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
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
– 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
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:
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
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
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
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.