Fear and doubt. They are conjoined twins that follow us around like a shadow. Whenever the bright light of God’s reality shines in our faces, we turn away and there they are. These faithful friends reach out to us and beckon us to retreat into the shadows where it is safe and familiar.
“Don’t risk being exposed by the light,” they say. “Who knows what people might say and do if you let yourself hang out there for all to see.”
The Journey reading for today and the text for the sermon I must preach from this weekend both tell the same story. The Journey reading tells about the Jewish leaders in John 11:45-57 as they are confronted with the reality that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. More and more people believe he is the Messiah sent from God to rescue the nation, and a rebellion is swelling. Then, the sermon this weekend is about Luke 1:5-20 when Zechariah, a faithful and righteous priest in the temple, is confronted with the voice of God through the Angel Gabriel. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, will have a child, he is told, in their old age. This child will be the prophet who will announce the Messiah.
All of these men, these great pillars of the community, are left blinking in the sunlight.
The reality of God is often shocking and odd. It doesn’t fit into our neat little preconceived packages of how God is supposed to function in the world. When it shines in our face it makes us feel naked. This is especially true for those of us who are well dressed in the clothing of religious knowledge and power, like the leaders of Jerusalem and Zechariah.
So, what do we do? More often than not, we turn and speak with our twinned shadow companions. Fear and doubt led the leaders in Jerusalem to say of Jesus, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation (Luke 11:47-48).” The twins led Zechariah to question Gabriel and say, “How will I know that this is true?” For, obviously, it takes a while for pregnancy to become apparent. Hidden in his question is the deeper question, “What will people think of me if I tell them this news?”
I write these words because I, too, as a well-dressed Christian leader, am all too familiar with this twinned shadow. Fear and doubt nip at my heels constantly. “What if I didn’t really hear God’s voice telling me to move to Minnesota?” “What if I really don’t have a clue about the things I supposedly know?” “What if I hurt people with my words?” “What if everyone rejects me?” “What if I’m…simply average (worst fear for my personality type, btw)?”
How do we deal with these self-absorbed voices? We must first acknowledge their presence and thank them for the true gift from God that they are. The brilliant Pixar movie, Inside Out, recently reminded us that fear (and doubt) has its place. They are there to protect us, and we must always listen to them, for sometimes they speak truth.
But then, when they feed our selfishness and pride, we must painfully turn away from them and simply stand naked in the light as they continue to tremble in the cold shadow behind us.
Zechariah’s fear led him to be silenced for nine months. A man who made his living as a religious leader had to sit silent while God’s truth gestated. Then, when the full light of truth was born from Elizabeth, his mouth was opened and he spoke some of the most beautiful words in scripture. We often call it the Benedictus found in Luke 1:67-79.
I leave you with Zechariah’s rebuttal to fear and doubt:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
May we stand naked in the light of these words and walk, together, into the way of peace.