September 9, 2018/Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Richard E. Holmer
First Lesson: Isaiah 35:4-7a/Second Reading: James 2:1-10, 14-17/Gospel: Mark 7:24-37
The Lord instructs the prophet Isaiah to speak a word “to those who are of a fearful heart.” Isaiah is preaching to a people living in exile – far from home and wondering if they will ever be able to return. Picture refugees today who have fled from horror and disaster in Syria. Or recall those Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days, beginning in 1979. For such people the present reality is disjointed and disconnected from all that is familiar and comfortable. The future is vague at best and threatening at worst. Centuries after Isaiah Jesus preached to his fellow Israelites who were living under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire. They were occupied by Caesar’s army, with no sign of relief. Certainly there were many fearful hearts.
I have a boyhood memory of the 1959 film version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It tells the story of two Jewish families living in hiding for over two years in an attic in Amsterdam. They lived in constant danger of being discovered by the Nazis. They could see other Jews being marched through the street below. They had to maintain absolute silence during the daytime so as not to be noticed by those who worked below. Continuing peril was a fact of life. I can recall the chill I felt at the sound of the police sirens as they finally came to arrest Anne and her family.
Have you had times in your life when you lived with fear – times when you had reason to be afraid? In premarital counseling sessions I ask couples a question: Do you remember a time when your fiancé was afraid? Most can recall such a time. If not, I assure them that such moments will surely come at some point in their life together. It’s inevitable. What is it to have a fearful heart? It’s when your six week old son ends up in the emergency room with meningitis. It’s when you are suddenly out of work and you have a family to support. It’s when you feel trapped in a dreadful situation, like a terrible job or an abusive relationship. It’s when your health is in jeopardy due to a diagnosis with a serious disease like cancer or ALS or Alzheimer’s. It’s when you’re lost – whether you are literally lost out in the woods or in a bad part of town – or figuratively lost, having lost your way in life, your sense of purpose and meaning. People live with fears about the environment: floods, hurricanes, wild fires, climate change, pollution. There are fears about what could happen with the economy: taxes, stock market, social security, housing prices. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald described living in fear as “the long, dark night of the soul, when it’s always three o’clock in the morning – day after day.” To live in fear – even for a short while – is debilitating. Fear saps our energy and clouds our imagination. Fear can actually be paralyzing – we freeze up, like a deer in headlights. When our own hearts are fearful it becomes difficult to see beyond the present moment. We can get stuck in an endless series of “what if?” questions.
What message does God give to Isaiah to speak to those who are of a fearful heart? “Be strong, do not fear.” “Here is your God.” “He will come and save you.” At times when we’re afraid, it’s good to remember God. Keeping God in the picture changes the dynamics of our situation. If the future depended entirely on us, there would be ample cause to be afraid. Recalling that God is with us empowers us to move from living in fear to daring to live in hope. Our Psalm today offers wisdom on where to look for hope in perilous times: “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in and child of earth, for there is no help in them. Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! Whose hope is in the Lord their God.” The Psalm goes on to recount that it is the Lord “who gives justice to the oppressed and food to those who hunger.” “The Lord sets the prisoners free, the Lord opens the eyes of the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.” “The Lord cares for the stranger, he sustains the orphan and the widow.” God is faithful. God has a track record. God has promised to save us. God does not promise us a life without difficulties and burdens, without pain and grief. However, God does promise to preserve us through whatever comes – including death. Therefore, as another Psalm affirms, “we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea.” (Psalm 46:2) This world is full of uncertainty, threats and dangers. Bad things happen to good people. Nevertheless, we do not have to live in fear. In all circumstances we are sustained by the steadfast love of God.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is often repeated during the season of Advent. A verse from an Advent hymn by Marty Haugen speaks to the way that God’s grace can reach us in our darkest and most anxious moments:
“In darkest night his coming shall be,
When all the world is despairing,
As morning light so quiet and free,
So warm and gentle and caring.
Then shall the mute break forth in song,
The lame shall leap in wonder,
The weak be raised above the strong,
And weapons be broken asunder.”
In the film of the Diary of Anne Frank, the climax comes when the German police come and break through the bookcase that leads to where the families have been hiding. At that point Anne’s father, Otto Frank, says something quite remarkable: “For the past two years we have lived in fear. Now we can live in hope.” Although what they feared most had come to pass, they determined they would no longer live their days in fear but in hope. When my brother was diagnosed with cancer, we rode for several months on a roller coaster of uncertainty and fear, alternating with hopes for healing and recovery. Many of you know what that’s like. When he died last May, there was no more reason to fear. What remains is the hope for resurrection and reunion with those we love. It is better to live in hope than in fear. Czechoslovakian writer Vaclav Havel lived under the communist regime in his homeland. Because of his opposition to the regime he spent several years in prison. Following the end of communist rule, he was elected and served for ten years as the first president of the Czech Republic. Havel offers an interesting insight into the nature of hope: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Things may not go as we like in the short term. Nevertheless, it is better to live in hope than to live in fear. Our fears can make us self-centered, concerned only for our own welfare. Hope frees us to act in love and service to others. There is nothing to be gained by being fearful. When our hearts are full of love instead of fear, life is worth living – and we are able to be a blessing to others. God is the source of our lasting hope – hope that outlives our fears and gives us the strength to be a blessing to others.
I am encouraged by the closing verse of Marty Haugen’s Advent hymn:
“Rejoice, rejoice, take heart in the night,
Though dark the winter and cheerless;
The rising sun shall crown you with light,
Be strong and loving and fearless.
Love be our song and love our prayer,
And love our endless story;
May God fill every day we share
And bring us at last into glory.
Even so, Amen