December 22, 2002 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Joanna M. Adams
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.’”
God of grace, we remember the words of Mary who said, “Here I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Most holy God, we pray that we like Mary may embrace your will today and live in faith through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Several weeks have passed since I have preached on Sunday morning, and many wonderful Advent events have taken place at Fourth Presbyterian Church in the meantime: festive cantatas and concerts; happy, joyful parties. On Thursday around the middle of the day, I came in the Chestnut Street entrance and was almost knocked off my feet by the fantastic aroma of ham baking in the church kitchen in preparation for the Center for Older Adults Christmas luncheon. It smelled so good that as I walked upstairs, I found myself singing “Joy to the World” and doing a little dance on the landing.
We have had one significant pre-Christmas crisis. Donna Gray announced at staff meeting the week before last that the boxes containing the haloes and angel wings were missing, and that they were needed for the Christmas pageant. Happily, they have been found. Pageants are a vital part of most congregations’ Christmas festivities. A famous pageant took place once in the church in which I served in Atlanta. The children had practiced their parts for weeks, and were ready to perform according to the Christmas story. But when the night of the big performance came, there was an unexpected development. When the children who played travel-worn Mary and Joseph appeared at the door of the inn and knocked on the door, the innkeeper was overcome by an onslaught of spontaneity. He said to them, “I am so sorry. All our rooms are taken, but why don’t you two come on in and have a drink?” Compassion comes in many forms during the holidays.
I am deeply moved by receiving word that through the ministries of Fourth Presbyterian Church over 1,000 Christmas gifts have exchanged hands, with more than 450 gifts being distributed to children and friends in the Cabrini Green community.
On my ‘to do’ list for 2003, I have made a note that reads, “Make a trip to Bethlehem.” I have written those words, because I want to visit Elam and Grace Davies. Elam Davies is the Pastor Emeritus of Fourth Presbyterian Church, and he and Grace live in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But it has occurred to me that if Bethlehem is any place where the spirit of Christ is born fresh and new, again and again, in acts of neighborliness and acts of compassion, tenderness, and joy, I am already in Bethlehem.
I love the words of St. Francis, who said, “We are the mother of Christ when we carry him in our heart. . . and we give birth to him through our holy works which ought to shine on others by our example.”
This morning we come upon perhaps the most shining encounter in the entire Christmas story, as the angel Gabriel delivers to Mary the astonishing news that she, a young unmarried girl in a little faraway place where nothing of importance has ever happened, has been chosen to be the bearer of the Son of God. Or, as St. Francis would have put it, “to be the mother of Christ.”
“Greetings, O favored one,” Gabriel says unto Mary and delivers the astonishing news. Mary is perplexed. The angel says to her, “Be not afraid.”
Has it ever occurred to you how often those words appear in the Christmas story? Gabriel has already spoken them to Zachariah, father-to-be of John the Baptist. “Be not afraid.” He has spoken those words to Joseph as Joseph contemplates ending his engagement with Mary. “Don’t be afraid.” To the startled shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, the angel says, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
Fear and faith, hope and doubt. They are woven together, both in the Christmas story and in the story of the human condition. Despite all the angelic admonitions put together, there is no way for mortals to avoid fear. It is built into us.
In an excellent novel entitled Anil’s Ghost, two physicians are talking to one another about massacres that have taken place in the country of Sri Lanka. One of the doctors says to the other, “All my life I have looked for the one law that covers all of human living. I have found one word that captures it: fear.” (Michael Ondaatje, Knopf Publishing, 2001) Fear is the universal.
I recently checked my biblical concordance for references to fear, terror, and anxiety in the scriptures. From Genesis to Revelation, there are literally thousands of them.
For every one that acknowledges the inevitability of fear:
“My flesh trembles for fear.”
“In fear the Israelites cried out,”
there are other passages that speak of God’s gift of freedom from fear:
“Do not fear those who kill the body,
you will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day.”
“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy. . .”
Then, there is that magnificent verse that shines so brightly from the little book called I John: “There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) What an eloquent summation of the message of the Christmas story. Perfect love, divine love, entering the world in the form of utter vulnerability. A baby that you can hold in your arms—what is to fear in a baby? It is in that vulnerability that God in God’s great power brings about the final conquest of fear.
