Please do not feed the fears
Rev Dr Lynn Arnold AO,  Assistant Priest

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

This morning I had intended to preach on the Song of Hannah, that beautiful psalm about which the C13 rabbi, David Kimhi, known as Radak wrote:

Hannah’s song … is a demonstration of a human being’s inspired perception of the sublime. All her years of torment and woe were revealed as a preparation for a joyous event that not only transformed her life but, through her newborn Samuel, the entire course of Jewish history.

I had also wanted to devote some of my time to reflect on my old school motto – Non Scholae sed Vitae – owing to the fact that this weekend a reunion is being held with my classmates of fifty years ago. I am pleased to see a number of them here this morning. My reference to “not for school but for life” was going to be played out in the theme “not for church but for faith”.

Well that will have to be for another day. Because the events of yesterday in Paris have not only focussed our attention, they demand of us that we seek God’s counsel as to how we should react. Indeed, as we will shortly come forward to receive Holy Communion, we will be wanting to be at one with God incarnate through his risen Son; one with the divine call to loving God with all our heart and our neighbours as ourselves. How, we may feel, can we reach that state of union when we feel so disturbed, so distressed and so fearful in the wake of what some of our neighbours have done?

As I was reflecting on these dreadful events and praying for some insights to come to me as to how I might speak this morning, the episode of the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib during the reign of Hezekiah came strongly to mind. The story of the seventh century BC story is recounted in Isaiah 36 and 37.  Those readings recount the surrounding of the people of God by the Assyrians who offered to the trapped inhabitants the opportunity to leave if they would accept the authority of Sennacherib, King of Assyria. All seemed lost for the trapped other than to surrender; yet the story ends in victory – the trapped become the victors as the walls that entrapped the people of Jerusalem became a protection against a mass death that befell those outside the walls.

Let me read some key verses:

v4: “This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have strategy and military strength – but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? … (and v 7) And if you say to me, ‘We are depending on the Lord our God’ – isn’t he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed.”

And then later in v11:

“Then Eliakin, Shebna and Joah, said to the field commander, ‘Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall …. followed by v13 and subsequent verses: ‘Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew …  This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you! Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us’ … Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ‘The Lord will deliver us,’ Has the god of any nation delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand? Who of all the gods of these countries has been able to save his land from me? How then can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?'”

The language play referred to in these verses was based upon the ordinary person in Jerusalem at the time not being able to understand Aramaic; thus the Jewish officials were wanting the Assyrian enemy to use Aramaic rather than Hebrew, which would have been understood by everyone, for fear of the panic the haughty words would have engendered amongst the surrounded populace.

But the ploy did not work, and so all the citizenry of Jerusalem heard how powerless the Assyrians thought the Jewish God was and how hollow their faith in Him was. What the Assyrians were trying to do, but ultimately failed, was to have fear walled in and around the people of God.

Yesterday’s events, it seems to me, can be rewritten in a parallel way; with the perpetrators of yesterday’s events being like Sennacherib’s army, shouting out to the Christian world that our God will not save us, that we would be better served by accepting their terms.

And if there is to be a parallel, how should we respond? There are a number of ways that we may respond. We could respond with words that grow out of primal fear, words of hate and violence – “this is war”, “we can never live alongside them”, “they are all the same”. There are clearly dangers to fearful responses that rest on the simplistic, jingoistic and divisive. But on the other hand, shallow euphemistic platitudes may fail the moment too – “this is just the work of fanatics” or “this is just an isolated episode”.

Or should we respond in ways that acknowledges the fear we feel but seeks to use that as a call to God, as the psalmist David so often did in his psalms? Reading Isaiah 36 and 37 shows us what saved the people of God who were under siege within the walls of Jerusalem. What saved them was a message of faith heard in the face of fear:

Isaiah 37:

‘Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege-ramp against it. 34 By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.’

Thus the Assyrians had tried to surround the people of God with a wall of fear; but through faith, that people kept fear beyond the ramparts of their hearts.

And how did they speak back in the face of fear? Isaiah told them to be silent; I suspect that was counsel to encourage people to have a reflected response not a knee-jerk one. First reactions may be very counter-productive; and understandable as they may be, they may also create more destructive consequences such as dividing communities rather than uniting them.

