Recently a colleague and I were traveling to a conference in a distant city, and we were going through the security search at the airport. We took off our shoes. We emptied our pockets of change and cell phones, had our luggage searched. We put our laptop computers on the x-ray belt and walked through the metal detector. While we were doing this, all of a sudden, one of the security inspectors at another checkpoint shouted "Stop!" in a loud voice. What had happened was that a man at the checkpoint had simply forgotten to take the change out of his pockets and had set off one of the metal detectors. Innocently unaware that he had done this, he kept on walking toward his gate. It was nothing really. No big deal. But when the inspector shouted "Stop!" everybody in the whole area froze, and the airport grew deathly silent. You could almost touch the fear in the air.
As we walked to our plane, my colleague said, "You know, I think the old world where we thought we were safe and secure is gone forever. What happened back there tells me that we don't know what's going to happen next in the world, and it makes us anxious and afraid."
How many of us who think of ourselves as people of faith could say the same thing? "I don't know what's going to happen next in the world, and it makes me afraid." It's one thing to trust God, to feel close to God, to feel God caring for us when life seems stable, secure, and safe, but what happens in those times when the old world where we thought we were safe and secure dies and the winds blow and the world shakes and fearful change and terror seem to be at every hand? What happens to our faith then?
Indeed, the greatest challenges to faith come in those moments when the world shifts on its axis and the seas roar with fearful change. The great historian Eric Hobsbawm remembers when his safe and secure world became a world of terror. He grew up as a Jewish orphan in Berlin. On a cold January day in 1933 when he was only 15 years old, he was walking his little sister home from school when he saw at a newsstand a headline bearing frightening news that would change his life, change the life of all Jews, change the life of the whole world. "Adolph Hitler Appointed Chancellor of Germany," the headline read. Later in his life, Hobsbawm reflected on that moment and said it was as if "we were on the Titanic and everyone knew it was going to hit the iceberg." As Europe hurdled out of control toward World War II, the old world was violently ripped apart, and the new and uncertain world began to be born. Hobsbawm said that it was difficult to describe "what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last." It was like living, he said, "between a dead past and a future not yet born."
Living between a dead past and a future not yet born. That was exactly the situation of the Jews in the Bible who heard this word from the prophet that we read just a few minutes ago in the 43rd chapter of Isaiah. They were between a dead past and a future not yet born. Their old world had died. What had happened was that the world's great super power, Babylon, had marched on their home, the city of Jerusalem, crushed it, and left it in ruins. Many Jews were taken back to Babylon as war prisoners where they "sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept." They felt like they were pawns in a game they could not control. And, then, just when it was hard to believe that things could get any worse, they did. A new power--Persia--arose in the East and was rattling its swords against Babylon. Now, once again, the Jews were in harm's way in the middle of a war zone. Babylon was sure to be destroyed. War fears swept the city. What would become of the weak and frightened little colony of Jews? The wheels of history were about to roll over them again, and they were living in a world not expected to last, between a dead past and a future not yet born. And they were afraid.
And, then, it is right at this most fearful moment that there comes this amazing, almost unbelievable word from the prophet, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem....do not be afraid, I will be with you."
Christians recognize that word, of course. In fact, if I had to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ into one phrase, I think it might be, "Do not be afraid." It is what the angels said to the shepherds in Bethlehem when Jesus was born: "Do not be afraid." It is the first word the angel spoke on Easter morning: "Do not be afraid." It is what the risen Christ said to his disciples: "Do not be afraid. I am with you always."
But it's one thing to say it, and it's another thing to believe it. As a matter of fact, in this kind of world, in a time when we are living between a dead past and a future not yet born, why shouldn't we be afraid?
Â· In the last few years, many people have seen their once secure retirement savings evaporate in the shaking of the stock market and scandals like Enron.
Â· Every day the news is filled with stories of terrorist bombs in hotels and market places, and who knows where the next one will explode.
Â· Even in our high schools, police guard the hallways and students are afraid of violence in the cafeteria and the gym.
Â· And when a security inspector in a crowded airport shouts, "Stop!" people freeze with fear.
The fact of the matter is we are afraid.
When we think about it, our fear is not just about the stock market or the possibility of violence in the streets. Those are symptoms of a deeper fear that we are frail and temporary creatures set in an uncertain space. The philosopher Pascal expressed it well when he said, "When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, this little space which I fill and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am afraid...."
And that is why the prophet Isaiah can say with great confidence, "'Do not be afraid,' says the Lord," because Isaiah knew that the Lord who spoke those words is not some distant deity, some impersonal force loose in the universe, a god pulling the strings of history. God is more like a mother who listens in the night for the cries of her children. "'Do not be afraid,' says the Lord. 'I created you. I formed you. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.'"
The God of Israel, the God whose story is told in this scripture, always calls us by name: Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Samuel, Mary. This is the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ. The God who walks along the shore and calls by name: "Peter, Andrew, John, follow me."
