Friday, September 4, 2015

Casting Out Fear

The following comes Catholic Exchange:

September 6, 2015
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isa 35:4-7a
What are you afraid of? Fear grips all of us some of the time and many of us most of the time. We fear what the doctor will say after the test; we fear the stock market crashing; we fear the other drivers on the road; we fear the outcomes of elections and we fear the things inside of us that lead us away from our own best intentions. But living out of fear is a bad idea. Fear causes us to act irrationally and too quickly—like scared investors who pull their money from the market when it dips only to miss its climb back up or like animals hemmed in who run every which way seeking an escape. Fear also paralyzes us like a deer in headlights and makes us unable to act and react as we should. God does not want us paralyzed by fear.

The Ransomed Will Return

In this Sunday’s first reading, he sends us a messenger with an alarmingly fear-free message: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, fear not!’”  (Isa 35:4 RSV). The Lord sends Isaiah to announce the end of fear, the fear that weakens and incapacitates us. In the previous verse, the fearful of heart are identified as those with “weak hands” and “feeble knees.” Fear unmans us by its ferocious festering, but God swoops in to vanquish fear and restore his people. In this section of Isaiah, chaps. 28–35, the prophet has been going back and forth between judgment and deliverance. This final chapter culminates with the people of God returning from exile back to an abundant land that bursts forth with blossoms and water (35:1-2, 7). Creation is celebrating the return of God’s people, their restoration, the fulfillment of their hopes as “the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (Isa 35:10 RSV).

Fear Not!

I can almost hear the thick Polish accent of St. John Paul II uttering once again his favorite encouragement, “Do not be afraid!” (Here’s a video of him doing just that.) Fear is the opposite of hope, the opposite of fortitude, the opposite of faith. But in such an untrustworthy, strife-ridden world, why shouldn’t we be afraid? Isaiah’s answer is “Behold, your God will come with vengeance…He will come and save you” (Isa 35:4 RSV). That’s just it. We don’t have the capability to defeat fear on our own. In fact, fear is a rational response to a haywire world. But God, Creator of all, Master of everything, he has the power to defeat fear, to vindicate his captured, fearful, humiliated people. They might have been afraid of foreign powers who would drag them away from the Promised Land, but these serve for us as metaphors for sin and evil which can drag us away from communion with God. Yet the slavery to sin that we sometimes find ourselves in need not be a permanent confinement, a life sentence. God comes to us, he sends his Son to us, he sends others to us to rescue us from that imprisonment, to vindicate us and defeat the fear that lurks inside.

To Fear or Not To Fear

Many times when the Lord speaks to someone in the Bible, his first words warn against fear. Abraham (Gen 15:1), Hagar (Gen 22:17), Isaac (Gen 26:24), Joshua (Josh 10:8), St. Joseph (Matt 1:20), and Mary (Luke 1:30) all receive such messages. God does not come to fill people with terror, but to conquer fear and set people free from its hold. In fact, the New Testament teaches, “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18 RSV). But fear has two faces. Other points in the Bible remind us to “fear the Lord” (Deut 10:12; Prov 3:7). How do we reconcile the Bible encouraging fear in some places and in other places telling us not to fear? I think Blaise Pascal said it best, “Fear not, provided you fear; but if you fear not, then fear.” It sounds a bit silly, but the idea makes sense: If you don’t fear God and therefore flaunt his ways, you ought to fear him because of punishment. Yet if you do fear God and find yourself afraid of the world around you, then do not fear, since God is your Savior. It is a paradox, but God seems to love those.

Finding Fulfillment in Jesus

When Jesus comes, he fulfills parts of this passage. He makes the blind see. He makes the deaf to hear and he heals the lame so they can leap. These signs that Jesus performs indicate that he is bringing Isaiah’s prophecies to fulfillment. While Isaiah’s contemporaries might have looked for mere political deliverance from foreign oppressors, Jesus’ actions reveal that the prophet’s message goes much deeper—to deliverance from our spiritual enemies (sin and death) not just our political ones. When Jesus heals people, he shows that he is the Messiah, the savior who comes to set us free from fear, free to live in love. Isaiah depicts the transition from fear to freedom beautifully: “the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isa 35:7 RSV). What had been a parched, dry desert will flow with water and blossom with flowers. The dried-up, fearful heart will gush with praise.
Now of course, we wait the final fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies, which will not come to full fruition until the Second Coming. But in the meantime, we need not wait with impatience, fear, doubt and anxiety. Instead, Jesus offers us hope and courage in the midst of a dark world. God will come. He will rescue us. That should be consolation enough, enough for us to look forward with a heart brimming with joyful anticipation, rather than to bring “weak hands” and “feeble knees” upon ourselves by a doom-and-gloom perspective. Isaiah’s message, “He will come and save you,” should unburden us from the paralysis of fear and let us look to God for our future.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Vert rewarding. Thank you.