John Pierce, the executive editor of Baptist Today, shared a story his friend told him about a coworker who was enjoying a visit from her sister and her two young nieces. They began running and screaming more so than usual so their mother went into the guestroom to check on them. The excited little girls shouted that a bug was after them and they were afraid of being bitten.
The false alarm was over a small moth, floating lazily around the room. Their mom assured them, “Moths don’t bite people, they only eat clothes.” The next morning the girls were found sleeping peacefully in their bed – and naked. Their clothes were piled together away in the corner.
Our fears obviously affect our attitudes and actions. And this is true of all of us, not just little kids. Isn’t it obvious today how much our fears shape our attitudes and actions? Fear is guiding a lot of political speech today and bringing out the worst in people.
When the angel first appears to Mary the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” That may be the most common one-liner in the Bible. All of us have fears which we must confront if we are to live a healthy spiritual life.
Sometimes our fears are projected onto God so that fear shapes what we believe about God. I love the story that is told about young Teddy Rooselvet. As a little boy he had this fear about going to church. When his mother inquired he told her that he was afraid of something called the “zeal.” He said he heard the minister read about it from the Bible. He imagined it was something like a wild animal or dragon hiding in wait.
Using a concordance his mother looked up the word zeal and when she read to him John 2:17 in the AV he told her that was what he heard. The text is about Jesus’ protest in the Temple where he turned over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals. The text reads, “And his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of the thine house hath eaten me up.” He was afraid the zeal was going to eat him up.
There are folks who are afraid of God and their fear of God affects how they respond to God and how they relate to others. Some are conscious of their fears while others are not. For some folks fear operates on a kind of subconscious level. It’s real and present, but underneath the service so that one may not always be conscious of it.
There are several passages in the wisdom literature that speak of the fear of God in a positive sense. One biblical proverb says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. However, in the Hebrew scriptures the phrase “fear of God” means something like respect or reverence, not fear in the sense of being afraid of. Though being afraid of God shows up in a lot of biblical stories, which explains why whenever God or a messenger of God appears in these stories, the first thing the messenger says is “Fear not. Don’t be afraid.” The angel says to Mary, “Fear not. You have found favor with God.”
One of the most misapplied passages on fear in the New Testament is the passage that is found in Luke and Matthew. In Luke 12 Jesus is purported as saying, “Do not fear those who kill the body and after that can so nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
If the passage ends there I would say we have a problem with fear. However, the passage doesn’t end there. There is more to it. Those who misappropriate the passage end the passage here. And generally those who preach just this section of the passage exhort hearers to fear God who may just cast their souls into hell. What a terrible misuse of the text because the passage doesn’t end there. There is another half that completes the argument being made. The other half says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid [this is the exhortation we need to proclaim]; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
These are not two contradictory statements put side by side. Rather, the second part complements and completes the first part. The second part turns the logic of the first part into a completely different conclusion one would come to if all we had was the first part of that passage.
The logic of the argument is this: If there is anyone to fear it is God. God is capable of utter destruction. By the way, that’s what “hell” represents here – utter destruction. Not a place of conscious torment, but simply utter destruction. The Greek work translated “hell” is “gahenna” which refers to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where trash was consumed. God is able to consume, to utterly destroy. So if you fear anyone fear God. That’s the first part.
The second part says, “However, you don’t have to fear God because there is no reason to fear God. If you fear anyone God is the one you should fear, but there is no need to fear God because God is not the kind of God you need to be afraid of. God is the kind of God who intimately knows us and loves us. If God cares when little sparrows fall to the ground, God most certainly cares about you and me. We are God’s beloved.”
I love the little story about the mother who wakes up during a loud thunderstorm. The thunder is roaring and lightning flashing. She thinks her young son will be afraid. So she dashes off to his room. When she opens his door she finds him standing at the window looking out. Hearing the fear in his mother’s voice who asks him what he is doing he says, “It’s okay mom, God just took my picture.” If only we could nurture that kind of child-like trust in a good, gracious, and loving God.
It is Mary’s trust in God’s word, in what she hears God say to her that enables her to face and move against her fears. Ultimately she says to the voice of God, “Let it be with me according to your word.” The text today says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” She trusted what she heard God say, “Greetings, chosen one, favored one, blessed one, loved one.”
