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God Meets us in our fear - Advent Week 2

“God meets us in our fear”

December 3, 2022 - Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Isaiah 11:1-10 and Luke 1:26-38

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Luke 1: 26-38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

So apparently this week there was a bear seen in Cobleskill. I didn’t see the bear myself… did anyone here? But I know there was a bear in Cobleskill because it showed up at the Ryder/Golding School Campus around dawn and all the parents got a very serious and concerned email from the school leadership about the precautions put into place because of said bear sighting. The black bear had run off almost as quickly as it had been seen (as black bears often do….). But nonetheless, the school leadership wanted all of the parents to know that the police were patrolling, alternative bus routes had been planned just in case, and all recess was moved indoors out of an “abundance of caution.” Paige and I were in the office when the email came into both of our inboxes as parents of students there. I shouted from my office to hers, don’t they know black bears are harmless! They’re more afraid of us than we are of them! And she said back something like, “yeah, but you know, all it takes is one parent saying something to the school and… you know…”

Fear is a motivating force. Whether it’s the fear of angry parents who felt the school was not responding in the most cautious way possible, or the fear that bears can stir up for us, regardless of the actual threat level of a black bear itself. Fear is a motivating force.

The liturgy for our Advent Wreath lighting today pulled together responses from over 100 different people of different generations to answer the question, “what do you fear?” And in the answers, we could hear how fear presents differently for people depending on their stage of life. A child might put spiders and nightmares at the top of their list while a person with 60 more years of life experience might put fear of not being fully known or forgetting what it means to belong at the top of their list. No matter what age we are, fear finds us and adapts itself to the realities of our life-stage and environment. It can be a good thing when it alerts us to real danger and it conjures up instinctual behavior in the face of the unknown. Too much of it, though, can make us feel stuck and helpless.

When the pandemic began two and a half years ago, fear soared. Stay at home orders and spreading disease put everyone into unknown territory. And during those first few months, researchers noticed something: Online searches for Bible verses about fear soared. People were looking for ways to deal with the unknown. The Bible verse that was most often searched, read and bookmarked in that period was Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.“ Fear is a motivating force, but not just on our end. God meets us in our fear. In fact, God meets us in our fear so often throughout the generations that the phrase “Do not be afraid” appears more than any other phrase across the entire Bible, spanning, as we heard last week, 42 generations plus some. If there is one constant that God reminds us, it is that God sees our fear and draws us close in the midst of it.

December is so often a blur with Christmas parties and twinkling lights and parades and our favorite music, but in the midst of the glimmer and the gleam of the season, it’s easy to forget or gloss over the fact that the story of Christmas began with one woman who was stunned and afraid when an angel appeared to her out of nowhere and said her life was going to change completely. Fear was the first emotion of the Christmas story.

And it makes sense! Mary was being asked to take on a pregnancy that was going to change her life…in all the ways pregnancy normally does, but also in cosmic, world-changing ways that she could only imagine. The angel, speaking through God, intercepted her thoughts. “Do not be afraid.” A child will be born unto you who will do great things. Do not be afraid. The world will never be the same after this child which you will bear. Do not be afraid. God is coming to be with you. Do not be afraid. He will be the Prince of Peace. Do not be afraid.

Mary was flooded with images of past generations, a root of Jesse, the throne of David, the house of Jacob. Words from the prophets about one who would come in wisdom and knowledge and who would delight in the fear of the Lord. And then there was she, somehow connected to it all in ways she couldn’t explain. Maybe she was still afraid, but she stood up anyway, because she realized she wasn’t alone. God was with her. The generations of the past were with her. Nothing was impossible with God, even being brave in the midst of fear. “Here am I,” she uttered. “The servant of the Lord. Let it be.” And with those words spoken despite fear into the unknown, Mary was motivated to draw closer to God through the promise of the incarnation. She stepped up to carry the baby that would be “God-with-us.” Was she over her fear? Probably not. But she knew she was not alone. God was with her.

Going back to our talk about the early months of the pandemic and the soaring levels of fear. There was a story that circulated that first pandemic December of an urban neighborhood outside of Baltimore where a neighbor knew that the woman across the street was having a tough time with the isolation and loss of the pandemic. He wasn’t able to visit her, but her knew that her anxiety and depression were soaring and a December unlike any other with very limited opportunities for connection was getting to be too much. So the neighbor across the street had an idea. He was going to decorate his house with lights but instead, he plugged in the string climbed up high on his house and strung the lights across the street to connect to his own house to his neighbor’s house on the other side. “The lights were a physical sign of our connection and love,” he later said in the Washington Post article. In a season of isolation and fear, others in the neighborhood began to do the same thing and soon the entire street was covered with lights that connected houses together (SLIDE). Fear is a strong and powerful emotion, and so is knowing you’re not alone.

And that feeling that you’re not alone, is the feeling of peace. We lit the second candle of Advent today which is the peace candle knowing that God is with us and that God shows up in mysterious ways when we least expect it… Through a neighbor’s string of lights, or an unexpected card or call from a friend, or in the company of a bird on the bird feeder. God is with us. God is with us, when we are afraid most of all.

There are so many things that make us fearful these days, the least of which are bears at dawn eating berries on the school property. Real and very consuming fears, like the ones the generations read in the Advent wreath lighting, are present each day of our life. What does it mean for us to find peace in the midst of the very real fears that surround us? What does it look like for us to acknowledge that fear is real, and also at the same time, God meets us in our fear and sits with us there?

Let us pray.

O God of the holy unknown. Draw close to us now. Lead us into deeper patterns of protection and trust. Shape us into people who stand by each other in the midst of uncertainty. People who are capable of finding solidarity in the mystery rather than terror in the isolation. God, be with us. Show us how to be with one another.

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