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The Fear of God

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, 21st August, 2016

The writer to the Hebrew Christians had an unbelievably difficult task to convince people steeped in religious faith and ritual that they were free to live in a new time, with a new set of priorities and a completely new outlook on religion.

It’s far easier to convince secular folk with no pretensions of holiness and no baggage from the past to step into a faith dimension than to undo centuries of religious legalism and generations of cultural taboos. 

Of course, not all people immersed in Judaism were prisoners of religiosity. Not all Hebrew children had lost the joy of freedom and faith. But sadly, the writer to the Hebrews seems to have had to address a particularly intransigent community.

He was immensely sympathetic to their situation. He knew where they were coming from. He cherished the long catalogue of Hebrew ‘saints’ whose lives had inspired the Jewish nation from century to century. He wasn’t trying to negate their much-loved past. But he was passionate about releasing them from the miserable strangle-holds that some of its laws and ordinances had laid upon the faithful.

He knew that Jesus had come to call the world to enter a new age. Jesus’ very name linked him with Joshua and all the saviours of the distant past.

Jesus had wept over Jerusalem. He deeply loved his people and their cherished past. He was a Hebrew. And yet he encountered prisoners wherever he went. People without joy. People carrying huge burdens. People weighed down by petty religious legalism. People in fear.

A great deal of this fear was rooted in their understanding of the personality of God. They had been taught that God was remote and untouchable. Holiness had ceased to be a simple offering of respect to their God. God had become like a raging fire you couldn’t dare to approach. The God of the burning bush had developed into a God of dread and wrath.

Jesus saw people who were wounded and weary. Sabbath regulations, rules about diet and cleanliness, rituals for washing and eating, had multiplied like cancer cells with frightening consequences. The Rabbi from Nazareth was steeped in compassion and his Galilean ministry would proclaim a Kingdom of God which was radical and refreshing. Luke was a doctor and he knew the pain people suffered. He was determined that the Gospel that bears his name would be Good News of great joy for all peoples.

Today our Gospel reading from that Good News book focused on a dear but desperately sad woman crippled physically and spiritually. She was bent over in pain and in anguish. Her eyes hadn’t been raised to the heavens or to look into any compassionate human eyes. Jesus’ words of healing and hope had an immediate effect. She straightened up. Her spine must have uncurled and her eyes must have seen a new world to embrace. And then just as she was taking in the wonder of this new experience, the grating voice of the leader of the synagogue shattered the sunrise. It was the Sabbath. No person was allowed to be resurrected on the Sabbath! She had become the victim of an evil act. Religious laws had to come before the freeing of sufferers from their calamities. People imprisoned in winter darkness were not allowed to see the light.

St Luke tells us that Jesus’ reaction was immediate and strong. “You hypocrites!” Jesus thundered. “You treat animals better than humans on your precious Sabbath. Get a life!” Jesus had come to proclaim a new age, a new Kingdom and a new understanding of God. God wasn’t to be thought of as an unapproachable fire but as a warm and tender shepherd. God cherished his children, especially when they were caught up in suffering and fear.

So Luke’s prime purpose is to unfold the story of a God who, in and through his chosen child Jesus, would “preach good news to the poor, proclaim deliverance to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.”

A religion is no good whatsoever unless it brings a new sense of freedom and deliverance. Jesus knew that. Luke knew that. The person or persons who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrew Christians knew that.

So it’s time to return to that very difficult reading from Hebrews chapter 12. It starts off: “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, gloom and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words make the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” In other words, “It’s time to get rid of that dark and fearful idea of God which makes you into a prisoner and guilt-ridden, bent-over human being. The writer is saying: “It’s time to uncurl your spine. It’s time to enter a new age. It’s time to be a grateful, gracious, child of God again.”

That’s good news! The new city, the new Zion, is not a place of gloom and dread. It’s a community of the new-born children who are called into a Kingdom of festivity and joy. The mediator of the new covenant, Jesus himself, has prepared the way for this new beginning. What’s needed is the courage to step across the threshold and enter this new community of love, of shalom, and of joy.

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke says that the crowd had a glimpse of this new vision after the healing of the crippled woman and the fearless words Jesus threw at the religious elite. They “rejoiced at the wonderful things he was doing”. The Kingdom, which Jesus came to display and which later writers affirmed, wouldn’t be weak and wishy-washy, because it was based upon compassion. The author to the Hebrews says it would be unshakable. “Therefore, since we are receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe...”  Then he adds a final touch: “for indeed our God is a consuming fire”.

Well, well. We’ve come full circle. God’s compassionate and loving presence still leaves much which needs transforming, renewing, resurrecting. There are still backs to straighten. There are still eyes to look into. There is still a Kingdom work to engage our lives and spirits.

Nothing, however, can stop the joy, and no one can dampen the festive songs.

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