Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Second Sunday before Lent - Lucy Gardner

Mosaic above the High Altar, Keble College Chapel

I wonder how you would feel if you met the remarkable figure John has been listening to. Just take a moment to picture him in your mind’s eye: he has white hair and eyes of flame; he has a long robe, tied with a golden girdle; his voice is like the sound of many rushing waters; he stands and walks amidst seven golden lampstands, and holds seven stars in his right hand; his feet are like burnished bronze; his face shines bright like the sun in full strength, and a sharp two-edged sword issues from his mouth.

Extraordinary. Awesome. Arresting. I wonder what you would do if you turned to see him coming towards you.

John fell at his feet as though dead. Sensible fellow, I think. Fear would seem a natural response. But like so many before him, John is gently corrected and reassured: 'Fear not!'

Fear not! Easier said than done, I think. Are not fear and awe and quite simply stupefication precisely what such occasions demand? But our natural response only gets us so far. For this awesome and terrible figure is someone John and we should recognise, and He does not want us to fear Him.

He is one like one of us; He is like a son of man; He is, it is true, Son of God; He is the First and the Last; but He is also the One who died and came to life; the One who died for us, and lives that we might live with Him. Like one of us, He likes us - He loves us! He calls us not to be afraid; He calls us to follow Him, just as He called those fishermen in Galilee, just as He called Saint John. He comes to be the Friend and Companion we fail to be for ourselves and each other; He is the helper entirely fit for us [see Genesis 2:18 and 20]; He comes to make us friends – friends of God and friends of each other.

He is, it is true, the Holy One, the True One; He is, it is true, the Amen, the faithful and true witness; but He is also Jesus: the baby born at Bethlehem, the young man fasting and tempted in the wilderness, the friend rent with grief at Lazarus’ death, the gentle healer and inspiring teacher.

‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’ Revelation 4:8 and:

‘Worthy art thou our Lord and God to receive glory and honour and power for thou didst create all things and by thy will they existed and were created!’ Revelation 4:11

Sadly, as ever, the Lectionary does not have room for the important twist in John’s tale of his vision. In the next chapter, a Lamb, standing as though it had been slain, a Lamb who is also the Lion of Judah, and the Root of David, appears between the throne and the winged creatures and takes the scroll which no one else can open. He, too, is now greeted by the elders together with the voice of thousands of thousands of angels singing new hymns:

‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’ Revelation 5:12

‘To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb, be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever. Amen.’ Revelation 5:13

John’s spectacular vision confirms for us what the Gospels in their more ordinary way so clearly suggest: the One who commanded spirits and they obeyed; the One who healed and forgave sins; the One who delivered new laws which did not undo the old; the One who commanded the wind and the waters and they obeyed; did so because he is One with God; indeed, He is so One with God that He is as worthy of all praise as God is, without taking anything from God.

In today’s Gospel, the disciples are perhaps just beginning to grasp this; they still have a long way to go. When the storm whips up, they are afraid. Who wouldn’t be? Is this not again that most natural response to the presence of awesome power?

But the problem with fear is that it drives out faith. They had enough faith to follow Christ, but now fear has made them forget to trust Him. And so they wake Him with their fear: ‘We’re going to die!’ they cry at Him. They forget to ask Him to deliver them; they hardly believe that He can. He proves their fear wrong and calms the storm, but wearily asks them ‘Where is your faith?’ Their fear had driven out faith, and now their fear of the storm is exchanged for a new fear of a mightier power: ‘Who is this? that even winds and water obey His command?’ How patient Christ is as their faith struggles to understand!

And how patient He is still: ‘Follow me!’ ‘Where is your faith?’ ‘Fear not!’ His address to us, one and all, is the same. He might or might not come to you in a long white robe with a golden girdle; He might or might not come to you with flashing lightning and rushing water; He might or might not come to you as a quiet voice within; He might or might not come to you in the life and work of another. But when He does come, He does not want you to fear Him: He wants to deliver you.

And if you are trying to follow Him, then like as not your little boat (like those of the Saints before you) will meet great and stormy waters. Fear not! Do not be afraid! The One who is God will be able to deliver you out of your distress [see e.g. Psalm 65:5] even if you forget to ask Him – though it would be better if you remembered to do so [see also e.g. Psalm 107:28]!

And He is just as patient still with the Church. She has been promised deliverance, but she is still impressively capable of making spectacular mistakes, of allowing her fear to drive out her faith, instead of allowing her faith to drive out her fear. Acting on fear can lead to all sorts of foolish mistakes. In the stormy seas of change and uncertainty, in the world and in the Churches, it is as important as ever to keep our eyes fixed on Christ and on God, instead of attending to ourselves and our myriad fears.

We need to remember to trust Christ and to pray for deliverance, daily; we need to learn to see how Christ is God, and in so many ways just like God - powerful and worthy of all praise; we also need to learn to see how God is part of Christ, and in so many ways just like Christ – loving and gently working with and for us.

Christ lived and died so that all might become friends – friends of God and friends of each other. God raised Him so that no one need ever be afraid of the shadow of death again. Eternal life is promised to those who exchange their fear for faith in Him. He tells us not to fear Him, for all that this is a natural and in some sense proper response. Indeed how should we fear Him, He is Love, and He longs for us to worship Him in love, not fear.

Instead of fearing for ourselves, we should be asking, what happens when faith drives out fear? What happens when we trust God in Christ to deliver us? And what happens to our lives together when they are truly shaped by His promise and His power to save?