A Sermon by Rev Peter Coley 10.15am 10 July 2016
Readings: 1 Kings 19:1-15a, Galatians 3:23-end, Luke 8:26-39
If there is one characteristic that seems to sum up our world at present it is the word fear. It is there at all levels. The fear of terrorist attack, the fears over the future of our country, the fears of immigration, of the environment as we see more chunks of ice fall off the ice shelf, the fear that we are ever falling away from what we might call Christian values in our society, the fear of self image and the rise of selfies, the fear of failure that leads to mounting stress at work and in the classroom, fear of what others are saying about us or know about us with the power of social media, we could all add many more to this list. This is nothing new of course, many of these causes of fear have been with us from earliest of times, yet with the transformation of communications, and technological advancement, and the lack of direction that a more secular outlook has developed, those fears are multiplying.
How are we as Christians in this world meant to respond?
Let’s see how today’s readings may help us as we look at three aspects of fear. First, fear generated by hostility, discouragement and failure, secondly fear generated by lack of identity, and thirdly fear generated by change, even change directed by God!
1. Elijah – fear of failure
Elijah was a mighty man of God with enormous faith and trust in his God. He had sought almost single handedly to rid the nation of idolatry, that recurring problem that God’s people seem to have had all through the ages. After the amazing events on Mount Carmel where God had so clearly and decisively revealed himself as the true and living God, and where an apparently decisive victory had been claimed over the prophets of Baal, we find Elijah running away in fear and trepidation from the wrath of the kings wife Jezebel who was determined to be rid of him.
He runs and runs into the desert curls up under a bush and pleads with the Lord to take his life. ‘I’ve had enough. Just let me die here, I’m no better than my ancestors, being your prophet is too hard’. He is exhausted and utterly dejected. And who can blame him, after all he had faithfully served God, seen God’s power at work, done all he could to honour God’s name – all to no avail. As far as he could see he had achieved nothing, except to stir up the anger of the queen. Quite rightly I suggest he is utterly despondent, discouraged, with more than a bit of depression rolled in!!!
As is so often the case it is from this very low point that God begins to act in his personal life. First he looks after his physical needs and gives him food and a good sleep! Next he takes care of his spiritual needs and calls him to Mount Sinai, that familiar meeting place with God and has a counselling session with his prophet. Elijah pours out his heart to God, his disappointment at his people’s response and the sense that he is the only one left! I believe a sense of isolation can be a common feature of depression. And now God reveals himself again to his prophet not in the hurricane as he shakes the mountain, nor in the fire so evident at Mount Carmel, but in a new way, a quiet unspectacular way, in a gentle healing breeze, that he recognises as God’s presence. The healing of the spirit, by being in the presence of the spirit. More counselling from God, and finally Elijah unburdens his deepest fear – that he has failed as God’s servant, he will leave no legacy from his life, Israel will continue along its wayward path. Or so it seems.
But God is God. We are his servants and all he requires of us is faithfulness.
And so God ministers to this great man and deals with his emotional needs in the fullest way you can imagine. He gives him assurance that his work has not been in vain, that God’s work will continue. How does he do that?
First God tells him to go back to Damascus and anoint Hazael king of Syria,- he will deal with God’s enemies who worship Baal.
Secondly,he tells him to anoint Jehu, king of Israel, he will deal with God’s enemies within the nation itself.
And finally, he is to anoint Elisha as his successor. He will continue to speak God’s word after you have gone.
Oh and by the way Elijah, don’t think for a moment that you are alone, or your work is in vain, there are still 7000 of my people who have not worshipped Baal.
I am told that one of the biggest reasons men and women leave the ministry, is through discouragement, and a sense of failure.
I served as a curate on a council estate in Norwich. We had one relatively new church with a strong evangelical tradition. I shared a very close relationship with my vicar in a very urban setting and after 5 years took up my first post as Rector. It was to a group of three churches in the Long Stratton area in rural Norfolk, each one having a different churchmanship. Our only ‘upfront’ human resources were Annie, who had recently trained as a Reader, and myself.
When you start off in a post all kinds of decisions have to be made, often without much background knowledge or even experience. Suddenly you are into a world of graveyards, medieval buildings high expectations that things may change for the better, but no one actually wanting change! Norfolk people don’t do change! With four services a Sunday on occasions, with very different congregations, it was a recipe for disaster for a new rector!
So after a year I found myself, exhausted and fearful and bordering on depression.
And then a number of things happened. I sought the help of the diocesan counsellor- being able to talk and reflect is always helpful and the counsellor was highly skilled.
Secondly I won the guess the height of the glider competition at the fete in one of my churches – the prize being a trip in a glider. I was taken up and we glided all over the parish and looking down on those churches I was given a new perspective on things- that I was part of something much bigger – that it didn’t all depend on me, and perhaps came a bit closer to God’s perspective!
