(Keen readers will note I'm using some of the same material as at Pentecost - but it will be to the other 2 congregations, who haven't heard it already! - it's not just me being lazy - it seem to fit!)
I’d like us to think today about what it means to be faithful, not fearful. When I was thinking about the sermon I preached at the 8am service on Pentecost, I came across this reflection, which explores some of our fears:
Go on admit it.
You’re wondering about the future. Maybe worrying.
Do we even have a future? Will our church survive?
Will our children have faith? Will our faith have children?
There are so many challenges.
We don’t know the people next door anymore.
Why would they want to come to our church?
People pass by. We don’t know them. No-one comes in.
They are outside. We are inside.
And so we wait and watch and worry.
But we don’t know what to do. Won’t someone come to help us?
But have you noticed there’s a story just like this in the Bible.
There are only a few left. People pass by outside. They are inside.
Waiting and watching. They don’t know what to do.
And then it happens.
Wind. Fire. Noise…
No-one came and took away their problems.
Instead the Spirit comes.
If we are faithful people, we will wait for the Spirit to come and give us the power and the confidence to face our fears. But there is so much to be fearful of, isn’t there: what about the random disasters that ruins lives – like the killings of Derrick Bird in Cumbria. It is frightening to think that some people’s lives can becomes so intolerable and so pressured that they are driven to that sort of action.
How can our faith help us when life becomes terrible and full of fear and sadness?
You might wonder what our Bible readings have to offer us and our fears. Elijah brings back to life the only son of the widow of Zaraphath; and Paul makes some claims about his role as an apostle. Where is the fear in these stories? But let’s think about each in a little more detail.
Elijah has every reason to feel fearful. God sent him to the King of Israel, Ahab, to tell him to turn from his sinful ways…which have included marrying Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, and worshipping her god, Baal. As proof that God has sent him, Elijah tells Ahab that there will be a drought, and then Elijah is told to take himself off, first to the land East of the Jordan, where he is fed by ravens, and then to Zaraphath, where he is told by God that a widow there will look after him.
You might wonder what Elijah has to be fearful of – after all God is clearly looking after him, but Elijah has been sent deep into enemy territory – as Zaraphath is in Sidon. Even the widow, who has been caring for Elijah, is ready to blame him for bringing hr sins to light and causing her son to be killed as a result. We know how alone Elijah feels at times in this battle against Ahab & the prophets of Baal, if we remember his cry to God ‘I, only I am left’.
Elijah has good reason to be fearful: he has alienated his own king, he is in a foreign land and his only helper in the village is blaming him for the death of her son.
But Elijah acts in faith – crying out to God to save the young man: and so he is able to restore the son to his mother and she, in faith, states ‘Now I know for certain that you are a man of God’.
Faith – not fear – leads to others finding faith.
Paul, writing to the early church in Galatia, also has good reason to fear. Once a devout Jew and persecutor of all followers of Christ, he knows full well what the authorities want to do to Christianity – they want to see it stamped out.
In the portion of the letter we heard, Paul is keen to show that his credentials are from God, not from other people, because he is keen to correct those who have been teaching that Christianity could be a sect within the Jewish faith – that if Christians would accept some Jewish teaching, they could be protected by the same laws which protect practicising Jews. In the face of the fear of persecution, they are suggesting an accommodation of the Christian faith ot eh jewish religion.
But Paul is fearless – Christians must stand up for the unique teaching of Christ about the grace of God, and not be bound by laws – even if this leads to persecution, imprisonment and death. And Paul’s reason for this is that he has been brought to faith not by the teachings of other people, but by the direct revelation of the risen Christ. This faith has cast out his fear.
So how can we, like Paul & Elijah, by faithful and not fearful?
Whether what we fear is slowly dying out as a church, or being caught up in a wicked world, or simply seeming foolish in the sight of others – how can our faith help us to face up to the fear?
The examples of Paul and Elijah teach us much the same lesson: trust in God’s grace, God’s activity.
As we continue to celebrate a year of prayer through ‘Vision for life’ and as our thoughts start to turn to the year of evangelism, maybe we are fearful that we will find it impossible to speak to others about our faith. But it is the Holy Spirit of God which enables people to hear the Good News – it is our job only to try to speak. So whatever your fear – pray for the grace and gift of the Spirit – be faithful not fearful, and place all your fears into God’s hands.
And at this communion table, receive what God gives you to strengthen you – the gift of life itself – poured out for you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.