Let It Be
Rev. John McDonald
Marlinton Presbyterian Church
It’s an obvious understatement to say we live in a day of great fear. The language of “terror” has become the motivating mantra of our day. I did a Google search for the word “fear,” and I came up with a fascinating site called “The Phobia List”—pages of phobias, A to Z. Everything from Alliumphobia—the fear of garlic and Lachanophobia—the fear of vegetables to Zemmiphobia—the fear of the great mole rat. It even lists Ecclesiophobia—the fear of church and, get this, Homilophobia—the fear of sermons! You can even get a poster of the “Phobia List” which will cover your entire wall.
But the most interesting note is the disclaimer at the top of the page. In big red letters, it reads: “If you are looking for a phobia name that is not on the list, sorry, but I don’t have it.” And then, in smaller print: “Please don’t ask me about curing phobias. I’m interested in names only.” We all have our own phobia list, and the list can be as fresh as the morning papers.
We may be afraid of Internet terrorism.
We may be afraid of Korean dictators, who appear to have cyber punks doing their dirty work.
Fear of bad weather or Ebola or cancer.
Even people we are supposed to respect, TV preachers and politicians, use talk of terror for political gain until the fear of terror becomes its own terror. And add to that, panic-driven newscasters who can’t even give the weather without fear-filled, baited breath. It all leads to what Jane Spencer in the Wall Street Journal refers to as the “fear system” of our day. Into that maze of fear, we hear the words of the angel to Mary: “Do not be afraid!” The same word came to Joseph in a dream: “Don’t be afraid.” The same word came to Zachariah and Elizabeth: “Fear not.” The same word would ultimately come to shepherds in a field keeping watch over their flocks by night: “Don’t be afraid, for behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.” The angelic greeting comes with incredible monotony throughout the Advent story, the same greeting, the same command, repeated over and over again: “Fear Not!”
The logical response would be, “You’ve got to be kidding.” But Mary says to the angel, “Let it Be to me according to your word…” Imagine, an angel, no less, with word of an unexpected, unplanned and probably unwanted pregnancy. Put yourself in the place of a unwed teenager who hears the word, “You’re going to have a baby.” Feel the emotions, the shock, the outright, incomprehensible fear. It’s even more troubling than that. This is to be no ordinary pregnancy or ordinary baby. This baby is to be the Son of God! How would you like to take on that kind of surrogate parenting responsibility?
Add to the message that this child is coming for nothing less than taking over the throne of David, challenging the powers that be, confronting the values and standards of his day, bringing in the kingdom of God. All of a sudden this angelic visitation doesn’t look and sound so much like a sentimental Hallmark greeting or a Currier and Ives Christmas, it sounds like the overwhelming challenge of a lifetime. She had every right to be afraid, and so she was. And of course, so are we.
Again, to quote Jane Spencer: “In contemporary America, the safest society in recorded history, many people feel as though they have never been more at risk.”
Even when you cut through all the fear-mongering rhetoric and divisive politics of our day, there is still plenty of legitimate reason for anxiety. Could we be as accommodating and accepting as Mary?
It is the most common command in the Bible, heard every time God’s word comes to his people. From wandering Old Testament Israelites to doubting New Testament disciples, the word comes: “Fear not.”
“Mary, don’t be afraid, because the Lord is with you.”
It’s so simple – so profound. “The Lord is with you.”
The antidote to fear begins with faith in the God of the ages and the conviction that God is actively involved in the lives of his people, a God who is present, a God who is with us. Paul reminds us in chapter 8 of Romans, “For we know that God works, in all things for good with those who love him who are called according to his purpose.”
Not that all “things” are good, but rather, in the midst of whatever life may bring, God is at work for good in the lives of his people.
There is a story about an old African-American farm-er. He had lived his life in the poverty of hard-scrabble farming, the injustice of the Jim Crow era, the struggles for food and dignity, but every Sunday he dressed up in the old suit he owned and carried his worn-out old Bible to church with him. One day, a newly-minted, seminary-trained aspiring theologian and scholar came to visit that little country church. Seeing the old farmer’s well-used Bible, he asked, “What’s your favorite verse in the Bible?”
The old man said, “Ah, that’s easy: ‘And it came to pass.’”
The well-educated seminary student didn’t mean to be condescending when he responded: “But that isn’t a complete verse. It’s just an opening prepositional phrase. There must be more to it than that.”
The old man smiled and said, “You see, every time trouble would come into my life, I would read, ‘And it came to pass.’ Every time sorrow came into my life, I could say, ‘And it came to pass.’ See, sonny, I always knew trouble didn’t come to stay, it came to pass.” A proper response to fear begins by recognizing it in all its reality, to look it square in the face, to know it for what it is, but also to know that in the end, fear does not have the last word – it only came to pass. In the end, our lives rest in the presence of an eternal God who is with us, who comes to us, who stands beside us.
Faith for times of fear begins with the rock solid conviction that God is still with us, and that behind the blaring headlines and heated debates of our day, the eternal God is present, standing in the shadows, keeping watch above his own.
“Mary, don’t be afraid, the Lord is with you.”
God is still present and active in this world.
Remember the story about the guy who hated his wife’s cat? He hated that cat with a vengeance, but his wife loved the cat. One day, the cat disappeared. His wife was grief-stricken, so the man put an ad in the newspaper: “$500 for information on the missing cat.”
His friend saw the ad and said to him: “Wow! $500 for word on the cat that you hated? That’s pretty risky, isn’t it?” With a sly, knowing twinkle in his eye, the man responded: “It’s not so risky when you know what you know.”
We know the end of the story. Life is not so scary when you know what you know.
We know God keeps his promises and sends a Savior.
We know Jesus comes and his name is called Emmanuel, meaning “God With Us.”
We know the word has become flesh and dwelt among us – full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father.
Inspired by a sermon by John E. Harnish, “Collected Works, Christian Global Network, Incomprehensible.