On the subject of uniting people in diversity, John Norsworthy, in his book “Why Culture matters: A Biblical Christian approach to things cultural” writes:

God’s original purpose for us was to be bearers of His image, to reflect His fullness, the fullness of the Trinity, the unity and diversity found in God Himself. There is no way that just one of us could reflect anything like a significant part of His glory. One person, one community or one people group would be totally inadequate. We will only adequately reflect something of His multiple layers of beauty and multiple aspects of glory when we come together in all our diversity and perfect unity. [p166]

In other words, cultural diversity in humanity is part of God’s creative intent; but that creative intent seeks the reconciling of that diversity, not its estrangement.

Some of the first responses coming out of Paris and echoing around the world do seem to be messages of reconciliation – especially on social media – #porteouvert . But they are messages that also recognise the reality of the fears engendered rather than trying to sweep them away as baseless.

You may have read reports that our Deputy Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Houssam Abiad, went to Bendigo a few weeks ago in the wake of deep disquiet in that community about the building of a mosque. In going there, Houssam said:

I’ve been hearing regularly over the last few years that not enough Australian Muslims are standing up and speaking against violence and talking about extremism and anti-extremism. Well, I think that as an Australian Muslim and as a leader in my own community, I have a very important role to play, not as a Muslim – because I don’t represent the whole community – but as an Australian.

But in undertaking this endeavour of reconciliation, he also acknowledged the fear that lay behind the concerns of many in Bendigo; he said:

Some people, and rightfully so, have got some concerns and they want to talk about them. [my underlining]

So he wasn’t dismissing their fears as baseless or irrelevant. Instead he sought to speak into the heart of them.

On November 5th, Dr Carolyn Tan, from the Diocese of Perth, and myself attended the Religious Freedom Roundtable convened by Tim Wilson of the Australian Human Rights Commission. We were there, through our capacities as members of the Public Affairs Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia, and, at the invitation of the Primate. The discussions were interesting and reasonably robust as forty people from different faiths, including the “religion” of Atheism, discussed various aspects around the topic of religious freedom. In terms of this morning’s sermon, one comment from that roundtable discussion has come back to speak anew to me:

If we really are faith-based communities, we should be operating with faith and not

with fear.

A thoughtful comment but even so one that would miss the point if it meant to be acting with faith and having no fear, or disregarding that there was any legitimacy to fear.

Some of you may recall that I have mentioned in some previous sermons the experiences of our youngest daughter, Anna-Lena, who spent two and a half months in Sierra Leone as part of the Ebola response. By good fortune, Anna-Lena is here this morning with us in the Cathedral in the very same week that Sierra Leonians have been celebrating the end of this dreadful epidemic. As part of the celebration a three minute video clip has been produced – Bye Bye Ebola – which shows a wonderful cross section of the people of Sierra Leone joyously celebrating by song and dance based upon the Azonto rap dance. It’s on Youtube if you’d like to see it. In one scene where a medical orderly in protective clothing, is dancing, I noticed the following verses from 2 Corinthians painted on the wall behind:

Since I know it is all for Christ’s good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities; for when I am weak, I am strong. [2 Corinthians: 4:7, 12:7-10]

In the wake of the dreadful events in Paris yesterday, when heinousness of the deeds committed surge up in us mixed feelings of fear and outrage, the intent of the unknown person from Sierra Leone who painted these words from Scripture in the midst of a country fearful in the face of a dreadful disease, was to acknowledge that fear, not deny it, and then draw on the strength of faith to confront it.

Actually, as I think about it, my original themes I had wanted to preach on this morning, would have spoken to yesterday’s events.

For in the Song of Hannah we hear:

My heart exults in the Lord: my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies: because I rejoice in your salvation. There is no Holy One like you, O Lord: nor any Rock like you, our God.

But Hannah’s joyousness in a new found strength that grew out of a type of fear, did not come by simple church but by faith. In our reading this morning from 1 Samuel 1, we know that the forms of church let her down; but that faith ultimately saved her.

So let us, through our worship, seek not the forms but the faith that God will nourish through our prayers and our worship.