What are you afraid of?
This is the question that the researchers at Chapman University ask each year, and they answer that question with survey results that they publish. Take a look at this year’s and see if you relate.
- Corruption of government officials
- Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes
- Pollution of drinking water
- Not having enough money for the future
- People I love becoming seriously ill
- People I love dying
- Air pollution
- Extinction of plant and animal species
- Global warming and climate change
- High medical bills
Could anyone raise their hand for one of these on their top ten list? Two of these? Three or more?
I think fears like this are magnified this time of year. We watch the Hallmark movies, and we see the Facebook posts, and we imagine the Better Homes and Gardens holiday spread, and we see other people’s worlds. Meanwhile, ours feels like this. And it feels like we are lurching from fear to fear to fear while everyone else has professional looking Christmas decorations with gifts overflowing underneath the tree.
This contrast became obvious the other day. As I sat in a coffee house, surrounded by my own sense of fear and emptiness and anxiety, the table next to me was filled with a handful of people talking about their holiday plans. It seemed so foreign to me. They were talking about these dinner parties that they were hosting, and the trips to the Plaza to shop for all of their friends and family members, and these holiday decorations done by professionals inside and out. And I had…this. Their conversation seemed so out of touch with the pain of so many in the world. In fact, they brought up a friend who had a family member who found that she had cancer. Finally, I thought, a chance to be honest and vulnerable and real with each other about their fears. But no, after a moment of awkward silence, they returned to plans for the day – more shopping, of course, and “what recipe do you have for soup for my next social?” The thing that got me the most was this envy that they all had for another friend’s decorations for Christmas. Apparently, this other person had this huge nativity set that took up the island in their kitchen. They marveled at how much they had spent, and how beautiful it was.
The irony was palpable. As I sat at the next table over, and read the story of Mary – poor, vulnerable, afraid – here was this depiction of Mary that seemed exactly the opposite. I mean, think about Mary, about the fears that she faced:
- She and the rest of the Hebrews found themselves under the thumb of the Romans. I think it is hard for most of us to really understand what it would be like to live as a people truly oppressed. They would be forced to worship in a way that they found reprehensible. They were afraid of retribution if they stepped out of line.
- On top of that, Mary was a resident of Nazareth, one of the poorer regions in the nation. Far away from the opulence of Jerusalem. Far away from the power of Rome. Far away from the beauty of Greece. Those in Nazareth would have been particularly vulnerable to the power of the Romans. They would have had less power and less ability to care for their own needs. They were constantly on the edge of survival.
- On top of that Mary was far from the most powerful person in Nazareth. Young. Powerless in many ways. Very few safety nets. She lived her life in pretty constant fear of those around her with more power and strength. Her only hope was to be able to marry a man who would redeem and protect her. So, her engagement with Joseph was the most important thing in her life to that point. If something happened to that, and the protection that he offered…
- So, the news of the angel was admittedly hard to take. It would risk her relationship with Joseph. It would risk her standing in her community. It would risk her status and, quite literally, her life.
- When Mary asks the angel “How can this be?” it was more than the physiology. How can I even survive this proposition. The fear that she must have felt would have been palpable.
In a way, when we read the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary proclaiming, “Do not be afraid,” the most appropriate response seems to be to laugh! Not afraid? How on earth! Of course, she was afraid!
Listen to a poem from Laurie Sheck. The Annunciation tells Mary’s story with clarity and honesty:
This is the honest grace of her body:
that she is afraid, and in this moment does not
hide her fear. That as the pink-robed angel
bends before her pure with the power of lightness,
she wants to turn away, she cannot look
into the angel’s graven face. Because the child
meant to form in her will change her.
Because all she has known will dissolve,
pulling back from her like water….
“All she has known will dissolve.” Of course, she is afraid! The fears of the world threaten to overwhelm her.
And yet. Look at what happens next. Annunciation. It is an old and a little dusty word that simply means announcement. This is a story of announcements.
First, the angel comes and announces to Mary what is about to happen next. But more than that Gabriel announces something else to Mary. He announces who she is. “Greetings, favored one….The Lord is with you…You have favor with God…” The angel announces the strength and power and wisdom that is in her. The annunciation is more than just a birth announcement. It is a proclamation of what God is doing on the earth. And it is an announcement to Mary herself of who she is and who she is becoming. It is not an announcement that God will take away all of the pain and challenges and fear in her life. But it was an announcement that she would have what it takes to deal with that pain and those challenges and any fear than came her way. An announcement that she would have what she needed to deal with the rejection and suspicion by her community. What she needed to travel to Bethlehem. What she needed to give birth to the Savior. What she needed to escape to Egypt. What she needed to watch her son leave home to teach and preach. What she needed to watch him die an unfair death. Mary’s life and Mary’s ministry was at its heart the ministry of faith in the midst of fear. The announcement of the angel was an announcement to Mary of who she is: of the strength and power that lie within her. And who she would be, in the face of fear. Mary Streck’s poem ends with that promise:
Until in the cave of her body
she might feel without willing it a tenderness
begin to form. Like the small, ghostly
clover of the meadow, the deer hidden
in the hills. A tenderness like mourning.
