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“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?”
Indeed, whom shall I fear? Whom do I fear? Whom or what do you fear? The Bible is filled with talk about fear, mostly with admonitions to fear not! Remember the angel Gabriel to Mary, “Fear not, the Lord is with you.” Angels are very much into “Fear not!”
But of course, if truth be told we do fear. I read recently that 40% of Americans suffer from anxiety—ranging from panic attacks to other forms of anxious living. Look around this church and think about that. 40% of us are living with anxiety.
Who or what do we fear? Some of us in Sonoma County fear the next fire season, or the next flooding of the Russian River. What stresses will come our way, what losses? We may be afraid for our health—that the cancer will come back– or perhaps we fear for the health of our spouse or child or friend. Sometimes I fall into climate change fear—for us right here, for the vulnerable in so many places, for our children and grand-children. What will they have to face? More pressing perhaps, we’re afraid we can’t make the next rent payment, or that the car will break down and cost too much to repair. Some of us have already lost our homes, and our fears are of the real vulnerability of life on the streets.
Maybe we’re afraid to feel our fears, to acknowledge them… or our grief… our grief about the way things are today, the extremes of wealth and poverty, racism, the fires and floods, the hurting earth, our seeming unwillingness to do anything about it. We fear for the earth and its creatures. Ourselves among them.
I don’t know how it is for you, but fear constricts me. When I get into those fearful obsessive thought patterns… they take over. I make bad decisions when fear decides for me. (I’m not talking here about dodging the oncoming truck kind of decisions). Maybe this is true for you as well. Fearful decisions for me generally are small, tight, closed. I try to shield my heart. And, in fact there are times when I’m afraid to feel my fear. Then, the results are more scary. Then I lash out at others, there is a kind of blaming, and I see myself as a victim.
Isaiah the prophet is speaking to a people who have lived in very dark times. They’ve known oppression, and subjection and utter vulnerability. Zebulon and Naphtali have been taken into captivity. Their sense of security and safety has long been stripped from them. (This might be like 9/11 coupled with captivity and exile of all the survivors maybe. Something like that.) Isaiah speaks to them with metaphors beyond their wildest imagination. That’s often what prophets do. He tells them that God actually has the power, not Assyria, not any earthly king or would-be king, God. If they turn to God they’ll see what Isaiah sees: the great light dawning, the path now clear. He proclaims Joy in the present tense. This is happening now folks.
Really it seems too much. When I’m feeling afraid and insecure, and worried, it’s hard to see anything but darkness. Just think of how you feel after you read the daily news. It’s hard to entrust yourself to God’s power when you see yourself as trapped in the machinations of the earthly powers that be. It’s hard.
The psalmist began his song with his rootedness in God’s light and his lack of fear; he affirms that what he wants is just what Isaiah called for: he turns to God, no matter what. There are problems and enemies, and tough times—perhaps like our own. Nonetheless, he says: “You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face. Your face, Lord, will I seek.” Another translation puts it this way, “’Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek God’s face.’ Your face Lord do I seek.”
And really that’s what it comes down to. What we all long for. The face of God. That intimate knowledge of God’s presence. God’s withness in this mess we find ourselves in. Can we take Isaiah at his word? If we seek God’s face, will we be bathed in a light that will show us a path? Will we? How do we do that? We come here on a Sunday morning. Maybe we gather during the week too, seeking that face.
Maybe we meditate, or study scripture, or look for that face in our dreams, or in nature, at the beach or on the mountaintop.
One cosmologist gazing at the ripples of light that gave birth to the universe said that was like looking in the face of God. And, we do catch a glimpse in those moments when we stand before the unspeakably beautiful.
Hebrew Scriptures tell us that seeing God face to face is too much. Too much for us to bear. Too intense, too overwhelming. Too much beauty, love and truth to bear. I’ve thought that maybe the burning bush was a humble way for God to be present to Moses so that he could take notice and not be eradicated.
For us who follow his path, Jesus is the face of God in a form that we can see. That is just barely not too much. And in today’s Gospel Jesus has made his home in Capernaum—the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali, no less. That little nowhere place, no longer under the thumb of the Assyrians, but now it’s the Romans. He is there says Matthew to fulfill the vision of Isaiah—that’s a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew text. Jesus was a Jew. He’d know those words. “for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Not will dawn. Has dawned.
The face of God come among us. “Repent,” the face says. “Repent.” Repentance is not so much about saying “I’m sorry” as it’s about doing an about face, or a somersault. “Change your mindset” “See differently” Let go. Our old ways of understanding the times, the darkness, the oppressiveness of the powers, our own sense of powerlessness… those have got to go. Not that these times aren’t dark, they definitely are. But in these very times, to perceive the face of God, we’ll need to entrust ourselves to a new way of seeing. We need to let go of letting fear make our decisions. The reign of God has come near, Jesus says, open your eyes. Open your hearts. Unclench your fists.
This is the season of the Epiphany when we celebrate Jesus as the face of God in the world. The light shining not just over the stable in Bethlehem, but out into the world—into the Zebulons and Naphtalis—the Santa Rosas and Sebastopols as well as the towns in Syria, whose names we do not know, or in Libya or Indonesia. Whatever this face is telling us, it is telling us that the face of God is to be found in this material world of ours, just as it is. “The gate to heaven is everywhere,” as Merton says. The divine is here in our midst, in the most unlikely, the hardest, and least of these places and people –and even in animals and trees and the earth itself. And, in the universe itself: we now know that we’re all made of the same stardust. That’s a fact. And Jesus is good news that God didn’t just breathe into the dust, God is both in and beyond this dust. Where we in our fear see only division, difference, and danger, creation oozes seamlessness, connection, and energy for new life. When we open ourselves to those, we see the divine.
This is the Church of the Incarnation. Right? This is a season for us to plumb the meanings of God-in-the-flesh. To do that we need to repent, change the lenses—(maybe we all need a kind of divine cataract surgery.) In any case, we’ll have to let go. And it’s hard to let go of anything we haven’t acknowledged. So one way to start is with our fears: first honestly feel our fears (maybe even for just a few minutes), perhaps dare to share them, –then we can begin to loosen their grip, and open our eyes to the presence of the light within ourselves and around us, and in this amazing universe we are privileged to be a part of. Yes, it’s dark and scary. Yes, you and I are not in charge. But the face of God has come among us and is among us. Inviting us to trust bit by bit that that very divine energy is at work inviting us to new life.
“Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Say that with me please. “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” Let that be our mantra for the season. Let’s see where it takes us.