December 6, 2020
Isaiah 40:1-11, Luke 1:8-25, 57-66, 80
Fear, joy and peace
It is said that we live in two minds – fear and joy. Perhaps many of us live mostly in fear? Fear is manifested as our everyday anxieties where we find ourselves living in the regret of the past, or grasping at the future.
It is also said that fear is hardwired into our DNA. Fear helps protect and motivate us; it’s essential to our survival. But there is a thin line between fear that protects and motivates us and fear that controls us. When we cross this thin line, we stop living in the flow of life. The result is that we live without joy and we become prisoners of fear!
I have mentioned a study that showed that our fear of dying is at the root of all our fears. Awareness of our mortality is part of being human. It is said that we are “forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom and, inevitably, diminish and die”. The inevitability of death, and our uncertainty about when it will occur, has the power to create overwhelming anxiety.
Some psychologist are saying that the pandemic is at the same time an epidemic of fear. Fear and uncertainty leave many feeling anxious, stressed, powerless and emotionally drained.
It should not come as a surprise that the Judeo-Christian tradition is very clear that God does not want people to be prisoners of fear. It is abundantly clear that God wants people to live with joy, gratitude, in service of others and praising God’s holiness and goodness.
You know that the most common command in the Bible is to fear not. The Bible as a matter of fact has a compelling antidote for fear – it is love that drives out fear. 1 John 4:18 states: “ There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment”.
Our two readings today are great examples to show that God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Isaiah and Zachariah, Elizabeth and John, and the God of John the Baptist is able to drive out fear. God’s love does not only drive out fear, but God replaces fear with joy and peace!
The second part of the Isaiah book is called Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55). The words of the unknown prophet of Second Isaiah come against the backdrop of the Babylonian Exile. Paging through chapters 40-55 you will find that the prophet’s message is one of coming salvation. The message of doom and judgment of the first 39 chapters are noticeably absent. The prophet now speaks God’s words that are comforting to people whose situation is rather different. How true are the words of Claus Westermann when he writes that “the Word of God can never be of the nature of general teaching – it is a living Word, changing with the changing years”.
In this new situation of the Babylonian Exile, God speaks words of comfort and hope! “Comfort, o comfort my people. Speak tenderly, she has served her term, her penalty is paid….”. The change in Israel’s fortunes is based on God’s forgiveness, God’s salvation. As the term of their Exile is fulfilled they are comforted that they will return to Jerusalem. Their return to Jerusalem is described as a new exodus. However, their exodus from Babylon would not be as excruciating as the one from Egypt: the mountainous landscape between Babylon and Jerusalem will be made straight, the hills will be made low, the rough places a plain.
But there is more to it: The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.
Israel’s loving God continues to comfort them with good tidings and, then we read:”…do not fear”. Why not? God will protect God’s people and God will nurture them as a shepherd. Listen to this beautiful image: “God will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep”.
As we continue to page through chapters 40-55 we see that central to Deutero-Isaiah’s words of salvation is the command “fear not”. In light of the divine promise of God’s grace there is no need to fear! Why would they have fear if God is shown to be their God? Why would they be afraid if God continues to walk with God’s chosen people, gathering them in his arms, carrying them in his bosom and will bring salvation to the covenant people? Deutero-Isaiah clothed his message of salvation in the language and form of a Psalm of Praise.
Second-Isaiah’s words of salvation have three characteristics:
- The prophet is preaching God’s salvation as if it has already happened even though it is still in the future. The prophet’s hope and trust in God are so firm that he sees them as a reality. God’s promise is seen as so certain as if it has already happened! This is a profound observation for God’s promises to Israel – and to us – are rooted in God’s own person. God’s Word is so trustworthy and reliable that it can be seen as a done deal. We can learn a great deal from this. God promises us that we are loved and that nothing will separate us from God’s love. God promises us that God will never forsake us and that we have peace, joy abundant life that not even death can take from us! Advent promises us that we are reconciled with God for Christ is the sacrifice for our sins! Do we trust God’s promises? Do we see them as a done deal?
- The words of salvation reveal tremendous joy. The prophet’s message spontaneously evokes joy, page after page there are commands to exult and rejoice. Joy reaches the end of the earth, to the sea and the islands, the desert and its inhabitants, to the wild beasts of the desert, to heaven and earth, mountains and trees. The prophet’s proclamation of salvation produces expectancy, it cheers and makes the spirit new. The Hebrew language has no words for the anticipation of joy – it simply says that joy is now here! Rejoicing always denotes to something that has already taken place. Joy, thus, stems from the element of what has already been accomplished, inherent in the assurance of salvation. Joy itself flows from a sincere and firm trust in the salvation that God promises. When this abundant joy is bubbling because of God’s salvation there is no place, no reason or capacity to be fearful! God salvation is real! The nature of the prophet’s words, are important during these times as we can find many reasons to complain. Do we allow ourselves to simply embrace the joy of God’s unlimited love and the fulness of God’s promises? Do God’s promises of salvation reveal tremendous joy in our lives? Or do we still add, yes I know I should be grateful and sing a hymn of praise but – I am worried or I am fearful?
3. Salvation is addressed to the individual. The prophet presents God’s salvation to all. But at the same time, he makes the Word of God very personal. Salvation affects every individual member at the most personal and existential level. And it also asks every individual to respond and to make a decision. God’s living Word calls each and every one to respond.
So how did the OT person who understood and embraced God’s Word of salvation respond? In the book of Isaiah, the message of salvation evokes praise of God – God is extolled for his majesty and goodness. The OT person responded to God’s salvation by singing God’s praises. Praise and jubilation indicate a response in faith. Songs of praise in the OT may take the place of what the New Testament calls faith! God wants us to respond to God’s Word of salvation in faith, that is embracing Jesus as the One who was sent by God to bring salvation.
Yes, the NT is clear that Jesus is God’s plan for salvation for the world. But as the salvation appears to our world we see that our world again is caught up in fear. In our reading from Luke we read that Zechariah was terrified, fear overwhelmed him and fear came over all their neighbors. But at the same time we see that as God’s salvation plan unfolds, the angel says: Do not be afraid! His fear gives way to joy and gladness and he receives good news. Their neighbors rejoice with Elizabeth.
We see a faithful response of Zechariah and Elizabeth and later on in John the Baptist. When God’s love of the world is revealed in Jesus, fear is driven out for it has no place in God’s kingdom. Joy is everywhere and people respond by singing God’s praises and embracing God’s word in faith.
Today we lit the peace candle. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. In Hebrew the concept has a much richer meaning than the English word peace. Shalom means peace, but also stability of relationship, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. It can also mean to be safe in mind, body, or estate. Shalom even encourages you to give back — to generously re-pay something in some way. Ultimately Shalom is a gift of God. In the NT the Greek word for peace includes the state of reconciliation with God, that is salvation through Jesus Christ. This is also referred to as good news. Shalom and fear are mutually exclusive.
So, as we acknowledge that fear is a reality that wants to imprison us, let us remember during this Advent that the Good news of God’s salvation is already true, God’s love drives out fear and replace fear with exuberant joy and divine peace! Amen.