This was my sermon for St. Andrew's evening service last Sunday (27th April). The readings were Daniel 6:1-23 & Mark 15:42-16:8.
Right, your starter for ten... who said “the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself”?
(That's right) Franklin D. Roosevelt, at his inauguration as the 32nd President of the United States, on Saturday March 4, 1933. FDR took swore his oath with his hand on his family Bible, which was opened to 1 Corinthians 13. Interestingly it remains the oldest Bible ever used in an inaugural ceremony, published in 1686, and was written in Dutch. Roosevelt came to power while the USA was in the grip of the Great Depression, which he himself blamed on bankers and financiers, the quest for profit, and the self-interest basis of capitalism (sound familiar?) He brought about a major realignment of American politics, as well as instituting unprecedented programs for relief, recovery and reform.
But this isn't a lecture in American politics. Yet fear is a motif in both our Old and New Testament passages this evening. The last line of Mark's gospel – as any of the text after 16:8 is most likely written by a different author looking to tie up the loose ends of Mark's account – tells us “terror and amazement” seized the two Marys and Salome; so much so that “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Mark's knack of portraying the very human failings of the ordinary men & women who were the first followers of Jesus thus continues right to the end of his Gospel. If we look through the book as a whole the lack of faith, the propensity to misunderstand, the fear and confusion of the disciples is laid out for all to see, and given it is believed by some that the source for Mark's information was Peter himself, it's almost comforting to see this is what the disciples interaction with Jesus was like. To think that Mark doesn't hide the fact that these followers, who had been with Jesus for such a long time, had remained to the point of his death and beyond, disobeyed a direct instruction from what appeared to be an angel maybe makes some of our failings seem less terrible.
Then again, they would have had good reason to be afraid. The body was missing – the authorities would not be happy, especially if they started telling people Jesus wasn't really dead! And now the religious leaders had shown they weren't beyond killing off the odd troublemaker, on false charges, for deviating from their view of God, it would be their lives on the line. Does that possibly put some of our fears over talking about our faith into perspective?
Our Old Testament passage gives a different take on this. Daniel knows that praying to anybody or anything except the king is a death sentence. Yet he openly continues to pray, three times a day, knowing full well he will be seen & condemned. He sees his commitment to God as more valuable than his own life, and refuses to hide his faith, even to the point of death. Obviously in this case it works out for the best – Daniel survives, his persecutors are punished and King Darius makes a decree that all his subjects should “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel.”
Fortunately for us we are not in the same danger as Daniel or the three women at the tomb. In Britain, however uncomfortable it can feel to identify ourselves as a Christian we do not live in fear of our lives for proclaiming Christ as Lord & saviour. This week we have seen this in action. The Prime Minister makes a public statement on his view of the faith of this country, and his own personal beliefs. Some others disagree with him – so they write a letter saying they think he's wrong, and the press debate it for a week.
In contrast, in the Central African Republic this week alone two priests were killed, four others briefly detained and a number of villages were attacked by ex-Seleka fighters. In Syria, a Christian school was bombed.
Hanna, a Christian living in Damascus, explains:
“There is a Christian school, a private one. We know a lot of people in that school, some children from our area also go to school there. Yesterday, when those kids went to school, gathered at the square like they always do, a mortar fell in their midst. Some friends passed by the school and saw how parents and teachers were carrying their wounded children out of the school, dripping with blood. How they were running to the hospitals in panic. For me, as a mother and a teacher, I can hardly bear to imagine what these people must be going through right now. Twelve people lost their lives in that school yesterday, most of them children from the elementary school. Many more of them have lost arms and legs or have other injuries.”
How do we respond to stories like this – and we must, as these are our brothers and sister. Our friend FDR explained the 'fear' he was talking about – the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes...” Do we feel, like the women at Jesus tomb, paralyzed by the enormity of the task? Are we scared that we cannot do anything to help those being persecuted, or that we won't be able to explain how we can believe a Jewish man who died a criminal's death almost 2000 years ago can make a difference to our lives today!
Yet the women did pass on the message, eventually – the other gospels point to this, and without the news of Jesus resurrection we would not be sitting here today. The task is enormous, but Daniel shows us the way to approach any impossible task – prayer. Constant, unceasing prayer. Prayers of thanks for the comparative safety of our lives, prayers for the world leaders who have the ability to make a difference in these situations, prayers for the individuals suffering daily. To help with this, I've got a copy of the charity Open Doors World Watch List for you to take away. (See below) Read it, use it in your prayer time, and come back and talk to me if you want to know more.
Sometimes prayer is hard – sometimes all we can do is turn up & say “Lord, help me to want to pray!” And prayer can be scary, as it's a conversation, and you never know what God's going to say. But I know prayer makes a difference – you only have to look at the last few months of my life to see that. Daniel knew prayer made a difference, and was unashamed of it. So let us pray for those who are persecuted for their faith, and for those leaders who have the power to make the difference in these situations. Let us pray that David Cameron will put his recently declared faith into practice in his party's policies, so that Archbishop Justin's remarks that "even as the economy improves, there is weeping in broken families, in people ashamed to seek help from food banks, or frightened by debt" – that crippling fear again - will become a footnote in the history of our country.
1 John 4:18 tells us “perfect love casts out all fear.” We are privileged to have access to the source of that love – so my prayer is that we all can find the courage to live like Daniel, glorify the Father like Daniel, and show the whole world that great Easter gift of perfect love – in the name of Jesus Christ who lived, died and rose again for the whole world, including me & you, and through the power of the Holy Spirit who moves in us & through us. Amen.