Sermons from St Faith's   


Fr Dennis Smith, Low Sunday, 3rd April, 2016

Fear is a very powerful emotion. There are many descriptions of it in the bible, since it’s common to human beings at every point in history. It was President Franklin Roosevelt, in his famous inaugural address of 4th March 1933, who said: ‘…first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ and who went on to describe it as ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’

Fear isn’t just in the mind; it brings physical symptoms, such as trembling, and gut-wrenching feelings resulting in physical sickness. Under the pressure of fear human beings do foolish and even wicked things. Who has never been afraid? Those who are never afraid are the foolhardy. Fear plays a positive role in helping us avoid accidents as much as a negative role in paralysing our thinking. We have to learn how to live with our fears, to control them when they get out of hand but also to use them in assessing what risks we can take. Fear isn’t just an individual trait. Fear can grip groups of people or whole communities. What we would term mass hysteria can make a group of people behave irrationally and even show symptoms of physical illness.

The story of the closing of the Red Sea in Exodus gives two examples of this. First we have the Israelites, happy to escape from slavery until they find the Egyptian army on their trails. They are a defenceless group of refugees being pursued by an army with state of the art technology, not least cavalry and chariots, which could wreak havoc as they cut through an unarmed crowd.

The first thought of the Israelites is that they were better as slaves than dead. That is fear talking. It’s also faithlessness. “If you believe God has brought you this far,” says Moses, “why do you doubt God’s power to deliver us from danger?” Moses, who of course, has already seen the ups and downs of his own life as evidence of God’s power, calls on the people to keep faith and not be afraid.

Now God enters into the conversation, asking what all the fuss is about. Moses is given instructions about how to get the people over the sea and God promises that the Egyptians will be defeated.

The familiar story then unfolds. Moses holds out his staff over the water, a strong east wind parts the sea and the Israelites cross without wetting their feet. This all looks too easy to the Egyptians, who chase them.

The sea bed may have supported the Israelites as they went through on foot but it clogs the chariot wheels and clings to the horses’ hooves. The Egyptians begin to have doubts about the wisdom of this pursuit. Then the wind drops and now it’s the Egyptians who asre afraid. The waters are closing in again and they cannot make their escape. Neither the Egyptians for the Israelites are in any doubt that it is God who has brought about this situation. The ancient song of Miriam rejoices in the power of a God who has cast the horse and his rider into the sea.

Archaeologists, Biblical scholars and historians may still argue over whether any of this happened as it’s described, but that isn’t the point. this is a story which makes sense in the same way that the story of David and Goliath makes sense. Evil is real and sometimes it prevails but sometimes it doesn’t. The story was important to the first Christians, who saw in God’s miraculous act at the Red Sea a parallel for the deliverance Jesus Christ had experienced in his resurrection. This gave them confidence in the face of the continued opposition of their Jewish contemporaries to Jesus and his followers.

Forbidden to preach in the name of Jesus, the Apostles escape from prison and teach in the Temple; brought before the High Priest and the Council, they are again accused of breaking the law. Peter believes that God made possible this resurrection of Jesus and that to deny that is to deny God. He bases his case on the argument that he must obey God rather than men.

The apostles are perilously close to being executed when Gamaliel argues that making martyrs of them will serve no good purpose. Better to let them go, because if God is not with them their movement will soon collapse, and if God is with them, the Council will have made a terrible mistake.

Peter and the Apostles remain unafraid. They are flogged and strictly ordered not to preach again. They were happy to suffer and went on with their public ministry The rear in this situation was all with the Council, which is why they tried to repress the Apostles. 

Fear’s first cousin is doubt. What was Thomas afraid of when the others told him they had seen the risen Christ? His insistence on some physical proof suggests he was afraid they were hallucinating or letting their hope rule their reason. We are never told if, when he too saw Jesus, he actually did reach out his hand to touch the wounds. We know that he believed and that Jesus forgave him but also pointed out that faith in his resurrection wasn’t dependent on physical proof. Faith is what Moses had in spite of the approaching army. Doubt is what the Israelites had, in spite of their miraculous escape from Egypt. Faith is what Peter had after Pentecost; doubt is what the Council had when confronted with the unknown.

We are human, so we know what it is to be afraid and have doubts. Our bad experiences often threaten to overwhelm our good ones. We need to reach a sober estimate of ourselves and our own characters.

When John Bunyan, imprisoned as he was in Bedford Gaol for 12 years, wrote his “Pilgrim’s Progress” he gave us a range of Christian believers, including the fearful and timorous, as well as the valiant and faithful. That’s how it’s always been. Whatever our temperament, we need to overcome fear if it’s not to overcome us.

Throughout the centuries Christians have found that a good beginning is to go on praising God, through all the changing scenes of life. Anything truly wonderful is also truly terrifying. The love of God in Christ Jesus would be worth far less if God were not awful, in the strict meaning of that word. Fear of unknown terrors can paralyse us. Fear of the God whose power and love we have seen in Christ Jesus can transform us to live in true freedom and with love for one another.

That’s why our discipleship commits us not only to bear witness to the Gospel but also to give time and energy to thanksgiving and praise.

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