“Courage Rises Out From Fear”
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34 Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35 The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38 Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.
We continue our sermon theme, “From Generation to Generation.” And the subtitle today is God meets us in our fear. This subject of fear is a constant thread throughout the old and new testaments. It doesn’t surprise me that this phrase, “do not be afraid,” is written 81 times in scripture. Do not be afraid! In connection with our theme, the sanctified art authors remind us that fear tells us something about God and ourselves. Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity says, “From generation to generation, God shows up in the midst of our fear and uncertainty and confusion. From generation to generation, faithful people have said, “yes,” despite apprehension. From generation to generation, our ancestors in faith have accepted the invitation.” This morning we will look at Mary’s “yes” to the angel Gabriel. But within this “yes,” we have some questions to ponder. What happened within Mary between the angel’s appearance, the time she asked her question, and her decision to say “yes”? From where—or from whom—does she summon her courage?
We are a people who know fear! We are not strangers to fear, are we? I came across this article written a few years ago by Kate Shellnutt in Christianity Today; it is titled, “2020’s Most-Read Bible Verse (guess what it is?) ‘Do Not Fear.’ (To orient us, in 2020, what happened? COVID) The author went on to say that during the hardest moment of a particularly difficult year, Bible searches soared online, and a record number of people turned to Scripture for passages addressing fear, healing, and justice. Isaiah 41:10 was ranked as the most searched, read, and bookmarked verse. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Not surprising that the most often searched-for scripture verse has to do with fear. So, I’ve been thinking about fear. Fear certainly had to be a part of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. Otherwise, the angel wouldn’t have said very early in the conversation, “Do Not Be Afraid.”
Fear rises out of many different yet challenging life experiences; loss, shame, questioning safety, abandonment, maybe even fear of illness, loss of mental acuity, loss of physical ability, and yes, even death. I’m sure you can name your own source of fear…most likely, it is a fear that, even if from long ago, still resides within you. Fear is here to stay, and I believe that Mary helps us, especially today with all that is going on, to face our own fears and move forward into becoming even more fully who we are called to be and discovering in the end that we have courage! Courage rises out of fear! We can become courageous leaders by facing our fears and saying “yes” to God; yes, to whatever seems scary, uncomfortable, or impossible! Let’s go back to Mary and see what else we can learn.
Remember the questions we asked about Mary? The first one is, ‘What happened within Mary between the angel’s appearance, the time she asked her question, and her decision to say “yes”?’ We get some clues about this from what the angel says to Mary. The angel reminds her that she is favored and that God is with her. The angel links her to the past generations of faith connected to King David and Jacob. Mary believed in and worshiped the God of the Israelites. The angel reminded her of the foundation of her faith in the living God. Mary knew the stories of the past, and she started remembering! She started remembering, which was the beginning of her “yes”! Cole Arthur Riley, in her book, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us, talks about the importance of knowing our own stories as they relate to our fears. She says, “Telling the deepest truth of the fear requires thorough acquaintance with our own stories and interior lives….” Knowing your interior life is about accepting who you are…especially in talking about your fears and sharing what transpired to give us those fears. Mary didn’t have to defend being fearful. The angel knew it. And I think her reasonable fear arises from her stories from generations past, stories of this God of creation who moves mountains and brings floods upon the land. She has reason to be afraid!
And what about the second question, “From where—or from whom—does Mary summon her courage?” Now it would be easy to say right away that her courage came from God, and of course, that is ultimately true, but sometimes this faith thing seems a little intangible, doesn’t it? It’s hard to grasp this God who works in such mysterious ways. But the angel helps Mary here. He tells her about Elizabeth, and the angel reveals that God has already accomplished what seemed impossible; Elizabeth is already in her sixth month of pregnancy. Mary needed to hear Elizabeth’s story.
Now you and I, most likely, won’t have to face the same fear Mary did and what her decision of saying “yes” would lead to. But we, too, have fears, and the fears we face tell us something about God and about ourselves.
Like Mary, we have stories to remember too! Stories about when God was in the midst of our fear. I’ve heard your stories, stories of survival after loss, stories of overcoming addictions, stories of facing difficult times. Stories revealing God’s very presence during those times holding you up, bringing resources and people to you who helped you make it through to the other end, and look who you have become? Facing your fears made you strong and courageous.
Like Mary, we can remember the stories of others who have experienced God working in their lives, transforming what seems impossible into possible! Remembering our own stories of God’s faithfulness and hearing the stories of others will help us say “yes” to God again and again. “Yes” when we face our own fears, a “yes” that allows us to take risks to become courageous people, living faithfully, becoming a blessing to ourselves and a blessing for generations to come. Amen