Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
As an old year splutters to an end and a new year comes relentlessly closer, we may be filled with hope or with fear – or perhaps with a fluctuating mixture of the two.
It would be a very rare individual indeed who did not know the meaning of the word fear. It’s sometimes thought that courage is the absence of fear but the total absence of fear is probably some kind of pathological condition – not a virtue at all.
All psychologically healthy, or at least psychologically normal, people experience fear. Health and normality may not be quite the same thing.
In a homespun kind of way I reckon there are three types of fear. Mine is no doubt a somewhat crude analysis but just indulge me for a while.
Firstly, there’s the perfectly wholesome fear that prevents us from doing ourselves harm. We are afraid to put our hand into an open fire because it will cause us pain as well as physical damage.
We afraid to stand in front of a bulldozer going at full pelt because we have an inkling that it wouldn’t end well for us.
This kind of fear can no doubt be taken too far – it could stop us flying for example or even leaving the house – but basically it’s beneficial to us.
Then there’s a kind of existential fear that results from the general human condition. We may be afraid of the future, of the unknown, of the dark, of death. We may contemplate the forces of nature and contrast them with our own essential defencelessness. We may contemplate the size of the universe and be made afraid by our own insignificance and vulnerability. We may fear illness, pain, physical diminishment and old age.
And finally there’s the fear that resides entirely in our own heads – things like; the fear of feeling inferior to others, of being ridiculed, of losing face or status, the fear of failure or of weakness. The list is potentially endless.
Now, it would be idle to suppose that we can ever be fully rid of fear in our lives. We are only human after all, limited creatures and at the mercy of so many factors beyond our control – even within ourselves and yet, seemingly, also beyond our control.
No doubt, there are other types of fear than the ones I’ve outlined but I hope you get the general idea: some fears are inevitable, even beneficial; some are perhaps understandable and some are due to our psychological frailty.
Now, let me change tack for a moment.
In different ways both our readings today are about children and therefore about hope. Our gospel gives us a few details about the life of the infant Jesus and the reading from Galatians tells us about our adoption, through Jesus, as children of God.
There’s a story – apparently true – of a newborn baby being brought home for the first time. His four-year old sister tells her parents, ‘I want to talk to my new little brother alone’. So be it. But the parents put their ears to the nursery door. They hear the little girl saying to her baby brother, “Quick, tell me who made you. Tell me where you came from. I’m beginning to forget!”
That four-year old girl was beginning to grow up – to become disconnected.
In a sense you could say that Jesus is the boy who never grew up! Or rather Jesus is the boy who grew up properly and uniquely.
Unlike the rest of us, he never lost the sense of where he came from, his connection to the divine, the creation and to himself.
At a core level the Christian faith is about union – connection with the divine, with the rest of creation and with ourselves.
Union isn’t something we achieve, it’s something that is revealed to us. No effort is involved. That’s probably why we find it so difficult. We strive to achieve it but trying hard, even trying hard not to try hard, just doesn’t work.
Western people are taught to be achievers, as if achievement were the goal of life. I’m convinced that this need to constantly achieve is actively harmful – at least spiritually. We think that we have to do something to bring ourselves into union.
But the truth is, we don’t have to do anything. We just need to allow union to reveal itself.
We already live in radical union with the divine, because we are encompassed by the divine, enveloped by it and shot through with it in every nook and cranny of our being – whether those nooks and crannies be physical, psychological or spiritual. Disunion is in our own minds. It’s disunion that is at the root of many of our fears.
Unfortunately, we are deeply wedded to the ways of disunion.
Union and connection lie at the heart of things because God is the creator of all things and God is love.
I think we sometimes have difficulty in really grasping what that means when we say that God is love.
Love isn’t just an attribute that God happens to have and that may fluctuate up and down.
Love is God’s nature. It’s what he is.
It means we can trust God. It means that nothing we can think, feel, say, do or be can make God love us less – or indeed more – because God’s love is always infinite.
Nothing can ever happen to us that isn’t totally consistent with God’s infinite love for us in the context of the whole creation. I’m not saying that it will always feel like that. I’m not quite that naïve.
But if we are connected to God, consciously and thoroughly connected, we are enabled to trust God. And in as much as we are connected to God our fears diminish.
None of us know what the New Year will bring, though I guess it will be the usual, varying mixture of good and bad for us as individuals, for our communities, for our country and for our world.
But despite everything we can legitimately have hope, a deep and fundamental hope that is strong enough to conquer fear, because nothing can ever separate us from the God who is love and who can never, even in principle, abandon us.