In the past few days I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the whole notion of fear: what it means, what terms we use - being scared, terrified, ‘be afraid, be very afraid’ – and what makes one experience tip over to a different level of fear?
Last Sunday evening some of you may have watched Dr Who Live – when the actor who is to play the 12th Dr was revealed. Many of you will, like me, have had the experience as a child, of watching Dr Who from behind hands cupped over your eyes as the Daleks made yet another unwelcome appearance on the scene; this was scary stuff – and I was often afraid.
Some of you will recall the fear I experienced when I was told my father was seriously ill and journeyed with him through his rapid decline towards. Each time I visited him I feared it would be the last – and I still weep when I talk of his last days. They were peaceful, but oh, the aching fear of losing him.
We will each have different experiences of the things that frighten us – and I think one of the hardest things to admit as a Christian is that sometimes we are afraid. We know we aren’t meant to be afraid – because ‘God is with us’ and, ‘Jesus has walked the way before us’. Still though, for many of us there are times when this emotion dominates all. It is my experience, and I imagine it will be so for some of you too.
What do we do then with this disparity of what we feel and what we are apparently told not to feel?
We hear today of God telling Abraham and Jesus telling the disciples not to be afraid. ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’
In context, Abram has already accepted the invitation of God to journey out into the desert. Abram and his wife Sarai have nowhere else to turn – except back, perhaps. They are old though, and they have no children; they have travelled to a different area to their main travelling companion. They are far from home, in the wilderness with no-one to care for them in their advancing years. We, with them, might well ask, ''What hope is there for them?'
It is into this situation of apparent hopelessness that God speaks, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ Now Abram has trusted God already – can he trust him still? Is there enough evidence to testify to the truth of God’s promises upon which to base an on-going trust? The promise of descendants more numerous as the stars I find most moving – and I wonder what Abram made of this. In a nation where the gift of children was so important, this promise of God’s must have been beguiling. Was there evidence enough though to trust God – and overcome the fear of death in a desert, fear of death with no children to follow, fear of appearing foolish to those who might hear of them in years to come?
Evidence is something we all desire, let’s face it – and I don’t imagine Abram was any different, nor the disciples either.
The disciples were told, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’ They are told not to be afraid in the face of Jesus inviting them to live a different kind of life, to walk a different pathway and to turn their backs on the ways of the world that demand treasure and glory in this world rather than in the next.
Rather like the way in which Abram had been asked to step out into a different kind of existence from the one he knew, the disciples were being asked to do the same. Giving up their worldly possessions, not relying on the goods and belongings that this world holds as valuable, trusting in God to provide for their needs – this was counter-cultural and demanding. How had Jesus proved himself? What evidence had he given his followers that his word was trustworthy and that the promises he made were ones that could assist them to put their fears aside?
These are the kind of questions so many people in our world ask – and we may well ask them too. What evidence is there? How can I trust when I am not certain or sure? What do I do when I am afraid?
I offer three points to lead to an answer.
Perhaps the first thing to notice is that God notices: God notices Abram is afraid and Jesus notices the fear of the disciples. God gives heed to our experience and faces it head on. God knows Abram must be afraid, Jesus knows the disciples must be afraid: God knows the reality of our existence and knows that there will be times of fear and anxiety. I believe it is empathy with our experience that makes God speak into it.
Secondly, God calls Abram by name and Jesus calls the disciples his little children. The relationship God has with each of us is one based on intimacy – where God knows us and responds in love to our needs. Jesus says, it is the father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom – love and continued blessing is what God desires to give us – always.
Thirdly and, perhaps, most importantly for us who come after – God makes good on his promises. God sticks with it and with us and brings good things to us – in time and in eternity. God doesn’t make the bad things go away, but God walks with us in the “night time of our fear” as we sing in the lovely song, ‘Brother, Sister let me serve you.’ Abram received what was promised to him, and the disciples continued to grow in faith and understanding, as well as being able to perform amazing miracles and teach people amazing things.
So being afraid is real, being frightened is real, being scared is real. The call to not be afraid is not a call to dismiss our fears but rather to let God be in it all, with us – in the messiness and confusion – for it is where he longs to be and where he has promised to be: “Lo, I am with you, even to the end of the age” Jesus said to the disciples – knowing something of what was to come to them as they travelled to share the gospel.
So if you do have times of fear – and I do too – remember these things: God notices you, God knows you, God wills for your good. Things may not change quickly; they may not change much at all – but God is right in there with you, whatever is going on. The reality of our human existence means that fear is part of life – but we do not have to go it alone.
One of my favourite verses is: 1 Corinthians 10:13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
The ‘way out’ for me is living with the knowledge that God loves me – unutterably and beyond measure. It doesn’t mean I am never afraid, rather it means that I trust God is on my side. I pray that, when you are afraid, this is something that you also may be able to believe. Amen.