Sunday, 29 November 2009

"Be very afraid?" An advent sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Do you like horror films? I do. Good ones I mean. (Angie doesn’t even like the good ones, so I have to watch them when she’s out or gone to bed. Then I turn the lights off and watch in the dark.) The first horror film I ever saw in the cinema was The Curse of Frankenstein, starring Peter Cushing as the mad doctor and Christopher Lee as “the Creature”. The film was made in 1957, so I must have been about ten when I saw it. I’ll never forget the moment when the monster tore the bandage off his face, revealing his hideous features. That night my mother let me keep the light on and the door open in my bedroom. Still, I didn’t sleep a wink; I stayed up until sunrise leafing through a pile of comics and magazines. Even National Geographic couldn’t send me off.

A year or so later I saw another great horror film, The Fly (1958), starring Vincent Price. And then, almost twenty years on (1986), the remake, starring Jeff Goldblum, who plays a brilliant but eccentric scientist named Seth Brundle who is experimenting with teleportation. Naturally the experiments begin to go wrong, and before long Brundle starts turning into the eponymous insect. When he pleads with one of the characters not to be afraid, the reporter working on the teleportation story, Veronica Quaife, played by the gorgeous Geena Davies, delivers what has now become a classic line transcending cinema (I often hear it from Angie!): “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

The phrase is always used humorously; in fact, however, it well and seriously describes the contemporary cultural mood. Constantly we are told by the movers and shakers to be afraid, to be very afraid. In the eighties, when The Fly was made, the Cold War hadn’t yet thawed and the threat of a nuclear holocaust was the thing to very afraid of. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the HIV virus and AIDS rushed into to fill the fear vacuum. As the millennium approached, behold, the apocalyptic nutters and doomsayers had a phobic field day. And then 9/11, and ever since, ebbing and flowing, the threat of a terrorist attack, from bombs to bio-chemicals.

But it’s tough to keep people terrified when the threat rarely materialises, so what next to keep us all afraid, very afraid? Have no fear (so to speak!), the pundits will always find something for us to fear in what has been dubbed our “culture of fear” (Frank Furedi). If you fly, DVT, deep vein thrombosis. If you have children, MMR immunization – or scarier still, “stranger danger”, the predatory paedophile lurking in the park, so keep the kids in the garden and lock the gates. If you live in a city, it’s the immigrants, stealing our jobs and houses, and if they’re Muslim, you’ve got a double danger – they might be making explosive devices in their basements.

And now, most recently, there’s been the panic over the illness – sorry, I mean the epidemic – no, check that, I mean pandemic – of swine flu. The term “at risk”, rare even in the mid-nineties, is now so commonplace in the media that it’s become a cliché. You could say that we are now afraid of not being afraid, of not being very afraid. In fact, in the US, “Be very afraid!” has become the shibboleth of the Republican Party.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are things to be concerned about, very concerned about – global warming, in particular, which has huge implications for geopolitics: floods on the one hand and droughts on the other, major food shortages, massive population dislocations, and recently doctors have warned of a “global health catastrophe”. It is now essential that world governments take immediate and radical measures to reduce carbon emissions – the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit begins on December 7th. And it is a no-brainer that we should take reasonable safety precautions in our daily lives. Absolutely. But it’s a question of balance – and we have lost it.

The fact of the matter is that we are safer than we have ever been. And when fears are exaggerated, manipulated, and even manufactured – well, check this out. In 2003 the Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Cambridge University, Martin Rees, wrote a book about the threats facing humanity overt the next hundred years. I’ve read it: it’s called Our Final Century. Except that wasn’t the title Professor Rees submitted to the publisher. His working title was Our Final Century? – question mark. But that wasn’t sensationalist enough for Random House, so they turned the interrogative into a declarative. But even that wasn’t lurid enough for the American edition of the book, the title of which became – wait for it! – Our Final Hour – like sixty minutes and counting! I mean you couldn’t make it up. When fears threaten to turn paranoia into normality, when they threaten to undermine a basic sense of trust, which is absolutely essential to being psychologically healthy human beings, then it’s time to get a grip.

You want fear? Take a look at the ancient Middle East and the period of over a thousand years covered by the Bible. Read the stories. Floods, famines, and plagues; war, scorched earth, and exile: life, applying the memorable words of the seventeenth philosopher Thomas Hobbes, life was “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And you didn’t have to exaggerate, manipulate, or manufacture anxiety in the face of the ever-present threats to human well-being: they were in your face. As they are today (as we have just heard in painful detail from Aitemad Muhanna) for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

And yet what is the refrain that you hear again and again throughout the Bible? “Be afraid, be very afraid”? On the contrary! Without even a hint of denial of the daily struggle for survival, the Lord says to his people, “Do not be afraid.” In the very midst of big trouble, the Lord says, “Do not be anxious.” In the face of death itself, the Lord says, “Peace be with you.” On what grounds? Not because there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be anxious about, nothing to make our stomachs sink and our knees knock. No, no whistling in the dark, not a bit of it. What then? “I am with you,” says the Lord, “I am with you!”

It is that simple. Life is hard, but faith is that simple. “Be afraid, be very afraid”? Don’t be silly! The Lord is with me! The seas roar – the Lord is with me! The mountains tumble – the Lord is with me! The troops are breaching the city walls – the Lord is with me! The angel of death pounds at the door – the Lord is with me! Or: I’ve just been told I have cancer, my husband – it’s the Alzheimer’s – doesn’t recognise me anymore, we’ve missed our mortgage payments again – fill in the blank: at one time or another we’re all going to have a pack of troubles, and we’ll have two chances to get out of them – slim or none. “Do not be afraid,” says the Lord, “I am with you!”

Faith is fearless. Because faith trusts in God, the God Jesus discloses to us, whom he called Father, whom he invites us to call Father too. That is the gift and privilege of being a Christian. And no one and no thing can take that away from us. How can I be afraid when I am the child of the Father of Jesus?

Make no mistake: as our so-called “final” century advances, our culture of fear will get more and more fearful still. And elites with power to keep and money to make will exploit our fears ruthlessly and even religiously. For Christians there will be times of great testing – and temptation. Keep the faith and keep your heads. Stand firm and fast. Do not be afraid. Even when terrible things threaten and happen, be very unafraid. Don’t take cover, Jesus said, but “up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” (Luke 21:28, The Message). Know the Lord is near. Feel the Lord is here. God is with us. God will always be with us.

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