Advent 4 2020 - What are you afraid of?

Advent 4, Year B, Sunday 20th December 2020

Introduction and Call to Worship:

We gather online and in Church in communion with the Church throughout the world, with our hearts crying aloud, maranatha, Come Lord Jesus! As we prepare to make room in our lives for God made incarnate in the child of Bethlehem, let us make those preparations with confidence in God’s love poured out for us anew.

Today’s Bible Readings

First Reading 2 Samuel 7:1-11. 16

God promises to build David a house and a royal household.

Second Reading Romans 16:25-27

Paul signs off his epistle to the Romans with a call that they may be strengthened and encouraged by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Gospel Reading Luke 1:26-38

The annunciation: The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary and foretells the miraculous birth of the Son of God, the long-awaited Emmanuel. Mary answers God’s call with a bold yes, “be it unto me according to your word.”

HOMILY “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 1:30)

What are you afraid of? No, this is not a delayed Halloween sermon. The truth is that we all have fears, now at this time of world-wide pandemic perhaps more than ever before in our lives. We fear the future of our employment, the future for our young people and their prospects, the security of our own homes, the future of our nation considering Brexit and a possible no deal and most of all, we fear ill-health and Covid itself. Some fear loneliness, some fear rejection – there are so many things to be afraid of.

As I child I attended the local Baptist Church once a month. Now, I must admit it was not my cup of tea, even then. But strangely enough, perhaps not always for the right reasons, I have vivid memories of some aspects of the worship and the Sunday school classes. I recall being told never to fear, because God tells us not to 365 times in the bible, that’s one for every day! But are there exactly 365 such references in the scriptures? So far, I have identified 146 direct references to not being afraid, although I am sure there are many more when a wider definition of fear is included.

What is clear is that throughout human history, God is concerned about our reaction to times of great challenge, change and fear – for God is in relationship with us. We need only read today’s Gospel and place it in context to see how concerned God is. His great messenger Gabriel speaks words of challenge and comfort to the young woman named Mary, words that echo passages in the Old Testament. For example, in Deuteronomy 31:8 we read, “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” And in the prophecy of Isaiah: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 42:1)

The words “Do not be afraid” punctuate the Christmas narrative, as people, who would otherwise be filled with fear, hear words of comfort from God’s angel; he foretells the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zachariah (Luke 1:13), and Joseph is encouraged (in a dream) to take Mary to be his wife (Matthew 1:20) and then there is the visitation to the shepherds after Christ’s birth is hailed with a cry of “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10).

Today’s reading has Mary’s world turned upside down with the message that she, a young girl betrothed but not yet married, should be called by God to the most wonderful act of motherhood – to carry within her very self the incarnate word – Jesus. As in this encounter that would change our relationship with God for ever, often the words “Do not be afraid” are almost immediately followed by a challenge to embrace something new or uncomfortable, and certainly, given the attitudes at the time concerning pregnancy in unmarried women, Mary had every right to fear for her future, her life and that of her yet unborn child. She must have questioned everything, perhaps helped by the encouragement of Gabriel’s message too. “Do not be afraid.”

For with the angel’s message comes a promise from God: a promise that Mary has found favour, her son will be called “the Son of the Most High” and he will inherit the throne of King David and reign for ever over the kingdom of heaven. This is more than the realisation of a long and hoped for Messianic hope, for now God is coming into the world in a way that will make him accessible to all people, not as a mighty and powerful warrior king, not at the centre of earthly power, but weak, fragile and vulnerable as the new-born child of a poor couple, from an unremarkable town, in a far-away corner of the Roman Empire. Yes, God is about a new thing – but once again will people really perceive, comprehend and utterly understand it? Do we today? Or are we fearful of what God has planned for the world which we seem to be exploiting rather than treasuring?

At times, our modern life can seem very dark and frightening. The challenge of climate changes is evident, not least with natural disasters and a growing awareness that change is required. And this ongoing crisis of health with locally-rising cases of Covid-19 has left many fearful – some simply won’t go out and have decided to stay at home until they are able to receive a vaccine and, we pray, have some immunity. And we can understand their caution, even as Christmas approaches. The hard reality is that many don’t have that opportunity or privilege and so our prayers and support must be with those who must be out and about, caring for the needy in our hospitals, stocking our supermarket shelves and making deliveries, teaching our children, and caring for the elderly and infirm. They have great and many fears too that can’t and must not be ignored. That is why we are open, why we have adorned our church with lights and an outside nativity, why carols sing out every evening. That is why we are a foodbank collection point and working to meet the pastoral needs of Thorpe and beyond as a place for funerals. And that is why the worship of our church, the glory of God continues unabated daily. We are not people of darkness and fear, for we have the light of life, shining at the heart of who we are, the people of God – the very and real presence of Christ among us in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, which sustains us, however tired, challenged, or fearful we are.

Even at this festive time, people have all kinds of concerns, from the economy and our health to war or terrorism and so much more. So now, more than ever, the message of the angel is enormously relevant. Do not be afraid; believe, even in the face of supposedly insurmountable challenges, evolving viruses and so much more; have faith that we are not alone, for God himself will be born among us, not above us, mighty and powerful, but down on earth beside us, among us, with us. Trust in God as Mary did; believe that the light is coming and, for as long as we need it, it will never go out – for we are people of hope. Friends in faith, please do not be afraid.

Father Damian Stewart Harrison-Miles, December 2020

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