In Luke’s Gospel Mary is presented as a prototype or archetype of what we are all called to be. God comes into her life and announces the divine presence within her. Through the same Spirit, God comes into our lives and announces the divine presence within us. We are all chosen. We are all called the children of God. We are all recipients of divine favor. We have all been graced. We have all been gifted with the divine presence.
There is absolutely no indication of previous holiness or heroics in Mary’s life when God comes to her. She is not singled out because of some special worthiness that she has that no one else has. She is every woman and every man. God offers God’s self to us even before we invite God to do so. When Mary displays God’s presence through receptivity and trust, she becomes the Christ-bearer to the world. And that is just as true for you and me. That’s our calling too – to bear the image of Christ. To allow that image to emerge and evolve, to grow and mature within us.
Being able to say “let it be,” being able to trust God’s grace in our lives means letting go of our fears and the insecurities, worries, and frustrations that produce our fears. Rarely does this happen all at once and never doesn’t it happen completely. This is a process of nurture and growth. It is a process we must go through if we like Mary are to bear the Christ image in us and through us to the world.
Of course, shedding our fears is easier said than done. It can be a difficult and painful process. All sorts of factors come into play. Some involve biology – the way we are made. Some involve the ways we have been socialized into our environment. Some involve decisions and choices we have made. Some fears are deeply entrenched and connected to habitual patterns in our lives. Some are like quick sand. We get stuck in them and find it hard to move.
I heard about a little boy named Billy who was living at a shelter for abused children. He had been horribly wounded and was reluctant to move beyond the security he found in his room. The day of the Christmas party he refused to leave the safety of his room and join the party. He told one of the workers he wasn’t going. The volunteer who had spent considerable time with him said to him, “Sure you are, Billie. All you need is to put on your courage skin.” His pale eyebrows went up as he seemed to drink in the possibility. After a long pause, he said, “Ok.” The volunteer helped him put on his imaginary courage skin and off he went.
The only way we will ever move beyond our fears is by having wisdom to identify them and the courage to face them. I believe God can give us that. Mary believed the word that was spoken to her. She trusted in a greater power and a larger story beyond her fears and worries.
For most of us our growth, our capacity to move beyond our fears and live in faith is both providential and intentional. You should remember those two words . . .
Sometimes circumstances confront us with decisions and opportunities that we would not choose or even think about otherwise. A couple of Sundays ago I referenced the story of Gerald Coffee, the army captain who spent several years in captivity in Vietnam. In his forced suffering and solitude he turned inward and tuned into the mystery of God with us and among us. Stripped of everything that had contributed to his self-image he came to understand and trust who he was in God alone. Would he have experienced such spiritual growth and maturity had he not been faced with these circumstances? It’s impossible to know.
But I do know that he had to be open. He could have allowed his circumstances to harden his heart rather than open his heart. He chose to open his heart to the divine presence. And this is true for all of us regardless of what the circumstances that we live in are? We must be receptive and open to the divine presence. We must be willing to learn and grow and honestly face our fears and failures.
Theologians often struggle with the question: Is faith, is our capacity to trust who we are in God a divine gift or is it the result of human choice and effort? The good theologians say: It is both and here is the paradox and mystery of faith. Faith is a gift and it is human choice and effort. It is providential and it is intentional. It is both.
Author Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she was poking around the attic looking for a picture frame and found an old box of Christmas cards dated 1975. At the time she was seven months pregnant and terribly tired of waiting. When she pulled a card out it featured Mary, great with child, the universal woman in waiting. On the inside were the words, “Let it be.”
Sue Monk Kid says that she immediately felt a kinship with her. The message said to her, “Don’t fret so. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.”
I would urge you and me to do the same. I am preaching to me as well as to you. Let us trust this Divine Goodness who holds us close and never lets us go. Let us claim our belovedness and chosenness and realize that what is true of us is true of everyone else too. Let us trust that God our creator and redeemer knows us intimately and loves us more than we even love ourselves. Let us stand in awe before the great miracle and mystery and marvel of life and do all we can to spread life and enhance life for all those around us. Let it be.
Our good God, show us that we don’t have to be afraid of you. Somehow get through all our defense mechanisms, all the brainwashing, all the illusions, all the old silly, fearmongering, all the negative patterns of thinking we have accumulated and touch our core, touch our hearts with the truth of your grace and truth, with the good news of how much you love each one of us, and how special we all are. Inspire us to love all people the way you love all people. Fill us with the spirit of life and laughter and grace and goodness and real joy, and may our lives be contagious. In the name of Jesus. Amen.