2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Fearful Thing To Fall Into The Hands Of The Living God

Luke 1:28

“Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”

Look, first, at this young woman, Mary, to whom this astonishing greeting comes. She is an ordinary young woman in her teens. She is anticipating what every young woman of her time and place anticipated; namely, a life as a wife and, hopefully, as a mother. She is a young woman who desires to be a credit to her family and to her community.

Now, think about what her acceptance of God’s purpose for her cost her.

Before her baby’s birth it cost her a great deal of anxiety as she contemplated the impact that this out-of-wedlock birth might have on all whose support and love she wanted.

Then, her acceptance of God’s will for her and her willingness to have this child brought her terror, as she and Joseph had to flee for their baby’s life in the face of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

Then, being the instrument of God’s purpose brought her confusion and worry when her twelve-year-old son displayed a kind of maturity that set him apart from other boys his age.

Then, her worry turned to apprehension and perhaps embarrassment as her adult son embarked on a course of preaching and teaching that began to generate opposition by the established religious authorities of her people.

And finally, her acceptance of God’s purpose for her brought her the ultimate anguish which a parent can experience as she watched her son die and then had to prepare his broken body for burial.

Rupert Brooke caught up a lot of what Mary felt and would feel as she put herself in the hands of God. He wrote:

She wised to speak. Under her breasts she had Such multitudinous burnings, to and fro, And throbs not understood; she did not know If they were hurt or joy for her; but only That she was grown strange to herself, half lonely, All wonderful, filled full of pains to come And thoughts she dare not think, swift thoughts and dumb, Human, and quaint, her own, yet very far, Divine, dear, terrible, familiar. (from “Mary and Gabriel”)

I think what Luke wants us to recognize in his compassionate picture of Mary is that she was not as unique as we tend to make her. As Randall Bush writes:

Other young mothers have given birth under trying circumstances, have seen strange things which they have pondered in their hearts, have raised precocious children preoccupied with works they cannot understand themselves. Other Marys have cradled the broken body of a child they once held as a newborn in swaddling clothes, enduring the loss of a child unfairly condemned by a political system or untimely struck down by disease or tragedy. To speak honestly about Mary is to address these other Marys, and as such is the only way to offer comfort to them for all they are forced to carry silently in their own hearts.(Lectionary Homiletics, December 1996, page 27)

But if we read this text aright, we begin to understand that the words of the angel are God’s words to us as well as to Mary. “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”

And, with this sense that we are no longer bystanders and spectators, but are ourselves the ones in whom God desires his Son to be born, comes a feeling of dread that is equally as strong as any feelings of anticipation. We know in our bones that if we allow this birth to take place in us it is going to change things in us and for us. And we have very conflicting feelings about this.

On the one hand, we know that we need to change and to grow. We know that God wants to make of us more than we are. And, indeed, we want deep down to be all that we can be. And it is for that reason that we keep on putting ourselves within reach of the preacher’s voice and within the reach of the Holy Spirit. It is for that reason that we pray sincerely, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, be born in us today.”

On the other hand, we treasure the freedom to manage our lives in our own way. We resist the idea of having to go where we sense that Christ may lead us if we really let him be born in us. We know in our bones that he is going to have some very discomforting expectations of us.

We just know that he is going to ask us to stop insisting that the people we live with see things our way, which we regard as the practical way, the sensible way, the right way. He is going to insist that we begin to look at things their way.

We just know that he is going to insist that we re-examine some of our most cherished opinions on political and moral and social issues in the light of his spirit and his purposes and that we stop simply justifying those opinions on the basis of our fears and prejudices.

We know that he is going to call us to closer ties with his own body, the church, and to a regular participation in its worship and work, and we know that is simply going to interfere with our freedom to do what we would prefer to do on Sunday mornings and at other times when the church needs us.

We know that to let him be born in us could very well lead us to do things or say things or challenge things or disagree with things that could cost us dearly in our social circles or jobs or fraternities.

We know that the writer of Hebrews was in full touch with reality when he wrote, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

But, like Mary, we know that it would be more fearful, still, to reject the approach of God when God comes and says, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”

To do that would be to reject the only hope we have at becoming who we were meant to be. The popularity which Jesus enjoyed when he began his ministry began to wane when people began to understand the expectations he had of people who wanted to be his disciples. John tells us that “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” Jesus could tell that the inner core of twelve were also having mixed feelings. He asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” The truth was that, to a considerable degree, they did want to go away. But they knew that they could not do that. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” And we know that Peter was right. To reject God’s approach to us in Christ would be to reject the greatest possibility we have of becoming who and what we were created to be.

To do that would be to condemn ourselves to the prison of half-truths and prejudices in which we live and to shut ourselves off from the One whose truth can set us free.

To refuse to let our own hearts be the mangers in which God’s Son may lie would be to consign ourselves to the pride and impatience and roughness and rudeness and insecurity and hypersensitivity which afflicts us and that, half the time, we do not even recognize. When I was in New Orleans, I was in a group of about eight ministers who met with a psychiatrist leader once a week to develop our self-awareness and our abilities at relating to and understanding people. With care to substitute fictitious names for real names, we would each, in turn, present some pastoral case with which we felt we needed help. I remember one member of the group describing his difficulty with a woman in his congregation. As he talked about her, the note of hostility in his voice became increasingly noticeable. When he finished his presentation, someone in the group asked him why he got so angry when he talked about this lady. With a red face and fire in his eyes, he said angrily, “What do you mean angry? I’m not angry!” To reject the presence of Christ in our lives would be to reject the work of his spirit in liberating us from those unfortunate traits which we have not seen in ourselves and which continue to undermine our relationships with other people.

While we know that the writer of the Letter of the Hebrews was right when he said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), we know with equal certainty in the depths of our being that St. Augustine was right when he said to God, “You created us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” To accept the favor of God and allow the Son of God to be born in us is to enter upon a life of pain and joy that we would not otherwise experience:

the pain and the joy of change and growth, the pain and the joy of caring deeply about other people, the pain and the joy of marching to the beat of a different drummer, the pain and the joy of serving God in the church, the pain of death and the joy of resurrection. Thus it was for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Thus it was for the earliest disciples. Thus it was for the apostles and martyrs and faithful Christians in all ages. Thus it will be for us. Here is the way William Alexander Percy wrote of this pain and joy: They cast their nets in Galilee Just off the hills of brown; Such happy, simple fisherfolk, Before the Lord came down. Contented, peaceful fishermen, Before they ever knew The peace of God that filled their hearts Brimful, and broke them too. Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, Homeless, in Patmos died. Peter, who hauled the teeming net, Head down was crucified. The peace of God, it is now peace, But strife closed in the sod. Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing— The marvelous peace of God. (“They Cast Their Nets in Galilee,” William Alexander Percy, 1924)

The Rev. J. Harold McKeithen, Jr., Minister Hidenwood Presbyterian Church, Newport News, Virginia