Fear or Faith? A Sermon for the New Year


Our Gospel story [see below] contains a stark contrast: the faith of Mary and Joseph and the fear that torments King Herod.

Everything Herod does, he does out of fear.

It’s true that fear has a bad press – it is an important part of being human.  Fear is sometimes an appropriate response.

When you are first born your only fears were of falling and of loud noises. These fears are hard-wired into our DNA and have been passed down from generation to generation as a survival mechanism.  Fear keeps us alive, and creates an emotion that motivates us to avoid danger.

Falling and loud noises are fears we are born with – but we learn lots of useful ones along the way – fear of fire, fear of wild animals, fear of unregistered taxis…

But fear can be very destructive. 

There are not many people in the history of the world who ever sat back thinking “I want to be evil, what evil deeds can I do today?”  Most of what we call evil comes from fear.

Herod had power, but he was only half-Jewish, so he feared an uprising from the Jews; and he feared his Roman overlords would replace him if his people did not tow the Imperial line; he feared his relatives would try to seize his throne and he had many of them murdered …  He was the most powerful man in the nation, but he found the top of the heap to be uncomfortable, insecure and his fear of falling overtook him.

The story of Herod’s ‘slaughter of the innocents’ (our Gospel reading makes us come down with a crash after the joy of Christmas) offers an account of the tragic consequences of defensive, self-preserving, paranoid fear. This type of insecurity never leads to anything good, and more-often-than-not backfires, creating greater insecurity and ever more enemies for the one who fears.

Herod proves the truth of the first half of Proverbs 29.25: “The fear of others lays a snare, but the one who trusts in God rests secure.”

Fear stops us seeing other people as potential friends and allies and leads us to see rivals and enemies around every corner.

In Stephen Covey’s bestselling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” his describes Habit Four as: “Think Win-Win”

“Genuinely strive for mutually beneficial solutions or agreements in your relationships. Value and respect people by understanding a “win” for all is ultimately a better long-term resolution than if only one person in the situation had got his way.”

Fear leads us to want to ‘defeat’ other people, Covey suggests that finding ways for both people in any deal to ‘win’ makes better long-term sense than being victorious.  It’s better to have created an ally as well as made a deal than to have pinched every penny in a deal but made an enemy or damaged your reputation.

Fear makes us only interested in our own winning, and makes us want to douse the light of others so that our light may be seen more clearly

We could make a long and unpleasant list of the sufferings inflicted on others by those who through history and in the world today are both powerful and paranoid. However, I don’t think Herod would have recognised his actions as coming from fear – he would have blamed everyone else around him. Herod demonstrates where such fear can lead when it does not come to light but remains in the dark depths of the unconscious.

This is (I hope) interesting, but a First Century tyrant seems far removed from our experience – there are none of us who will let our fear lead us to slaughter children…

But we do need to explore what we fear as a church and as individuals – as a church:

It would be easy for us as a church to be afraid: In the last two years we have lost some our most active members.  As a result our numbers are down and several jobs are hard to fill.

The Wash House has lost council support and has had to stop running its weekly meetings last term.

The pressures on LEWCAS have never been greater.

Our finances are not sustainable.
The Diocese is cutting dozens of clergy jobs over the next few years – the axe will clearly fall on the places that are not growing.  We are under threat!

This is a perfectly correct story about our Church.

But (and it’s a big but): On the other hand our church has gained several new members in the last year, and our Sunday School is growing significantly.

At our Carol Service we had a congregation120 people – twice the figure that attended three years ago, and Christmas Day attendance was up by 30% on 2012.

Our choir goes from strength to strength, recording a short C.D. this year.

The Wash House has worked out a way forward and the club will soon be up and running again.

Holy Trinity has increased its average attendance by around 300%

Our partnership with London Citizens is already bringing us many useful contacts in the community.

We are a thriving church with an impressive, positive impact in our community and a bright future.

Depending on what information we focus on we could see ourselves as a struggling Church, teetering on the edge, or a thriving Church with a secure and prosperous future.

Overconfidence and complacency could be dangerous, but far more dangerous would be to be overwhelmed with fear.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right,” said Henry Ford. “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” – It’s a quotation my children are sick of hearing, when they say they cant do this homework, or perform in that school play…

I think it is deeply and profoundly true: our fear or our faith can create our future.

Where do we go from here?  We must avoid Herod’s palace – filled with fear, we must have the faith that inspired the Magi to trek across the whole of their known world to visit a mysterious baby, we must have the faith that sustained Mary and Joseph through their time as refugees in Egypt and brought them safe back to Galilee.

Because in our lives as individuals, as a Church, as a local community and as a national and global community: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Isaiah 63:7-9
7I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior 9in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Hebrews 2:14-15,17-18
14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Matthew 2:13-16,19-21
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 

Published by tadonnelly

Priest, Campaigner for Inclusion & Horror Writer. As a Priest I'm Vicar of the Church of the Ascension, Blackheath and Holy Trinity, Deptford. ( http://www.ascension-blackheath.org.uk ) I edit the Newsletter of Inclusive Church ( http://inclusive-church.org.uk ) I am the author of the international best(ish)-selling Wild Strawberry Trilogy ( available in paperback or digital download from Amazon )

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