What an ironic message to hear in the midst of great uncertainty in our national and international life. Sabers rattle, and war threatens. Daily we receive warnings to be on alert because another terrorist attack might be about to happen. I am not sure how useful it is for us to be told over and over again that something bad is going to happen somewhere, sometime. I don’t know about you, but I am anxious enough already.
I am reminded of a story from the days when people still sent telegrams to one another. A mother and father had received a telegram from their son whom they had sent off to college and was in the middle of the first semester of his freshman year. A telegram was delivered to their front door. It simply said,
“Dear Mom and Dad,
Start worrying. Details to follow.”
There is much to worry about. But sometimes I wonder if we are worried about what we should be worrying about, or if we spend too much energy on things that we should not be worrying about. For example, think of how obsessed we have become with matters of health, and yet the life expectancy of an American has increased two-fold during the twentieth century. (The Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner, Basic Books, 1999)
One of the things I believe we should be worrying about is our increasing tolerance for violence and nihilism. We seem to tolerate it to an extraordinary degree in our culture. A column in the New York Times (11/28/02) pointed out that one of the most popular Christmas toys on the market this year is something called “Forward Command Post.” It is a version of a doll house, recommended for five-year-olds. But this doll house is a bombed out doll house. The furniture inside is smashed, and there are bullet holes in the walls. Imagine a five year old playing in that scene of violence. This column spoke to me. Al and I have a 22-month-old granddaughter named Virginia. The highlight of my fall was playing with Virginia and her doll house. Her mother told us yesterday that Virginia is not content to leave baby Jesus in the crèche. She wants Jesus to be her action baby, so she has taken him out of the crèche and moved him into the doll house, where she feeds him imaginary spaghetti. The story of Christmas is that Jesus, Son of God, has come to live where we live and to show us a better way, a way not marked by violence and distrust and hatred.
Gabriel challenged Mary with the life-giving message that God wants to do a new thing for the world through her.
In all the upheavals in your life, Mary, God will be with you in the little boat that is your life. Surely that is the message that God would give the world this Christmas. In the midst of the ever-changing tides of human history, we do not have to be paralyzed or motivated by fear. Hope, goodness, gladness and love, these are coming into the world.
I loved reading the book Joseph Cardinal Bernadin wrote in the last days of his life entitled The Gift of Peace. (Loyola Press, 1997) In that book, he writes of his acceptance of his own death and his belief in eternal life, but he also says that having faith does not mean that he is without fear. Fear and faith can and do occupy the same human heart.
And so it was with Mary. Do not let Renaissance painters’ peaceful strokes and soothing pastels fool you. Mary was terrified. Yet, through God’s grace, she did not allow her fear to lock the doors of her heart and will. She pushed through her fear and she was able to say in faith, “Let it be with me according to your will.”
At Christmastime a lot of people say: Well, I just don’t know what I believe about the Christmas story. The Virgin Birth, the star in the east, angels who appear in the sky and deliver direct messages from God. Maybe we should throw away these Christmas stories or leave them for the children, because rational, smart, intelligent, sophisticated people don’t believe in angels, right? It is up to you as to whether you believe in angels or not, but I hope that you will at least believe in what the angels said. God is coming into the world, and therefore, there is no reason to live a life that is controlled by fear.
Do you believe that perfect love is real? Do you believe it is more real than all the hatred and all the meanness that ever was or ever will be? These are the questions Christmas asks.
Perhaps you saw the story in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday (12/15/02), an anguishing story about an Amish family in Pennsylvania with nine children. One terrible night this winter, a fire burned their house to the ground, and took the lives of five of the nine children. The final paragraph in the story reported that when the firefighters found the remains of the oldest girl, a 14-year-old girl named Katie, she was holding the remains of the baby of the family, little Jonathan, aged 2. She held him in her arms. “Be not afraid,” she said to her brother by her presence, by her embrace, by her willingness to live and die in the fire with him.
O Katie, O Mary, thank you for being our sisters, our mothers, our role models for life in faith.
O God, thank you for sending your son to live and die and walk through the fires with us. Thank you for the blessedness of your embrace that holds us close today and always. Amen.
Sermon © Fourth Presbyterian Church