A Sermon by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould

“If you Lord kept a record of our sins, who Lord could stand? But there is forgiveness with you so that we can reverence, serve you.” (Ps 130: vv 3-4 NIV version)

The Old Testament reading tonight continues the story of the transition of Israel ‘s leadership at the end of that of the prophet Samuel. Previously, Samuel had warned the people of Israel that it would be wrong for them to ask for a king since Yahweh, The Lord, alone was their king.

From the time of the Exodus, there had been numerous times when the people of Israel had become impatient with The Lord, and had followed their own ways, with terrible consequences.

Samuel had given great leadership to Israel, but they refused to listen to the voice of wisdom. Following a great massacre of Israel’s soldiers which ended in the Philistines taking from them their most sacred object, The Ark of the Covenant, (1 Sam. 4:11), Samuel had advised them;

“return to the Lord with all your hearts, ….. prepare your hearts for the Lord. and serve him only;” (1 Sam. 7 :3 ).”

This he warned was the only way forward if Yahweh was to secure their land for them give them the security they longer for.  And Yahweh gave them a miraculous victory over their enemy, (1 Sam. 7:5-6, 9-10).

At the time of tonight’s reading, Samuel had grown old. The people of Israel did not want to have any of his sons as their next leader, rather they wanted a king like other nations.

Samuel again appealed to the Lord, having done his best to convince them that they were going against the will of the Lord.

The Lord consoled Samuel telling him that it was not he or his family that they were rejecting, but the Lord himself, because he alone was Israel’s King.

And so, once again, the Lord had listened to the voice of Israel’s complaints, and now had commissioned Samuel to appoint Saul as the first King of Israel. But that response to their demand came with a warning;

            “If you fear the Lord and serve and obey him, and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God- God! But if you do not obey the Lord, and if you rebel against his commands, his hands will be against you, as it was against your ancestors.” ( I Sam 12: 12-15)

The people did heed the warning from Samuel, and did recognise that once more they had sinned mightily against the Lord their God in asking for a king. And once again through Samuel, they were offered the words of comfort and hope given to those who are afraid when asked to follow God throughout the bible; “Do not be afraid.” Even though you have done this great evil, the Lord your God forgives you, for you are his own beloved people.

“Be not afraid” – “I am with you always”- “My Love is greater than your fear.”

It is hard for human minds and hearts to fathom the infinite goodness, compassion, grace and mercy with which The Lord continues to reach out to those he loves!

Tonight’s Psalm, 130, is one I have turned to on numerous occasions when I have felt overwhelmed, and it remains one of my favourite psalms. It helps me at such a time to recognise that my immediate experience, that feels so crushing, is part of the human condition, and is well within God’s love and forgiveness to heal and restore, if I can only entrust myself to him in humility.

The psalmist acknowledges that we can’t take sin lightly.

“If you Lord, should keep a record of our sins, who Lord could stand?” (PS.130:3 )

Yet we know that forgiveness is one of the characteristics of God, and it is in this hope that the psalmist continues

 “But there is forgiveness with you so that we can [revere] you.”( V.4 )

The psalmist concludes with a sense of expectant hopefulness.

“I wait for the Lord with my whole being……. More than watchmen for the morning, more I say, than watchmen for the morning”  (vv. 5,6)

This grace is not just for me as an individual, but it is a covenant of love and forgiveness reaches out beyond the personal to Israel and the forgiveness of all guilt. (According to the theologian Fr. Michael Fallon MSC t

his is the only place in the OT in which redemption is extended to all guilt).

Both the story of Samuel and the Psalm130 remind us about how easily we can find ourselves looking for a ready solution to our problems, or perceived needs, rather than first listening to attentively and then obeying to the best of our ability the voice or direction of God’s leading.

Of course, we are  never going to get that entirely right! Even referring to the Scriptures requires us to use our powers of reason and interpretation. Likewise, the voices we may perceive to be God’s answer to our prayers may be quite coloured by what we want or expect to hear.

That’s why we need each other, to help us personally and as a community to sort out where the God is leading us.

Often things start going wrong for us when fear takes over our reasoning. This is not the “Fear of the Lord” of which the prophet spoke, which means to reverence the Lord, but the fear which we all know that can lead us to do and say things that may give us immediate comfort and security but which we may later regret – things that lead to conflict rather than peace, to isolation rather than community.

Fr. Henri Nouwen, renowned Catholic author and pastor of the L’Arche Community in Toronto Canada until he died in 1996, wrote a lot about the power of fear to entrap and control us, as well as the greater power of love to set us free and liberate us.

Henri tells the story of his meeting with a journalist John Fraser from the Globe and Mail.

 He says that amidst all his stories about world events, a small story about his daughter Jessie gave welcome relief.  (The Primacy of the Heart pp. 2-3).

Henri writes:

‘One morning when Jessie was 4 years old she found a dead sparrow in front of the living room window…. When Jessie saw the dead bird, she was both deeply disturbed and intrigued.

“Where is the little bird now” she asked her father. John said that he didn’t know. “Why did it die?” she asked again.

 “Well,” said John hesitantly, “Because all birds return to the earth.”

 “Oh” said Jessie, “The we have to bury it.”

A box was found, the little bird laid in the box a paper napkin was added as a shroud, and a few minutes later a little procession was formed with Daddy, Mamma, Jessie and her little sister. Daddy carried the box, Jessie the cross which she had made herself…. The grave was dug and the little sparrow buried. Then John said to Jessie,” Do you want to say a prayer?”

  “Yes,” replied Jessie firmly. After telling her baby sister in no uncertain terms to fold her hands, she prayed: “Dear God, we have buried this little sparrow. Now you be good to her or I will kill you.   Amen.”

  As they walked home, John said to Jessie,” You don’t have to threaten God.” But Jessie said “I just wanted to be sure.”’

Henri remarked that between all the stories he heard that day about world leaders this story about Jessie had told him most about the human heart: it is compassionate- but ready to kill when afraid.

Fear is never far under the surface when we sense things getting out of our control.

Henri talks about the destructive power of fear. It is something that he himself was constantly needing to overcome. He discovered that fear controls much of our thinking and many of our decisions, which go on to lead to tensions that divide.

“There is the constant fear of what will happen to me if I cannot care for myself, if I have no job or place to live.” Henri concludes that we can even become strangers in our own land, fearful, isolated and powerless. “Instead of hope and joy we find inner emptiness and sadness. Instead of living in the house of love we live in the house of fear.” (Spiritual Formation, 2010 P.75)

But we don’t have to live in fear. Love is stronger than fear!

The thing that enabled Jesus to live out of Love rather than fear was knowing that he belonged to the Father – that nothing could separate him from that love.

“Perfect Love casts out fear.” (1 Jn. 4:18)

And as Henri Nouwen teaches us, prayer is the way to move from the House of fear to the House of Love.

As “we begin to understand at a deep spiritual level that we live surrounded by love and in communion with God no matter what the circumstances of our external lives we let go of the fear that lurks on the outsides of our minds.” ( Henri Nouwen; Spiritual Direction P.79)

Then we are free to live, to love to forgive, to be at peace, in short to be the people we are created to be. And as the psalmist reminded us this is not just for us individually but for all people.

I conclude with the words of Henri Nouwen once more.

            “In the house [of Love] we can slowly let go of our fear and learn to trust……Peacemaking is possible when we live in the house of love. Ministry is effective when we live in the house of love. There we can be, and move, and trust and love in freedom, without fear.” (Henri Nouwen; Spiritual Direction P.83)

Jesus says “ Don’t be afraid, My Love is stronger than your fear.’’