In my experience, there’s nothing quite like being told not to do something to make it almost impossible to avoid it…A month ago, at a wedding, the preacher threw in an apparently random line about not thinking about blue elephants, and I’m pretty confident that for the next couple of minutes nobody except the bride and groom managed to think about anything else at all. Apologies if you are now all busily pondering the same thing...May I call you back, for a minute or two at least?
You see, though the Bible famously reminds us not to be afraid 365 times, once for every day of the year, I must confess that much of the time I seem to be stuck on an recurrent leap day, the 366th , a day on which some degree of alarm is at least permissible. Over the past twelve months I’ve encountered similar feelings in more and more people, in a variety of contexts. Suddenly it seems that we have become a fearful society, aware of divisions and distress in our own communities, dreading terrorist action at home and abroad
Don’t mistake me.
Knowledge is good. There is nothing whatever to be gained by retreating, ostrich-like, to some sort of spurious safety in a world where everyone behaves beautifully and thinks exactly the same as we do. We may not be happier knowing how some of our neighbours feel about life in this country, with how much passionate intensity a handful of people seem to hate western values and lifestyles...but it is better, surely, to know. Even if it makes us fearful for a while.
The question is, then, whether fear is actually the enemy of faith, or a natural part of the human condition in a world which is often precarious and where suddenly there seems, to my mind at least, to be a critical shortage of wise, compassionate adults in charge. We’re told, of course, that perfect love casts out fear...but it doesn’t take more than a second to examine our own hearts and recognise that we’re a long long way from reaching that particular milestone. My love is partial, sometimes conditional, lacking that self-giving heart that would show that I am making some headway as a disciple of Christ. Honestly, there’s lots of room for fear to creep in
So, is Jesus being reasonable when he says THREE TIMES in just five verses “Have no fear” “Do not fear” “Do not be afraid”?
His outlne of what will lie ahead for the Christian community is far from reassuring. Listen.
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother….ones foes will be members of ones own household.
This isn't about Jews versus Christians. It's not about strangers betraying strangers. It's "all in the family," and far too close to home. And this is not, after all, surprising, because Jesus challenged his disciples – and STILL challenges US, to live into a new world order. It’s no longer families first (so perhaps it’s high time we renamed our Cathedral Children’s Church)…
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me
That’s kind of uncompromising, isn’t it. It suggests that actually we might need to risk upsetting people quite often, if we’re intent on being true to the gospel. As someone who’d cheerfully walk barefoot to Edinburgh to avoid conflict that’s something ELSE to be afraid of…
Frustratingly, being a disciple is not about being popular, even within our own famiies. Even within our own CHURCH family. It’s about justice and joy, challenge and choice. About courage and hopes and dreams and sacrifice..It’s not about keeping people happy. it’s about putting Christ first...loving Him beyond all….being willing to take all kinds of risks for his sake.
And it’s not that we have to put Jesus first to WIN his love...it’s important to be clear about that. God loves each one of us without condition and without reserve (it’s that perfect love that casts out fear again). But by putting Jesus first we open ourselves to RECEIVE that love which is constantly available...setting aside all the alternative treasures, the other sources of security that might seem, for a while at least, more appealing.
And he doesn’t promise us security in their place. Sometimes, indeed, things will seem to go utterly, hopelessly wrong. Our Old Testament reading gives us a glimpse of this. We find ourselves with Hagar and Ishmael, exiled through no fault of their own, - caught up in the mess and muddle and questionable relationships of Abraham, father of a great nation...Here’s an excellent example of a family at odds – despite Abraham’s regular conversations with God and his obedience to follow wherever God leads. Sarah has played the “lawful wedded wife” card and had Hagar and Ishmael banished so their presence won’t compromise the future for her precious Isaac. So we see mother and son at the very end of their resources, gazing at death…
And then God speaks and says it again. Those four little words which echo throughout Scripture...those words God whispers in our ear, if we can only calm ourselves enough to listen
“Do not be afraid”.
And God provides for them, in the midst of disaster. God meets their immediate need (there is water in the desert) and their existential need, too, for a lasting significance in the history of God’s people. God GETS what is important for them, and honours that...He does that for us too.
I love the last verses of the passage
“God was with the boy and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness”
God is with US as well, and invites us into mature, grown-up discipleship., calls us to be not greater than the teacher, but as like him as we can manage. And, whatever our own wilderness experiences of worry and doubt, of inadequacy and failure, of fear and more fear God is with us in that too.
We can’t predict where our discipleship may take us, though we can be pretty certain that it will not always be along pleasant paths. But we CAN predict that the God who keeps loving count of the flight and fall of the sparrow will be with us on every step of the journey, leading us all to everlasting life.
Do not be afraid. You are loved and God is with you.