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Have No Fear!
a sermon based on Luke 1:26-38
Rev Randy L Quinn

There are some common themes in the special holiday television shows, many of which can be traced to the biblical story of Christmas.  Most common among those themes is the sense of reversal and transformation that happens when love invades a community or a home or even the heart of one person.

I haven't seen all of the shows, and I don't remember many of the details of the ones I have seen, but I know you have seen the same thing, whether your favorite show is about Charlie Brown's Christmas tree or about the transformation taking place in the heart of the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Every Christmas movie is about reversals, whether we are talking about Tim Allen in The Santa Clause or one of the numerous versions of Dickens' classic Christmas Carol.

They are all about reversals.  Transformations brought about by love.

The high and mighty are brought low.  The lowly are raised up.

That's why we like them so much.  They offer hope.  Hollywood knows the reason the Christmas holiday is so well-loved and so widely celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike.  People yearn for a story filled with hope fulfilled by love.  And the more difficult our circumstances, the more we yearn for those stories.  (In fact I read in yesterday's paper that Christmas is even being celebrated in China albeit there are no religious overtones to the holiday there.)

But sometimes I think we've heard the story so many times we don't hear how incredible the biblical account of Christmas really is!  We are too busy singing songs and wrapping presents and exchanging cards and greetings to listen carefully to the awe-filled story of Christmas.

Think about it.  The story of Christmas is about the biggest reversal of all:  God the one who made heaven and earth, the one who can do anything and go anywhere comes to earth and takes human form!

In many ways that incredible story begins with our text today.  Here we read about the messenger God sent to Mary a teenage girl who is dealing with the same issues every teenager deals with, from how to clear up her acne to whom she really is and who she will become as an adult.  She may not have been thinking about it at that particular time, but I'm sure that Mary had spent many an hour trying to figure out how to comb her hair so that it was an expression of who she thought she was an expression that would probably change more than once between the age of 13 and 19.

As is the case in many parts of the world even today, Mary had been promised in marriage to a man older than she was, a man she may not have met yet an arranged wedding that was to protect her but may have instead filled her with anxiety and dread.  She probably wondered if she would be happy with him.  She wondered if she would make a good wife.  She may even have contemplated what kind of a mother she would be.

Of all the characters we meet in the Nativity stories of the Bible, only two are mentioned again Mary and John the Baptist[1] so we know the answers to those questions, but at this point in her life, they are all open ended questions.  There is neither a right nor a wrong answer, simply an overwhelming sense of uncertainty.

Heather lives with uncertainty, too[2].  Heather sat next to me on the airplane during one of my trips to California.  She lives in Bellevue with her four-month-old daughter, Kaylen.  Her husband had just recently left her when we met, and she was facing some tough decisions.  She was considering moving to Georgia so she could be closer to her family and the support they may offer.  But she has a house to sell.  And she has a meaningful job and a network of friends in Bellevue.  In addition, there are no guarantees that she'll be able to find a place to live or employment if she moves east.

Like Mary in our text, she lives with uncertainty.

As a Naval Reservist, I have to tell you I read the newspapers more closely and with a growing sense of uncertainty myself.  "How far into the future can I make plans?" I find myself wondering at times.

The truth is that at some level we all live with uncertainty.  None of us knows what tomorrow holds.  We have dreams.  We have hopes.  We even make plans.  But tomorrow is an unknown entity something that only God can see.

So you would think that if an angel appeared to you, you would be comforted.  There should be nothing more comforting to someone living with uncertainty than to see an angel from God literally a messenger from God, since the Greek word aggelos from which we get "angel" means messenger.

But that is not Mary's response at all.  She is troubled.  Gabriel's words may have been intended to bring comfort, but Mary is more than a little disconcerted when he tells her that she is "highly favored" (Lk 1:28).

I like the way Eugene Peterson translates this particular passage and Mary's initial response:

"Good morning!

You're beautiful with God's beauty

Beautiful inside and out!

God be with you."

[Mary] was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.  But the angel assured her, "Mary, you have nothing to fear.  God has a surprise for you . . ." (Lk 1:28-30)[3]

Now, some people like surprises; others do not.  But in times of uncertainty, the mention of a surprise more often elicits a sense of suspicion.  When we remember that, we are not as surprised by the fact that Mary is fearful.

Her suspicion, however, stands in contrast to the joy that more often fills our homes at this time of year.  Between the beautifully wrapped gifts under the trees and cards and letters filling our mail boxes every day, we are filled with a joyous sense of expectation when we hear of a surprise.

Mary's surprise is one of the reversals of the story.  Self-doubt might be a normal response of a teenage girl who is told she is special, but all indications are that Mary was not only a typical teenager she was also from a poor family living in a poverty-stricken part of the world.  Her doubt has to do with the reality of her circumstances how could anyone say she has found God's favor?!

By the end of their conversation, however, she realizes that God is about to make a reversal.  The simple and humble would experience God's grace.  Her response has become known as the Magnificat from the Latin phrase that opens the song.  In it, Mary sings of the incredible reversals that God was promising and fulfilling in her life and in our world (Lk 1:46-55).  The same ideas would reappear in the Gospel when Jesus announces that the poor will inherit the kingdom of God and the hungry will be satisfied (Lk 6:20-21).

The theme of reversals that Hollywood mimics begins in the first chapter of Luke's gospel.  The ultimate reversal comes much later in the gospel, when Jesus is raised from the dead, leading some preachers and scholars to say that the entire gospel message is foretold as well as being introduced in the Nativity story.

In a curious twist of this story, only Mary witnesses the dramatic reversals of both his birth and his resurrection.  But she is not the only one to experience the reversals in life that God promises.

We have witnessed them in our lives and in our midst.

Those reversals are what we cling to in times of uncertainty; they are the essence of our hope and the source of our joy.  We are not alone in this world; God is with us.  God not only knows how the story will end God sees the reversals ahead.

Our trust in God's ability to create reversals leads us to celebrate with joy in anticipation of the unknown and uncertain future ahead for all of us.  It's the same kind of joy of which Mary sang.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.


[1]  Joseph's name is mentioned, but he never appears in the flesh outside of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke lending support to the tradition that he was an older man who died while Jesus was young.

[2]  As with all "true stories" in my sermons, I obtained permission from Heather to tell her story here.

[3]  The Message.  (Colorado Springs:  NavPress, 1993).