My sermon from yesterday, inspirted in part by the book Following Jesus in a culture of Fear, by Scott Bader-Saye.
At beginning of every New Year we usually take a moment to look back, don’t’ we. Over the past few days you may have thought about what the year 2009 meant for you as an individually. More publicly, various newspapers and magazines and television stations have also recalled the events and personalities that shaped our collective existence in 2009. Of course much of what the media chooses to focus on has an air of unreality to it – many of the events and personalities they highlight have nothing really to do with our lives – but we remember nonetheless.
It was a varied year:
There was the inauguration of Barak Obama last January.
There was the death of Michael Jackson.
There was the Copenhagen conference on global warming.
There was Stephen Harper playing piano with Yoyo Ma at the National Arts Centre.
There was the continuing slowdown in the economy.
There was the crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River.
In terms of the public consciousness, the defining event of 2009 was probably the spread of the H1N1 flu virus. In terms of the public consciousness, the defining event of this past decade was probably the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Over the past week as I thought about these two defining events, and about how they shaped the public consciousness, it struck me that each of these events is very much bound up with the reality of fear. The attacks of 9/11were intended to evoke fear and there was certainly heightened fear of terrorist attacks in their wake. In the midst of the flu pandemic, of course, there was fear about disease and death.
Indeed throughout the past decade and year, fear has been in the air. And it is not only spectacular, mainly media-driven events that generate fear in us. At the outset of 2010 we have to acknowledge that we have become, in general, a fearful people. Although we live healthier lives than many in history, although we live longer, although we are less likely to die violent deaths, although we are wealthier than those of any other era, it seems that fear drives so much of our feeling and thinking and acting.
Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Let’s continue to think about this fear that has a grip on us. And why not start with H1N1. The fear over this flu virus was no doubt driven by the media. The media seem to relish anything that will put us on the edge of our seat. The media seem to relish anything that will get a fearful rise out of us. And it’s worth mentioning that the corporations owning the various media outlets profit financially when they can get more people tuning into their broadcasts. They long ago learned that nothing gets our attention like the fear factor. In 2009, H1N1 was the gift that kept on giving.
At the same time we cannot simply point the finger, for we are susceptible to this kind of media manipulation – we have fears upon which they can play. In the case of H1N1, not only were we afraid of catching this apparently dangerous flu, but we were also fearful about the vaccine. For many it was a catch twenty-two – do you get the vaccine and put yourself at risk of possible, though rare side effects – or do you take your chances with the virus, which seems to kill where least expected. Fear of the vaccine verses fear of the disease kept more than a few awake at night. Fear drove our behaviour – fear preoccupied our hearts and minds.
Philippians 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
We could take another example that is somewhat familiar to all of us – consider the task of parenting today. In many ways, today’s parents are driven by fear – yes, a fear that is manipulated and encouraged by the media and by pharmaceutical companies – even by toy manufacturers and by government. But a fear that is there to be played on.
We’re afraid to vaccinate kids, but afraid not to vaccinate them.
We’re afraid that our children will be snatched by a pedophile.
We’re afraid our children won’t keep up educationally with their peers.
We’re afraid our kids won’t be liked or accepted – they might be bullied.
We’re afraid our kids are eating food that might contain toxins.
So many parenting decisions today are not made from a position of confident joy – rather, decisions are pushed on us by the fear factor. We act, in a sense, negatively, trying to protect and provide security. And there are whole industries out there, just waiting to sell us safety and peace of mind – it can be bought for a price, they tell us.
We are afraid.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Apparently fear has always been a human reality – in some sense, you might even say that fear makes us human. Fear is a protective instinct, and in the face of violence or of some threat, fear drives us to take appropriate action – fear drives us to actions that preserve life, or protect us from harm. Fear is not unnatural. And yet the good news of Jesus Christ invites us to scrutinize our fears, to challenge our fears – to ask whether certain fears are consistent with our identity as those who belong to Jesus Christ; whether certain fears are consistent with our identity as those who are embraced and forgiven and set free through Christ.
Evidently, Christians have always also wrestled with fear – we are not immune. The fact that Paul encourages the Philippian Christians not to worry, suggests of course, that they were worried. In their case, it seems that they were fearful about conflict within the church and fearful of opposition they faced from without. But in the midst of their worry and fear, Paul brings a word of joy and of peace. To us, in the midst of a culture of fear – to us in our fear-driven lives, Paul brings a word of joy and peace.
The message that Paul brings to us as we enter the year 2010 is that God wants us to be a people of confident joy, rather than a people of useless fear.
