Preacher Revd Sister Margaret Anne McAlister ASSP
Today, on this second Sunday of Lent, there seems to be a common theme between all of our readings. And that theme is that we should not allow ourselves to be made afraid, but rather to trust in God who will provide for our needs, and for us to carry on regardless.
Fear is a very deep emotion. It can catch hold of us at the most unexpected moments, and take us over, and threaten to overwhelm us. Apparently one of the most common phrases in the whole Bible is the command, “Do not be afraid”. In the Old Testament, it is often what God says to his prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus often says it to his disciples.
If someone asked you, what is the opposite of love, what would you say? Hatred? No, hatred is too close to love to be its opposite. Fear is really the opposite of love. As one of Shakespeare’s characters in the play “Macbeth” puts it, “All is the fear and nothing is the love”. Or, to quote from the first letter of John in the New Testament, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”. Love is a movement towards the other- fear is a movement away.
In our Old Testament reading today from Genesis, we see Abraham, or rather Abram as he is called at this stage in the story, having a vision, or dream. In his dream God tells Abram not to be afraid, for – says God – “I am your shield; your reward will be very great”. Abram however is doubtful. He is childless and he and his wife are both very old. And then God makes a promise to Abram – that Abram will give birth to an heir, and that his descendants will be as countless as the stars. The scene is not like London, where the lights of the city make it difficult to see many stars at night. No – Abram looks up in his dream and sees many, many stars – too many to count. This time, despite all evidence to the contrary, Abram believes God. Here faith is gift. There is absolutely nothing to go on for Abram to believe God in terms of circumstantial evidence. Indeed, in terms of reason, it would make more sense for Abram to dismiss God’s promise as rash and untenable. But he doesn’t – Abram believes God’s promise. There is something in the nature of God’s communication with him – in the nature of his experience here – that leads Abram to let go of rational thought processes and simply believe.
And it doesn’t end there. God goes on to make another seemingly rash promise – that Abram will possess the land that he has now entered. Abram questions this. And God tells him to prepare a ritual ceremony – to make an offering. Again, something happens, that is not easily explicable. And God makes a covenant with Abram that he will indeed possess the land that he has discovered on his long journey away from home.
Abram could have been overwhelmed with fear and anxiety on at least two counts – that he had no children as heirs, and that having left his home territory he had nowhere to settle. But in two unforgettable communications from God, Abram lets go of his fears and realises that God will meet all his needs.
Our psalm set for today, psalm 27, begins with a very upbeat confidence in God –
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Again, there is that call to let go of fear and instead trust in the living God.
Our gospel reading from Luke today shows Jesus under direct threat – no less than a death threat. In this part of the gospel account Jesus is making his way towards Jerusalem. Some Pharisees meet him and threaten, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”.
A death threat is a serious matter. Today if someone we knew received a death-threat, we would tell them to go to the police. It is not a matter to take lightly – it is frightening.
But not for Jesus. Instead of cowering with fear, he sends a contemptuous message to Herod, referring to Herod as a “fox”. Jesus must finish the work he has been sent to do, and that will include going to Jerusalem, whether Herod likes it or not. Jesus knows that bullies like Herod have to be challenged. The very thought of Jerusalem brings out all Jesus’ compassion. He has so often wanted to gather Jerusalem’s children together, “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” – a touchingly feminine image that Jesus uses of himself here to describe the feelings of compassion that Jesus has for the people, even for the very people who will reject him.
Lent is a good time to reflect on the things that challenge us – sometimes that can include our relations with people that we find difficult. Herod was not someone with whom Jesus had an easy relationship. Jesus referred to him as “that fox” – in other words, as someone who was trying to deceive Jesus. And yet even Herod was one of the people – one of the people for whom Christ would die.
Sometimes pictures – works of art – can help us in our spiritual reflections. I am particularly fond of a series of pictures known as “Christ in the Wilderness” painted by the twentieth century artist Stanley Spencer. Stanley Spencer was born in the village of Cookham – on – Thames in Berkshire in 1892 and lived there most of his life. He studied at the Slade School from 1910 – 1914. He painted his “Christ in the Wilderness” series in the late 1930’s. They are wonderful depictions of Jesus’ moments of profound reflection during his times of temptation in the wilderness – a truly Lenten theme. One of them is called “Foxes”. It depicts Christ in the wilderness surrounded by three foxes that emerge from and enter into their holes. The scene evokes that saying of Jesus, “the foxes have holes, …but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. The foxes are rather beautiful and Jesus seems relaxed in their company, his arms and legs outstretched.
In another picture from the same series entitled “Scorpions” Jesus holds a scorpion cupped in his two hands. The scorpion’s tail is raised in a threatening gesture as if it is ready to sting. But Jesus gazes on it, holding it tenderly, with a look of compassion on his face. Foxes and scorpions can be a nuisance, or threatening, or even deadly. But they are all God’s creatures – and these wilderness paintings seem to say that we can learn something even from the things that might pose a threat to us.
As Lent continues, and as we follow our own particular Lenten discipline of reflecting on the scriptures and contemplative prayer and reflection, or whatever it may be, may we endeavour to let go of all those things that would hinder our spiritual development and make us afraid, and rather develop those habits of heart and mind that help to nurture our faith and build up our trust in the God who provides for our needs and who has promised to accompany us and sustain us on our journey. Amen.