the dumbest, laziest, most disobedient, decadent, self-centered people who ever lived—and, as a teacher they’ll tell me it’s the schools’ fault they’re so bad. Of course that’s also what a lot of people said back when we adults were growing up. Truth be told, they also said that back in the 1920s, and Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions comments like that in the 1800s. In fact, you can hear complaints about youth going all the way back to the days of ancient Greece. Every generation in every society seems to have worried that its kids are the worst ever—yet, somehow, they’ve always grown up.
I can relate to all those appeals to our fears because my mother was a worrier. In any situation, she could imagine in detail the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen. One of the main images that remains in my head from childhood is of my mother in the passenger seat of our family car, with my father at the wheel. My dad was a good driver, but nonetheless each time we’d near a hill or curve, my mom would reach forward and clutch a little handle above the glove box on the dashboard, bracing like we were about to crash. Years later we’d have a different car that lacked that little handle. It was instinctive, though. Even in that car, my mom would still reach out at every curve, grasping the air in search of an imaginary handle.
I remember one time as a child when my mother realized just how much she did worry. At the time my sister was studying in Europe on a college exchange program. Every day my mother would spend hours pondering all the horrible things that might happen to my sister as she roamed the streets of Madrid. Then one day in the early afternoon, my mother looked up at the clock in our living room and realized the day was already over in Spain. There was absolutely nothing she could do to change how this day would go for my sister, so there wasn’t much sense worrying about it. She then resolved to focus her worries on things she actually could control.
Sometimes my mother was successful in curbing her worries, but often she’d continue to fret. Looking back, I sometimes think she used this as a coping mechanism. While psychologists will often tell people to visualize the best possible outcome to anything, she knew that expecting the best would only lead to disappointment. If she worried about the worst that could happen, anything less horrible would be success. Strange as that may seem, it worked for her.
After focusing on my mom’s constant worries, you might think my father was one of those stereotypical cowboy-like men who cast his cares to the wind. That wasn’t really true, though. Like most men of his era, he was very good at hiding his feelings. That certainly didn’t mean he had no concerns, though. Not the least of his worries was trying to support five children in an era of double-digit inflation. My father was stoic about his problems, though. He had been through direct combat in the Pacific in World War II, and he knew nothing he faced later in life could possibly be as bad as that.
My dad was nothing if not practical, and I remember him giving me some of the best advice I’d ever had. In regard to fears, the advice he told me was “don’t be stupid, but don’t ever be scared.” That’s really good advice for everybody.
There’s a little bit of both of my parents in me, and I’ve noticed both reactions on a number of occasions. One of those happened when—years after my sister—I happened to be in Spain. I was officially on a group tour, but—as I almost always do when I travel—I took every chance I could get to go exploring on my own. Before long I ended up completely lost in a very ratty neighborhood. The litter-strewn streets all seemed to go nowhere, and every building was covered in yellow stucco and looked exactly the same as the next one. I could practically hear my mother telling me I was about to be mugged, but I could also hear my dad telling me not to be afraid. It was almost like one of those old cartoons, with the angel and the devil fighting to control my brain.
My dad won out on that trip. I walked with a confidence I didn’t really feel. I smiled at everyone I passed and greeted them with a polite “buenas tardes”. I walked as straight as I could, almost hyper-aware of my surroundings and making mental notes of everything that could conceivably be a landmark to make sure I didn’t walk in circles. Eventually I found my way to a comparatively important street, where I could get my bearings and find my way back to my hotel.
Since that experience in Spain I’ve gone walking in lots of neighborhoods guidebooks advise against—in places as diverse as New York’s South Bronx (a “must” for this Yankees fan), Koreatown in Los Angeles, Mexico City, Paris, Cuzco, New Orleans, and Des Moines. These days I always check a good map ahead of time, and I note every landmark I pass—that’s the “don’t be stupid” part of my father’s advice. I’m almost never scared these days, though, and I’ve found that wherever I go the key to safe passage is walking with confidence and smiling at and greeting everyone I see.
I’m pretty sure God was guiding me that evening in Spain, and there have been many other times I’ve been quite sure God’s been with me. My dad’s advice was the same advice our heavenly father gives when he tells us to “fear not”. In addition to travel, that advice has guided me through school and into a career, through the grief I felt when my parents died, and through lots of unknown situations—even things like being a lay speaker at church.
Another place God sends his guidance is in our church’s search for a new minister. We all feel a lot of apprehension as our church undergoes another period of uncertainty and change. There is some genuine fear we all feel as we seem to be in almost perpetual transition. Now more than, though, ever is a time for faith, a time to remember God’s plea to not be afraid. A few weeks ago the sign in front of our church noted “Faith makes things possible, not easy”. That’s certainly how it will be for our congregation, but if we keep the faith God will see us through to a bright future. We need to follow Mary’s example—commit ourselves to do God’s work and follow where he leads.
God guides us through our problems, and he also calls us to help calm each other’s fears. We are God’s hands in the world, and we need to work to keep others from trouble or anxiety and to help them overcome all that they face in life.
So fear not. It’s the “good news” of the Christmas story, and it’s also good advice throughout our lives. God calls us to ignore society’s calls to panic, put aside our petty worries frets, and go forward in trust as we work to make our world better for everyone.
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