Fourth Sunday of Advent 2014
St Mary’s Hadlow
Readings Romans 16:25 – end; Luke 1:26-38
May I speak this morning, in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I once knew a priest who couldn’t write a sermon without quoting G K Chesteron. The only real uncertainty for his congregation was whether Chesteron would appear at the beginning, middle or end of his sermon. Sometimes we might get a different Chesterton quote at the beginning, middle and end. I am sure that someone in the choir was running a book and would make a killing when that happened.
In the interests of trying to avoid clerical stereotypes, to the extent that it is possible when dressed like this and standing in a pulpit, I am going to approach things with a slightly different tack today both with the source of my quote and the theme for my sermon.
When I was young one of my favourite books was not by G K Chesterton, because let’s face it that would be a bit weird, but was a science fiction novel called Dune, by Frank Herbert. I don’t know whether Frank Herbert has ever previously been quoted from a Church of England pulpit but, if not, his time has come:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”
I want to pose a very simple question this morning: What is it that you fear?
And the supplementary question: How is that fear holding you back?
Because we should make no mistake about it; we live in a society which thrives on our fear, and, in my view, much of that fear cripples us as individuals and prevents us from fully reflecting the image and purpose of God in our lives.
So what do I mean when I say we live in a society which thrives on our fear?
This works on many levels. On a national level we are taught to live in fear of other nations, sometimes with more justification than others. For most of my life we lived in fear of the Soviet Union, to the extent that I remember my parents looking at brochures for nuclear shelters to go in the garden. That cold war fear between East and West saw hundreds of billions spent on defence whilst children in the third world starved. Since 2001 we have come to fear militant Islam and have spent billions in various campaigns in the middle East with varying degrees of success. Interestingly much of the rise of militant Islam was helped enormously by the US and Saudi Arabia funding militants in Afghanistan to fight the Russians during the cold war so these things are not unrelated.
And this fear of the enemy at our gates is not only used to justify huge expenditure on the military, much of which goes into the hands of private companies, it is always interesting to see which former prime ministers are shareholders in defence companies, but it is also used to curtail our civil liberties. I think that England is now the most spied upon country in the world – it is virtually impossible to walk down the street without being watched by CCTV and it is equally impossible to use the internet without GCHQ having the ability to know what you are doing. And this invasion of our liberties is justified by fears over national security and crime and we sleepwalk into a police state because of fear. You may have heard that only last week in our dear own Garden of England that Kent Police tried to make the University of Kent supply them with a list of all the names of those who attended a debate on the issue of fracking, an utterly lawful debate and a lawful gathering.
On a personal level we live our lives amidst myriad fears. In our jobs we might fear not being successful enough or, perhaps more commonly, we might fear being outsourced and put on the scrapheap. Even now there are call centres in China studying theology and communion will soon be distributed by remote control drones.
The advertising industry is almost wholly based on making us fearful about what will happen if we do not buy their products. We may fear not having the right car, not taking the right holiday, not wearing the right clothes, we fear being overweight, not being attractive enough, not being clever enough, not living in the right place. As parents we are taught to fear that unless we buy the right thing for our children that they, and by extension we, will be social outcasts.
And in many ways our very own English culture makes us fearful – afraid that if we say the wrong thing to the wrong person using the wrong pronunciation that we will be adversely judged. Of course the biggest fear for all English people is that of being embarrassed and when you are English there are simply so many ways in which one can be embarrassed!
And so we all become increasingly curtailed in our thoughts and actions in both the public and private sphere – if we speak up publicly about something we fear that someone may be asking for a list with our name on it and if we don’t act in a very narrow way privately we fear embarrassment and ostracism.
Those are simply the fears that I suspect are common to everyone in this building – that is before we even look at the hundreds of fears and phobias that could be peculiar to us as individuals. Have a look at phobia.com it is really an education. Just from the phobias beginning with A we get Alektorophobia- the fear of chickens, Ablutophobia- the fear of washing or bathing (I think Henry has that), Amathophobia- the fear of dust – may want to avoid our house, Allodoxaphobia- Fear of opinions – again may want to avoid our house – Agateophobia- the fear of insanity, – I’m not saying anything about that.
And I tell you this list of fears is huge, but my personal favourite is hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia – any guesses? It is not the fear of hippos, but is actually the fear of long words – how ironic is that?
Culturally I think that we are fearful of anything that is new or unusual or out of the ordinary.
Of course we are not alone in that and many cultures have very strict rules about acceptable behavior and some have very strict punishments for deviation which go well beyond English embarrassment. In the Jewish culture of 2000 years ago the punishment for adultery or having a child outside marriage was death by stoning, surely something worthy of its own phobia.
But when the Angel Gabriel appeared to a very young Mary he told her that God’s plan for her was to bear a child out of wedlock and not even by her betrothed. The consequences for Mary could have been huge – she was stepping well outside the bounds of acceptable behavior. But when Gabriel appeared to Mary he also said something else, and it is something that we all need to hear:
“Do not be afraid.”
I think that he was saying not only that Mary should not be afraid of the fact that an Angel had appeared in her room unannounced but also that she should not be afraid of the fact that she had found favour with God and not to be afraid of what God was calling her to do for him. God, through his Angel, was telling Mary to put her fears aside and to trust him and his plans for her and the world through her.
Interestingly the words ‘do not be afraid’ are also used by the angels when they spoke to Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, and to the shepherds on the hill above Bethlehem. It seems that both the presence of the angels and their message is awesome in the true sense of the word and they have to start their messages by allaying fears.
What if Mary had been overwhelmed by fear of the Angel or fear of her calling or fear of its consequences? I believe that God did not take away Mary’s free will and she could have allowed her fear to make her say no. How would God have worked out his plan for the world otherwise? Of course we don’t know but if Mary had let fear rule the day I suspect that we would not know of her or Joseph or even the man Jesus at all.
A fearful ‘no’ is a dead end. A putting aside of fear and saying ‘yes’ to God prepares the way of the Lord into the world. Many of the stories in the bible, and many of the saints lives throughout the history of the church, are the stories of those who put aside their fears and said yes to God despite the cost. It is only when we say yes to God despite our fear that the Kingdom of God can grow, because, unlike the Caliphate of ISIS, it will never be forced upon us.
I opened this sermon with a quote from Frank Herbert in which he called fear the little death that brings total obliteration, and I hope we are now a little clearer on what that means. But he did not leave it there and the quote continues:
“I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
The more common way of saying this may be “feel the fear but do it anyway.”
What is God calling you to, how is he calling you to express, develop and live out your faith in this world? And what is it that you are afraid of and how is your fear holding you back from responding to God?
Let us truly hear the message of the angels to not be afraid and, like Mary, to let our yes to God bring forth Christ into the world.