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The “Fear Not” Factor

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1: 26-38

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Intro to Scripture
Scripture
Sermon

“His wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame.”

Oh if only we knew…!
That’s the softest, gentlest intimation
of the apparition that Mary had, ever!

Angels, when they appear in Scripture
look nothing like the soft, fluffy,
cream-cheese eating dreamers,
or the willowy female, wraith-thin
silk enfolded ornaments of the pre-Raphaelites,
nor even the chubby cheruby putti
that lean, slightly bored over the balustrades of the Sistine Chapel.

Angels-Biblical ones,
enter the Judeo-Christian spiritual imagination
most likely through the influence of neighbouring
cultures: the Babylonian Winged Bull lamassu,
and Hittite Griffins, and Egyptian sphinxes.
These celestial creatures were powerful, militant,
spiritual forces that provoked and magnified the terror
of any hapless little nation that stood
in the way of the Empires these creatures protected.

Soon enough, the spiritual writers of Israel
surround God, Yahweh,
with a host of heavenly beings,
winged armies; a greater military,
force in heaven than
any that could amassed on earth.

(LOTR fans, imagine the assembled warriors of Middle Earth,
led by Gandalf and Aragorn, arriving en masse,
wave upon wave, crashing into Christmas,
not with feathers and fluff,
but sword, metal, and thunderous alarm).

Seraphs – the burning ones, were six-winged, beaked, snake-like
flying creatures who guarded the heavenly throne,
and filled heaven and earth with a continuous,
megaphonic utterance praising God “Holy, Holy, Holy!”

And don’t be fooled, biblical cherubs looked not like this (putti)
but like this (cherub) with four faces and eyes on their wings,
so that no evil escaped their gaze.

Archangels wore armour,
carried flaming swords,
and their words carried the full power of Creation’s Maker.

So when Luke tells us that Mary,
when visited by an archangel,
was “perplexed,”
that’s an understatement
worthy of the most stiff-lipped Brit!
An archangel, armed to the teeth,
glowing like a mushroom cloud,
spitting words that
flash like lightening,
and roil like thunder.
Yeah, she was perplexed!

Now, if I’ve lost you with all this anti-angelic
hyperbolic visions of terror,
if you’re saying, with good scientific rigour,
“That wouldn’t happen, didn’t happen, couldn’t happen.”
Don’t be so sure.

Luke is calling upon the depth of his spiritual ancestry, tradition,
to convey in word pictures the moment of utter terror
when a human-being is faced with a circumstance
so elemental, so world-changing,
so filled with potent implication,
that it feels utterly beyond them.

And those moments…. you know they happen.
Sometime in late February, when news of some
strange new virus making people sick
in a Chinese province you’ve never heard of,
suddenly becomes all the CTV and CBC
and even Fox can talk about.
The spectre of pandemic,
the memory of the terror of SARS, MERS, Ebola
and the Spanish Flu of a century ago
roll over the battlements of our
flimsy sense of security,
and we are gripped with fear.

Yesterday I threw out a question on my Fb page,
“When have you been scared by something that turned
out to be good?”
Oh my! The answers went deep;
the unexpected teenage pregnancy,
single parenthood,
losing a job, and with it security and income,
the diagnoses of cancer and other terrifying illnesses,
the death, expected or sudden,
the moment of terror getting on a plane
to an unknowable future, complete with families in tow,
the deep hard truths told by some archangelically terrifying
messenger about an addiction,
coming out as gay or trans to family or friends or church,
moments when it seems our world has been
tipped off its axis,
certainties sliding to the floor like peas off a plate,
moments when the news pierces and stings
like a seraphic sword…

It’s all there in this
so easily artificially sweetened
artistically sanitized story.
It is not merely a vaguely problematic fable
about some virginal conception
on the say so of an angel,
It is a Scripture that sees us!
We could each of us, insert our name
where it says Mary,
and know we’ve been there, done that,
that we’ve had our world upended by some
news that didn’t look, sound or feel good at all,
with some circumstance that was so utterly beyond us,
terrifying in its potent implication!

Which is why I get so incensed by the patronizing
saccharine attempts to say that Mary’s response
to Gabriel was “submissive!”
Because that is not our experience is it?
In every story written in response to my question
there are two things that emerge,
and which echo this stunning story:

First, there is Courage.
Courage to get on the plane,
to claim the new name, to live into the new identity,
to take up a new more meaningful job,
to fill counted time, precious time
with things that matter, like relationships and love,
to live the grief, to take the next step,
to count each sober day,
to get back on the wagon,
on the horse, on the road of life,
to carry, and to raise the child.

Mary was no submissive flowerpot!
Mary was a woman of valour,
of courage,
of faith in herself.
We know that because we’ve lived her story.

And there’s this second thing about her,
that emerges from
this Lukan text,
and about us, in the re-writes of it in our own lives;
Faith in the Power of Life beyond herself.
A courageous faith that enabled her
to listen in to the words emerging
from within the apparition of terror;
Angelic words spoken out of
and into every moment of fear we will need to face
before our living is done:
“Greetings, favoured one,
God is with you.
Do not be afraid, (or not too afraid!)
for the power of the Most High is with you,
you can do this hard thing,
and nothing will be impossible with God.”

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