This is the God who knows your name, who knows the number of the hairs on your head, the God who remembers you and does not forget you, the God who, even when the winds howl and the seas roar, listens for your voice, knows your cry, and says to each of us, "Do not be afraid. I know you. I have called you by name. I am coming to help you. You are mine."
Several years ago, I had the great joy of baptizing my first grandchild. As her parents, my daughter and son-in-law, brought her up to the baptismal font, she was swinging her legs and cooing and smiling. I poured the water of baptism on her head and said the words, "I baptize you, Carly Elizabeth, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." Have you ever noticed how important names are in baptism? In her baptism, we called her by name--Carly Elizabeth. And we believe that God called Carly by name too, and that her name was joined forever to God's name, just as all who are baptized have their names called, have their names joined forever to God's name.
Now the truth of the matter is that none of us knows what Carly's life will hold in the future. We pray that her life will be full of joy and health and peace, but we also know that, because she is a human being, she will also face pain and loss and sorrow. We know, as the prophet Isaiah knew, that faith does not protect us from the realities of life. She will, like all human beings, pass through the waters of life's hardships. She will cross the rivers of life's pains, and she will walk through the fire of being a human being. But we also know that God knows her name, that God created her, formed her, redeemed her, and calls her by name. God will never forget her, will never leave her alone, will come to her and will be with her at every turn. So, as Isaiah tells us, God says to her and says to you and to me too:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
When you pass through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
When you walk through the fire, the flame shall not consume you.
I have called you by name, and you are mine.
Back in 1976, America's bicentennial year, a very creative writer came up with an intriguing idea. "Our nation is 200 years old," he thought. "I'll bet I can find someone who is alive today who is old enough that when they were a child, they remember someone who was then old enough to have been alive at the founding of the nation, a living link to the beginning of the country." And, sure enough, he found such a person. He was a Kentucky farmer named Burnham Ledford, who was over 100 years old in 1976; and he remembered when he was a little boy being taken by a wagon to see his great-great grandmother who was then over 100 herself and who was a little girl when George Washington was inaugurated as the first American president.
When the writer asked Burnham what he remembered, he said he remembered being taken into his great-great grandmother's house. She was feeble. She was blind. She was sitting in an old chair in the corner of a dark bedroom. "We brought Burnham to see you," his father said. The old woman turned toward the sound and reached out with long, bony fingers and said in an ancient, cracking voice, "Bring him here."
"They had to push me toward her," Burnham remembered. "I was afraid of her. But when I got close to her, she reached out her hands and began to stroke my face. She felt my eyes and my nose, my mouth and my chin. And all at once, she seemed to be satisfied, and she pulled me close to her and held me tight. 'This boy's a Ledford,' she said, 'I can feel it. I know this boy. He's one of us.'"
In an even deeper way when we are baptized, God holds us close and says, "I know this one. I called this one by name. This one belongs to me. Fear not. I KNOW YOU BY NAME."
I once talked to a minister of a church in a dangerous part of the city who was always amazed by a certain woman, a member of his church, who seemed to have no fear about coming to meetings and services at the church at night, even though she had no car and would have to walk home through the dark and frightening streets. One night, after a prayer service at which this woman had been present, the minister was locking up the church, and he happened to see her walking from the church down the street toward her apartment. As she walked, she was holding her hand out, as if some unseen companion were walking with her and holding her hand, and as she walked, she was humming a familiar spiritual, "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on. Hold my hand, lest I fall. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home."
It is indeed a hard and dangerous world. No one can say what will happen to the economy. It would be a lie to say that we know when terror may strike again. God does not promise to lift us out of the surging waters of life. What God does say is that we will not be alone. God formed us in the womb. God knows the numbers of the hairs of our head. God calls us by name. When we go through life's waters, God will be with us. When all hell breaks loose around us, there is God holding our hand, calling us by name.
A well-known theologian once confessed that he was plagued many nights by a terrible dream. He dreamed that he was traveling in some distant city, and he ran into someone with whom he had gone to high school. In the bad dream, the person would say, "Henri, Henri, haven't seen you in years. What have you done with your life?" This question always felt like judgment. He'd done some good things in his life, but there had also been some troubles and struggles. And when the old schoolmate in the dream would say, "What have you done with your life?" he wouldn't know what to say, how to account for his life. Then one night he had another dream. He dreamed that he died and went to heaven. He was waiting outside the throne room of God, waiting to stand before almighty God, and he shivered with fear. He just knew that God would be surrounded with fire and smoke and would speak with a deep voice saying, "Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?" But, then, in the dream, when the door to God's throne room opened, the room was filled with light. From the room he could hear God speaking to him in a gentle voice saying, "Henri, it's good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I'd love to see your slides."
So, "Fear not," says the Lord, "I know you. I have called you by name. You are mine."
O God, as the seas roar and the winds howl and the earth shakes, turn your ear to us as a mother in the night. Hear our voice, remember us in the darkness and come. Come as you always come, to comfort and to save. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.