Advent four – Rev Alison Way – December 20th 2020

Luke 1:26-38

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer Amen

This reflection is different from the one I will be doing in the churches today. “Do not be afraid” appears 366 times in the Bible. That is once for every day of the year (even on a leap year like this one!) This phrase – Do not be afraid almost invariably happens when something pretty spectacular has just occurred. Like an angel appearing to an ordinary girl like Mary in our reading today, and fear is a pretty natural human response!

Fear is an interesting human state, in fact, as fear is both a state of mind but also has a effect on our physicality. Fear induces in us a reaction that produces the hormone adrenaline, which prepares the body to flight (run away) or fight. So, when we get frightened or encounter frightening situations our bodies prepare in ways that other emotions to do not effect us.

I think it is interesting and actually I find it a bit mystifying that doing frightening things is viewed as a pleasurable activity by some! Or something they will pay good money for! For example – I do not understand why people enjoy going to horror films or scary films at all. I cannot think of something I like less! I think long and hard about watching something with lots of suspense in it too – and hands appearing from behind walls etc…. I also do not understand the human capacity to go on scary fairground or theme park rides and think that is fun! And that goes too for extreme scary sports like white water rafting or bungee jumping. For me every day life can be scary enough from time to time, and this has been particularly true in 2020 without seeking out additional frightening experiences!

Life was certainly quite scary for Mary in our gospel story today. Imagine in our early teens for a moment being faced with a radical change of plan like this from an angel – a messenger from God? This encounter with the angel turned Mary’s life upside down and with a high prospect of it all going rather pear-shaped in her culture as a result to boot. As we know the end of the story, we know God’s plan had its own way of working itself out.  But Mary did not know this as her part in the story of our salvation began. She did not know Joseph would stand by her and that that would prevent her from at best being ostracised by civilised society and to at worse being stoned for infidelity!

This makes her response to the encounter – here I am – let it be to me according to your word all the more impressive and determined. Mary sets an interesting example of how to handle fear – which appears to be pretty much step up to it and face it!!

But when we are handling fear in our lives. How do we do? There is an acronym for the word FEAR that will help us explore this more deeply, where fear is False Extremes Appear Real.

Let’s start then with False – fear is often a terror that what probably won’t happen will. A right level of caution is always appropriate but a wrong level of unreasonable anxiety is destructive. We have additional complications about falseness and truthfulness in our society today. It can be very difficult to find and stick to the truth.  The phenomena of labelling some ‘fake news’ when it doesn’t reflect what we want to be true is at the root of some of this. Wanting it to be true and it being true are two different things. I long for a day when we don’t get ourselves in such a muddle over truth being absolute rather than relative as we now at times want it to be. The knack here is to keep things in proportion and on the side of the truth (not the relative truth), and remember a healthy dose of common sense can be useful!

Let’s move on to the next element of the acronym, from False to Extremes. Fear envisages a worst-case scenario in which absolutely everything that can go wrong does. Dale Carnegie – of how to win friends and influence people fame, also wrote a book about handling fear. He suggested that one of the ways of doing this was to imagine all the worst possible scenarios and then work out how you can handle them. This can lead to paralysing inactivity as we work all that out and at worse a significant neurosis. Very occasionally in life, everything does seem to go wrong all at once in life (and 2020 has had elements of this about it!) But, that is the extreme and certainly not the rule and many a cloud does have a silver lining even if it is a bit obscured to begin with. Also some of the strangest and scariest things we encounter at the time can be things we look back on with great joy!

The final part of the acronym from False and Extremes – is Appear Real. Appear Real – fear focuses on the imagination and flights of fantasy rather than reality! When people witness a frightening incident their descriptions of it can be wildly different.  One of the reasons for this is that as time passes recollections are clouded by interpretations beyond the event itself. So we say what we have reasoned happened rather than what we actually saw.

The fact that God via the angel in this case says Do not be afraid or in the authorised version Fear not so often means God understands our propensity for nervousness and fearfulness. Faith is born out of our knowledge of God’s love for us and is the heart of our relationship with him. In taking even small steps into the unknown guided by God – we will find that he is with us in every step (even if we don’t know where the next step will take us!) At the moment we are on the cusp of a new beginning as the vaccine roll out begins to happen, but there are still many things we do not know about how all this will be long-term. I think it is important to remember to keep fear in perspective.  With fear when False Extremes Appear Real.

We need to remember how it must have been for Mary as she lived the story of how Jesus came as the Son of God to earth and her role within it. This story helps us to live our stories. She didn’t know the twists and turns of her story any more than we know the twists and turns of ours. And yet Mary has the wisdom to say Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word. Let that be said in our hearts just as much in response to our uncertain times. Here we are, the servants of the Lord, let it be to us according to your word. Amen

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – Some material from rootsontheweb.com

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