3rd Sunday of Advent
Sermon preached by Rev Mary Kells at the Carol Service 16 December 2018 6pm
A Christmas baby. You might think I’m talking about Jesus, especially dressed like this, standing here, but actually I’m remembering my son, born, just before Christmas, 15 years ago now, a month early, so there was a certain amount of shock, and I was a first-time parent, so there was a certain amount of shock, and yet, I remember when something frightened him and he cried, my response was don’t be afraid, I’m here, everything’s going to be alright. And I had this terrific confidence that whatever happened, I would be able to help him, to comfort him, because what he needed most of all was me.
Needless to say, there were challenges to this confidence, the following Christmas, when he pulled an empty wardrobe down on himself when we were in the middle of a house move, for example and stopped walking for a bit. On that occasion, I was the one who was afraid.
And three times in our Bible readings today we hear about fear. Twice, the angels say, ‘do not be afraid’ and once, we hear how fearful Herod was, and how badly that went, and it is contrasted with those other “kings”, the magi who followed the star with hope in their hearts, who were instead “overwhelmed with joy”. (Matt 2.10)
And I checked it out and fear or afraid appears in the Bible 639 times. It’s a big part of the human condition. And what does God say to us today, as God comes to us as a vulnerable little baby, who might well be fearful – do not be afraid.
So let’s look at these three tales involving fear in our Bible readings today. First is Mary’s story. Mary is an ordinary young woman in the midst of wedding arrangements, and suddenly something extraordinary happens and she is visited by the angel Gabriel. Not surprisingly, Luke tells us “she was much perplexed” (v29). If an angel suddenly appeared to us as we were making wedding arrangements, how do you think we might feel? Pretty perplexed, I should think, as if wedding arrangements weren’t perplexing enough. So very quickly the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary” and he gives her a task - to bear a child, a son, who will be “great”, “the Son of the Most High” (v32), the son of God.
How can this be? Mary asks: it is outside of everything that she expects to be possible, it is the breaking in of the eternal into everyday life, shattering the limitations of our material existence and opening it up to the impossible, the reality that is beyond our understanding, that should not be, cannot be, and yet is.
And it is, in part, because Mary says “let it be with me according to your word” (v38). She is facing something outside her experience, for which she might well feel unprepared and un-resourced and yet she chooses to say yes, to reject fear and distrust and open the way to God’s coming among us.
And then an angel appears to the shepherds, who are out working away, in the fields, looking after the sheep, and again, we have something amazing and impossible breaking in on them in their everyday, working life and we are told “they were terrified” (v9). These were people who never went to church, because they were always in the fields, and suddenly “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (v9) and they might well have wondered if they were about to be royally told off, called to account for their lifestyle choices, but the first words of the angel? “Do not be afraid” (v10) and why not? Because “I am bringing you good news of great joy” and it’s good and it’s joyful for “all the people”, (v10) so it’s universally good news, and they, lowly and looked-down on as they are, have been chosen to be the messengers. Do not be afraid, rather, rejoice! And the angel sends them on a journey, to Bethlehem, to find this good news for themselves.
And then there’s the third reference to fear, and that’s the villain of the piece, King Herod. King Herod is not interested in good news, he’s interested in power; he’s thinking only of himself and of small, earthly things, he has no space in his heart for the big, eternal message, good news for all, so his response? “King Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mat 2.3) because when the King was frightened it was not going to go well for his people. And where did that fear lead? It led to him wanting to kill the baby, but God thwarted his plans and the good news came anyway, despite Herod’s smallness of mind and smallness of plans.
Do not be afraid. The news that God loved us enough to come among us, not in a show of power, but as a baby, presented something new, something that would change lives forever. Mary and the shepherds listened. Herod listened not to God but to his fears.
There are many things in our world today that can make us fearful: at least one in four of us have mental health problems, so feeling negative, anxious, is a large part of our modern lives; and who doesn’t have fears about Brexit? What about climate change? Or perhaps we fear change in our own lives? Illness? Loss? Our own declining powers? Whatever our fears, God says to us, all of us, the young mothers and the lowly and under-paid, and to all of us who will listen, which even includes Kings, do not be afraid. There is good news coming. It’s going to be alright. Whatever you are facing, God is with you and the goodness of God is bigger than the darkness of the world. Because as John says, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. (1.5)
And what will help us with putting aside fear? Well, one of the things that helps is to put something else in its place. So, God gave Mary a task, to have her baby, and the shepherds a journey, go to Bethlehem and find him. What is our task? Our journey?
And this brings me back to parenting again, where I started, which, as every parent knows, is a journey with a lot of tasks. The thing is, everything I feared came true – interrupted sleep, no time for yourself, a life immersed in nappies and milk, interrupted sleep, no time for yourself… but what no-one could really have prepared me for was the love that came with it, the joy and love that made it all worthwhile. Do not be afraid. Life will indeed throw you all sorts of challenges but the joy and love that is of God will be enough. For perfect love casts out fear. And in a wonderful twist, that is not us talking to the baby, it is the baby bringing that good news to us: everything will be alright.
May the cry of God who came to us as a little baby open our ears, and may the love of God, who gave us that baby, be in our hearts as we enter this Christmastide into the story that is your story and our story.
 Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, Revised Edition, Bath: The Bath Press, 1979: 10, 209-211.