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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Unexpeted, Unlimited, Mysterious God Activity 12/23/2017

“Do not be afraid.”

It is directive we receive regularly in our scriptures. I think I've mentioned before that you can find 365 instances of this message in the bible – that's one for each day of the year. So it is a theme we are supposed to notice and we must need to hear it a lot. 

It is also worth noting that the Gospel of Luke uses this phrase, “Do not be afraid,” to signal a fairly specific thing: The activity of God, and particularly activity that is not what we would expect, not limited by our imaginations or our understanding, not something we could pull off. How it comes about is a mystery, the kind of mystery Paul refers to in that final doxology in the letter to the Romans.

In Luke, “Do not be afraid,” marks moments of God's mysterious activity in the world that serves to strengthen us and call us to obedience.

It is kind of like a lesson I remember from my days in journalism. In class we talked about what it was like to be a beat reporter at a daily newspaper. A beat reporter is someone who is assigned to cover a certain area. So when I was a reporter back at the Mining Journal years ago, I had beats like NMU, K-12 education and county government.

Beat reporting is not often the sexy, headline-grabbing stuff of investigative reporting or even big feature stories that appear in the weekend edition. Beat stories are often relegated to page three and beyond, tucked in with news briefs from the wire service or into little spaces left between advertisements and the ends of bigger stories. They are often stories on things like zoning exemptions or budget cuts on office supplies at the county courthouse. It's necessary news, but not exactly what you would call riveting.

So when we talked about this kind of work in class, we talked about how sometimes, when you find yourself sitting through yet another small town council meeting that is entering its third or fourth hour, you have to know when to wake up and start paying attention so you can write the story your editor is going to expect the next morning. You learn to spot the signals and the posturing that something different is about to happen. When you hear it or see it, you perk up and wait for what comes next – you're going to get your story. Finally.

That's a lot like how this line “Do not be afraid,” works in the Gospel of Luke.

We can imagine God's activity swirling all around Mary as Gabriel comes to speak astounding words to her in our reading today. “‘Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel says.

And what is the unexpected, mysterious activity that this statement marks? “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.” (1.30-31)

Mary will be Theotokos, a Greek word meaning “the one who bears God.”

This is not the only time Luke employs this signal. Before Gabriel says this to Mary, he has already said it to Zechariah.

“Then there appeared to (Zechariah) an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” And the unexpected, mysterious activity to follow? “For your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (1.11-13)

Tomorrow we will hear it when Gabriel appears to the shepherds in the field. “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.” Now we are starting to see the pattern and our senses perk up, we know it's time to wake up.. What should we should pay attention to? “For see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (2.9-11)

Jesus also uses this signal in the course of his ministry in the gospel of Luke. The first time we hear it is when he is calling his first disciples. “Then Jesus said to Simon (who would later be renamed Peter), ‘Do not be afraid.'” And then unexpected and mysterious activity: “'From now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” (5.10b-11)

We also hear it in the encounter with the synagogue leader Jairus, whose daughter has died before Jesus could get to Jarirus' house and heal her. “‘Do not (be afraid),” Jesus says. And then: “Only believe, and she will be saved.” (8:50) That is certainly unexpected and mysterious.

And again while teaching the disciples and the crowds who gathered around Jesus  as he traveled and taught and healed people:  “Do not be afraid, little flock.” And now we are accustomed to it. We take a breath and wait to hear what what Jesus is drawing us to: “(For) it is (God’s) good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (12.32)

And there is something else that connects all these examples from Luke – two things really.

First, in some sense, all of these people – Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, Jairus and the disciples – all are Theotokos.

Through the unexpected, mysterious activity that follows each  “Do not be afraid” statement, these people become the ones who bear God in this world through their lives and experiences, their choices and proclamations. We get the sense that Theotokos is not something that finds one spot or one person and then remains still and stagnant there. Rather we begin to see Theotokos may apply to any number of people who willingly consent to being a channel for that activity, just as Mary did in our reading today.  “Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (1:38)

That moving identity of Theotokos continues to be active in the world today – moving through channels, seen and unseen, known and unknown, to bring about God's unexpected and mysterious activity in the world.

Another connection that runs strongly in all of these “Do not be afraid,” examples is who these people are. They are us.

Mary, of course, is the very sacred and literal example of Theotokos. Unlike us, she is the one chosen to birth the Messiah. She is also an unusual example of discipleship for us to aspire to in her willingness to do what God has asked of her.

But we also see very plainly through her that the unexpected, mysterious activity of God is Good News for little known people like her and most of us, and in little known places like Nazareth, and Munising and Shingleton and Wetmore and Christmas and AuTrain.

We see ourselves in Zechariah and Elizabeth too, people whose hearts pray for what the world says is impossible. In the shepherds we find people like us who are simply doing what they are supposed to do … they are going to work, contributing to their families and community, tending the flocks and their responsibilities.

In the disciples perhaps we recognize ourselves in the way they seek meaning and purpose in what they do each day as they thrown down their old ways and follow Jesus where they learn a New Way.

And in Jairus, you might recognize yourself at those times when doubt tempers and strengthens your faith; times when you need those reminders of God's abundant and steadfast lovingkindness in your life.

These are not kings and queens, they are not the wealthy and powerful, they are not the elite or the pedigreed. They do not move around with body guards or have armies at their command.

They are community leaders and children, the lowest paid laborers of their time, the unknown, the ill and often forgotten, the local government officials and teachers. They are seekers. They are God's favored and honored. They are us.

Luke is a good teacher for us in training our heads and hearts to perk up at these words. Do not be afraid. We perk up when we come together at the font where we hear “Do not be afraid. For your sins are forgiven” and then respond with our lives. We wake up, ready for what is to come when we gather at the table where we also hear “Do not be afraid. For the Messiah has come into the world and claimed you forever and feeds you with the bread and wine of eternal life with God.”

Do not be afraid. For you are Theotokos. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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