Sunday 10 January 2010

Do not fear

This address was to have been given at Templederry and Puckane on Sunday 10th January 2010, Epithany 1, but the services were cancelled due to the icy weather.

‘Be afraid. Be very afraid’
I’m sure you’ve heard this popular catch-phrase – it’s used when someone wants to warn us that something dire is about to happen, in a menacing but slightly jokey way. But do you know where it comes from? It is from the 1986 remake of The Fly, a science fiction horror movie in which a mad scientist experimenting with a matter transporter mixes up his DNA with a fly’s, and gradually changes into a horrific creature, half-man and half-fly.

I’ve noticed that people seem to be using the catch-phrase more often recently, perhaps because so many of us really are feeling afraid, very afraid, about what can seem like a threatening, dangerous future.

  • Think unemployment, poverty and emigration for our children - due to economic collapse.
  • Think rising sea levels, droughts, floods - due to catastrophic climate change.
  • Think famine and wars - due to resource exhaustion and rising population.
  • And nuclear weapons haven’t gone away you know – the latest issue of Scientific American has a frightening article about the global effects of even a limited nuclear war between Pakistan and India.

It would be very easy to let ourselves be overwhelmed by pessimism, to feel the future is hopeless. But that would immobilise us. It would prevent us from responding to the real dangers we face, and make the bad outcomes we dread more likely.

That is not how we as Christians are called to behave. The future is not hopeless, because God has given us a great gift of hope, hope for the coming of Christ’s kingdom. This gift of hope is surely one which we must share with others, who do not share our faith, but badly need our hope.

The ground of our hope is our conviction that God loves us.
This is at the heart of the good news that Jesus preached. But its roots go back much further. The OT tells the story of how over hundreds of years the children of Israel gradually came to understand that God - the terrifying mighty creator - also loves his people. As Psalm 29 which we have just read puts it, the God whose voice ‘breaks the cedar trees’, ‘shakes the wilderness’ and ‘makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forest bare’, is also the God that ‘shall give strength to his people’ and ‘shall give his people the blessing of peace’.

Nowhere is it more beautifully expressed than in today’s 1st reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 43:1-7). Scholars tell us that this passage was probably written around 540BC. The children of Israel are in captivity in Babylon. They are afraid for their future, on the verge of giving up hope that they would ever be able to return to their homeland. So the poet seeks to encourage them in these words:

‘But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’

And why should the captive children of Israel not fear?

‘Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.

Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’, and to the south, ‘Do not withhold.’’

Beautiful and encouraging words, aren’t they?
‘Do not fear … because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you’.

The poet’s words were prophetic – some of the exiles did return from Babylon. 500 years later the Jews of Jesus’s time were utterly convinced that God loved them and this gave them hope for the future, even though their country had been conquered and occupied by the Romans.

But they saw God’s love in exclusive terms: God loved the Jewish people, the children of Israel, in a special way; they were God’s chosen people, with whom God had established a covenant; and they lived in hope for the coming of a promised Messiah, the anointed one of God, who would restore the fortunes of his chosen people. Other people really didn’t count.

This is the background to Luke’s account of Jesus’s baptism by John in our 3rd reading (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22), in which God marked Jesus out as the Messiah, sending the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and saying ‘You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased’.

The first Christians were Jews. We have inherited their Jewish conviction that God loves us, and with it God’s gift of hope – thanks be to God for the insight of the Jewish people! But from the very start, with a fresh insight, Christians transformed the conviction of God’s love being exclusive to Jews to being inclusive of all people. We believe as Christians that God loves all people created in his image, not just Jews but gentiles like you and me, not just white people but people of all colours and ethnic origins, not just those who are like us but those we find alien.

  • In this we follow Jesus himself, but it is interesting to notice how Jesus’s understanding developed over the course of his ministry. Matthew’s Gospel records him telling the Canaanite woman ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 15:24); but by the end of the same Gospel he would say to his disciples, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt 28:19).
  • In today’s 2nd reading from Acts (Acts 8:14-17), the apostles Peter and John recognise that God loves gentiles as well as Jews, when they pray for the non-Jewish Samaritans, ‘that they might receive the Holy Spirit’.
  • And St Paul would later write to the Galatians saying, ‘For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:26-28).

Epiphany is traditionally a time to reflect on how God reveals his nature to us.
So to finish, let us reflect again on what God tells us through Isaiah’s beautiful poetry:
‘Do not fear … because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you’.

  • Let us give thanks for the insight that God loves all his people, which we have inherited from the ancient Hebrews and the first Christians.
  • Because we believe that God loves his people, we live in hope.
  • Because we live in hope, we do not fear the future, no matter how dangerous it may seem.
  • Because we are not afraid, we can work to make Christ’s kingdom a reality.