There is a refrain that echoes through out the Bible, a refrain we heard this Christmas and Advent season:
The angel says to Zechariah: “Don’t be afraid.”
The angel says to Mary: “Don’t be afraid.”
The angel says to the Shepherds: “Don’t be afraid.”
Elsewhere in the scriptures God says to Abraham: “Don’t be afraid.”
Moses says to God’s people: “Don’t be afraid.”
God’s speaks to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “Don’t be afraid.”
Jesus says to his disciples: “Don’t be afraid.”
The year ahead, 2010, will present plenty of opportunities for fear, living as we do in a culture of fear. And in this January day the voice of God comes to us: Don’t be afraid. Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, Rejoice
Let’s be clear that Paul’s words aren’t simply a challenge to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps – “You’re trapped in fear – well, get yourself out of it. Come on, you can generate a more positive spirit. You can give yourself the gift of joy.” No, that’s not at all what Paul is saying.
Rather, Paul comes to remind us of who we are. He comes to remind us of what is going on around us – things we may have forgotten. He doesn’t just want us to have a wonderful life – he wants us to be true to our identity and true to what is most real in our lives and world.
What is it that Paul wants us to see? Above all he wants us to see, as he puts it, that the Lord is near.
There is a double meaning in these words – on the one hand these words take us back to Advent, and our hopeful expectation of Christ’s coming. The Lord is near, in the sense that the person and kingdom of Jesus is coming to us and to our world:
a kingdom in which the darkness will be decisively displaced;
a kingdom in which peace will prevail for all people;
a kingdom in which fear will be forever put to flight.
In this sense, Paul says that when we acknowledge that Christ is coming, that his kingdom is coming, then everything that causes us fear will be seen in a different light. To acknowledge that the final word for our lives and our world belongs to the loving Jesus Christ, is to put in their proper perspective the things that cause us fear. In many cases, it is to undo the fear that holds us. In the light of Christ’s nearness, many fears may fall away.
On the other hand, these words of Paul are also a reminder that even now the Lord is near to us. Even now our gracious, loving, risen Lord stands with us and among us. Whether you are anxious about H1N1, or anxious about finding work, or anxious about your children, or anxious about dying, or anxious about where life is taking you – whatever happens (whether your worst case scenario comes to pass or not) your gracious Lord is near, and will not abandon you. The Lord is near. His presence with us puts in a different light the things that cause us fear – he gives us courage, and confidence, and joy in the face of those things that might otherwise have led us into very real fear.
In writing to the Philippians, Paul doesn’t only remind them of Christ’s presence. He also invites them to action. He says: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Paul invites us to action – indeed to a particular practice – to the practice of prayer.
The Lord is near – and the obvious implication of Christ’s nearness is this – speak with him.
And this is not a merely an invitation to us as individuals. We live in a culture of fear, and as mere individuals we may well not have strength to resist the seductive power of fear – to resist those who profit from our fear. In any case, the truth is that we are not simply individuals – we are those who belong to and with each other. We are Body of Christ, and we cannot live the life of faith, cannot live lives of service, without one another. We are in it together. And that is true also when it comes to the question of fear. In the face of our fears we as a community of faith are invited, together, to the practice of prayer: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
We are not necessarily very good at speaking our very real fears to one another. Fear is a very public reality in our culture – yet in our culture we are also left very much on our own to deal with our fears. And unfortunately this remains the case also in the church. But as we step forward and take that risk with one another – as we give voice to our fears with one another – we might also reach out together to the God who is near. As we share our fears we might, with thanksgiving, reach out to the God who loves us in Christ Jesus – we might, with thanksgiving, reach out to the one who can calm our fears, who can slow our racing pulse, who wants to take our clammy hands into his own warm, dry, strong hands.
For many of us, sharing our fears in this way, and praying together in a personal way, will itself represent a great risk. It is not something that can be forced – it’s something that must simply happen, naturally if you will, as we become attentive to the moving of God’s Spirit, and as we endeavour to fulfill God’s loving intention for us.
The promise is that as we share our fears in this way, as we resist the culture of fear, and as we together seek the Lord who is near, God’s peace will stand sentry over our hearts and minds. It’s a wonderful image Paul gives us. When we together reach out to the God who is near, the promise is that God will bless us with the gift of peace – peace will stand guard over our hearts and minds. We will become, in the midst of a culture of fear, a community of confident joy. That’s the promise and the invitation Paul extends. A promise and invitation we are free to grasp with hope as we enter this New Year.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.