Thirdly, some time later I had a visit from the Bishop of Norwich quite unexpectedly, who offered some simple words of encouragement. He shared that there were times when he felt overwhelmed in his post, when he would look at the cathedral and say to himself, well its been here for hundreds of years it will still be here long after I’ve departed!! God is gracious all he expects from us is faithfulness, faith in the long term – for none of us can know what legacy we leave, none of us can truly know how effective our lives have been, but if we are faithful, God is faithful to us.
Fear of failure and the faithful God with whom we can never fail, if we remain faithful.
2. Our fear of not belonging, our search for identity…..
Our need for identity is a vital one. That sense of belonging that starts in early years is so important in defining who we are, because we are made in the image of God whose very essence is relational we are made for deep abiding relationships.
Compare that with the pioneer church that Paul was writing to in Galatians. They were trying to form their identity by following various leaders, with the result that the church was in danger of disintegrating into factions. As new believers they were leaving behind their old identity, so naturally they were fearful of wanting to know who they were in the new order of things – since they had encountered the spirit of God. Paul says you are all now children of God through your baptism, you have put on the character of Christ, he is your new identity, no matter who you are and what your background. Your identity starts with being in Christ, knowing as deeply as you can the immense love of God, that is where your identity lies secure.
Two Sundays ago we worshipped in a very young Iranian Church in Denizli in Turkey. It was very exciting worshipping with young Christians who had come from Muslim backgrounds. They were having to struggle with a new identity. After all 1400 years of Muslim influence, cannot easily be cast aside. They needed to be deeply rooted in Christ to survive.
The leader of the church there had spent time in jail in Iran for being a leader of a house church. She came before a sharia court and was told to denounce her faith and return to Islam or have her child who was three at the time taken from her. She could not desert her Jesus, and sadly the child was taken from her and now resides with the father who was a Christian but reverted to being a Muslim. It is 12 years now since she saw her daughter and every day she prays that she would be re-united with her. She passed through a period of depression whilst in jail as you can imagine but never lost her identity in Christ. Today she is a robust loving, joyful, humble servant of God, carrying a deep sorrow yet bearing the beauty of a person who knows Jesus and experiences his amazing love. Our true identity we find in knowing Jesus personally.
3. Jesus and the fear of Change
We stand on the brink of a massive potential change in our country. None of us know what the outcome of Brexit may mean for us either in the short term or the long term, personally or nationally.
Here in today’s gospel we stand on the verge of a great change. Jesus is about to encounter a deeply disturbed man and a vexed community with whom he lives on the margins. Jesus by the power of God is about to bring change to the man as he is healed in his mind and change to the neighbourhood as they will no longer be terrorised by him. It must have been a scary encounter as Jesus comes against the powers of darkness in this man and brings wholeness to him. But it comes at a cost to the local farmers as the local pig stock is suddenly reduced. We notice the contrast between the man and the villagers as they stare in unbelief at what had taken place. The man has been healed and wants to stay close to Jesus the source of that healing. The villagers understand what has been done for this man, yet it would appear are struck with fear rather than thanksgiving at his restoration. So much so that they beg Jesus to leave. One begs to be with him, the others beg him to go away.
The people couldn’t be sure of him after all could they? And if the pig market is destroyed today what might happen tomorrow? Yet here was the very presence of God bringing healing and restoration in their midst. The one who came to bring life and light, demonstrated in the healing of this man.
Could it be that we don’t want to get too close to Jesus in case he upsets the status quo in our lives? Yet if we are to find the true life and the true light then this is surely one fear we need to set aside. Jesus may well bring change, but it is always to enable us to find healing and wholeness and life in all its fullness. Don’t let the fear of the unknown rob you of that life and opportunity.
A few years back a close relative was facing a major illness in her life. She had had a difficult life having made some bad choices in life partners. Many years before she and her two small children came to stay with us for a year whilst she got sorted out. I can remember sharing with her something of how the Lord could help her and I remember her saying at the time ‘It may work for you Peter but not for me’. The serious illness had generated a lot of fear as you can imagine in her heart, and now many years later she came to visit us but this time she was wanting help spiritually. After sharing the gospel of Jesus with her she said a prayer and asked Jesus into her life. God almost immediately brought about a change in her. From that time on and through her illness she found a new dimension to her life. She has gone from strength to strength, and phoned up a few weeks ago to say she was able to share what God was doing in her life in her local church. She is a new person and we thank God for her and the closeness particularly Annie enjoys with her today. For years she feared the change that Jesus would bring, she had begged him to go away until one day she begged him to stay.
Fear of failure, fear of not belonging, fear of change, is there one that speaks to you?
John tells us in his gospel that perfect love drives out fear, and I guess that is why we are still fearful, because we are still learning how to love, and be loved.
Some of Jesus last words to his disciples were ‘do not fear, only believe, I am with you always’ Will we listen to Him?