The source of love, she thinks, is mourning.
That worldless loss by which we come to see
the opening of these lilies, this doorway
arching onto gardens, the child that will soon form
inside her body, this loss by which we come
to bend before the given, its arms that open
unexplained, and take us in.
So the angel comes to Mary and announces who she is. Now it’s Mary’s turn. In the Magnificat, what we see is that Mary announces who God is. A.W. Tozer – fifty plus years ago – examined the Magnificat and suggests that two things are happening in her words. One, he explains that the Magnificat is an example of the greatness of God: God is the “Mighty One” and has brought down rulers from their throne. We must never forget the power and majesty and awesomeness and otherness of God. Our tendency is to domesticate God to meet our needs, but Mary’s song reminds us that God will not be domesticated. God will not be tamed. God is awe-inspiring and great. But God is not only great; Mary sings also of the goodness of God: the one who looks with favor on his servant, the one who has lifted up the lowly, the one who has filled the hungry. God is not only great, God is good. And Tozer explains that this is the power of the faith: “The greatness of God rouses fear within us, but His goodness encourages us to not be afraid of Him. To fear and not be afraid – that is the paradox of faith.”
The promise of the child within no means that God has not given up on the world, nor has God run roughshod over it. God is good AND God is great. The angel never promised to take away the challenges of Mary’s life, but he did promise that God in God’s greatness and God’s goodness can take away those fears.
Over these last few weeks, I have been preaching this series titled “Stained Glass Words.” There are these words that, if you have never heard them before, seem a little arcane or obsolete or useless. Repentance. Salvation. Annunciation. Who has used the word “annunciation” in a sentence this week? From the outside, looking in, these words probably seem a little silly. Kind of like stained glass windows. If you drive by our church in the middle of the day, and you glimpse our stained glass windows, you might think that they are a waste of money. Like those old words, they seem arcane and just a little dusty.
But then, you come in. And you look at those windows, from the inside looking out. You see the beauty and majesty that they contain. And you see the world in a new way because of them. With a new beauty. In the same way, the stained glass words of our faith, once we understand them and what they are about, show us God’s glory and majesty and power and might. They become a new way to look out on the world. All of a sudden, the world is not something to be feared. Instead it is a place of God’s working, of God’s power, of God’s beauty. From the inside, looking out, we start to understand that God is at work in this world. Just like the Annunciation, we come into this place and see things in a new way. God announces who we are. And we announce who God is. And in this shared annunciation, there is a new sense of glory and beauty and grace.
And that is the annunciation that gives us hope this season, too. I wish I could tell you that God is going to simply take away all the things on that list a few minutes ago. Snap your fingers and the climate is fixed and everyone you love is always protected from harm. But that is never what God promised. What God promised was greatness and goodness wrapped up together like a huge gift for us to open this season:
- In the face of corruption, the God of greatness and goodness is working for justice and fairness, and calling us to do the same.
- In the face of climate calamity, the God of greatness and goodness is working for restoration and protection and calling us to stewardship.
- In the face of grief and pain and loneliness and fear, the God of greatness and goodness has promised never to leave us for forsake us, and calling us to remember that promise.
Come into this place and learn these words. Learn this hope. And then look out on the world with stained glass eyes and see that God is at work in our midst. See that the pain and trauma and fear of our lives are not the end of the story.
For hundreds of years, the Christians of the country of Colombia have celebrated Novena of Aguinaldos. For the nine days prior to Christmas, each night believers say a set of prayers, and sing songs. Over these years, believers have had more than their own set of struggles and traumas. But during this season, Novena became a way to laugh away those fears. Many nights, they will dress up as Mary or Joseph or Baby Jesus or the animals from the stable. Everyone plays their own instruments, including many who make their own just for the celebration. Children, adults, and everyone in between are all together to celebrate the coming of the child. It is a way to laugh in the face of the fears that they face. Nine days, celebrating each of the nine months of waiting of Mary’s pregnancy, each day becomes an opportunity to laugh, eat, sing, and pray together.
What a great picture of the celebration that the Christ child brings to us! Regardless of our fear, regardless of our pain, the God of greatness and the God of goodness is here and in our midst. Let us open our hearts to God, sure of God’s presence in our midst. O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.