Sunday 13 January 2013

Do not fear

‘Be afraid. Be very afraid’
I’m sure you’ve heard this popular catch-phrase – it’s used 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’s from the 1986 remake of the science-fiction horror movie The Fly, 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 this catch phrase rather 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.
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 it would make the bad outcomes we dread more likely.

That is not how we as Christians are called to behave. The future is not hopeless. God has given us a great gift of hope - hope for the coming of God’s kingdom. And surely we must share this gift of hope with others, who may 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 this 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.’’

These are beautiful, encouraging and reassuring 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 indeed 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: they felt 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 really count.

This is the background to Luke’s account of Jesus’s baptism by John in our 2nd reading (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22), in which God marks Jesus out as the Messiah. God as a loving Father sends the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and says, ‘You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased’, in an echo of Isaiah’s words. It is the only place in the Bible where we encounter all 3 persons of the Trinity at the same time – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

The first Christians were Jews, and 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 from 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 I feel sure we follow Jesus himself. But it is interesting to notice how Jesus’s own 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).

The Epiphany season is traditionally a time to reflect on how God reveals his nature to us.
So to finish, I invite you to ponder God’s loving nature, revealed in Isaiah’s beautiful poetry:
Thus says the Lord…, ‘Do not fear … because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you’.

Let us give thanks for the insight which we have inherited from the ancient Hebrews and the first Christians, that God loves all his people.

The implications are surely life-changing:
·        Because we believe that God loves us, we live in hope.
·        Because we live in hope, we do not fear the future, no matter how dangerous it may seem.
·        Because we do not fear the future, we have the confidence to work for God’s kingdom.

All this poses a great question to each one of us – and to us all as a body, Christ’s body, the Church. The question is this:

What am I - what are we - going to do to make God’s kingdom a living reality?