“Be afraid. Be very afraid!”
That line came into my head as I read our readings for today, but I couldn’t remember where it came from. It turns out it’s from David Croenenburg’s 1986 film The Fly, which is based on a short story by George Langelaan about a man who is half turned into a fly in a botched scientific experiment. At which point it all came back to me…I’ve never seen the film, but I did read the story, many years ago, and have always wished I hadn’t… I was, indeed afraid, very afraid.
Fear is a strange thing. Logically you’d think we’d all want to avoid it, and yet we seem to be drawn to scary experiences whether it’s reading or watching a horror story or going on a scary ride in a theme park. Of course, in those situations, the fear is tamed by the knowledge that the story is made up and the scary ride has – we hope – been thoroughly inspected by the Health and Safety officials. Perhaps we need to play-act our fears so we are ready for the real thing, but perhaps also we know that sometimes frightening experiences can be important, a gateway to something new, a moment of growth.
In our readings today we meet two frightened men who discover exactly that. The prophet Isaiah stands in the Temple in Jerusalem, where God was believed to be symbolically present in the heart of Israel. It was a very familiar place to Isaiah, but on this day, something very strange was happening there. Isaiah had a vision of God “high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” Around him were mysterious beings, seraphim, flying with their six wings and singing to one another “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts”. It wasn’t just a cry of worship, it was also a warning. The Israelites believed that getting too close to real holiness was dangerous, not because God meant anyone evil, but simply because encountering him was lifechanging. Isaiah was rightly terrified, realising how small he was in comparison to this mighty God. What business had he to even be there, in this place where heaven seemed to have invaded earth? But as he wonderfully discovered, not only does God want him there, God even seems to need him. “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” cries God, and Isaiah answers “Here I am, send me!”
The Hebrew scriptures said that no one could see God and live, and although there were those like Isaiah and Moses who did, they were never the same again. They found themselves on pathways they could never have imagined, so maybe there was death of a sort going on.
The fear in the Gospel reading is less obvious, but I think it’s just as real. Nicodemus is afraid of what others will think of him, a respected, senior religious leader, who’s supposed to know what’s what. That’s why he comes ‘by night’ as the story tells us. Why would he want to talk to this radical preacher, just a carpenter from Nazareth whose been upsetting the traditional order? But I think he’s even more afraid of himself and his own feelings. He senses that there is something about Jesus that feels like the presence of God, something of the holiness which so frightened Isaiah. Nicodemus can’t understand or explain it; Jesus has no training, no background, no standing in society. But he can’t deny it either, and he knows that if Jesus really is from God, of God, maybe even the Messiah, it will have huge consequences for him, upending his life.
We’re not told what happens at the end of his conversation with Jesus, but it’s clear that he doesn’t drop everything and follow Jesus, not yet at any rate. He seems just to slip back into the darkness he arrived in. It’s all too scary. He isn’t mentioned again until after the crucifixion when he finally steps out of the shadows and helps to bury Jesus’ body. But I think we can assume that he must then have become a disciple, and part of the early church, otherwise his name and his story wouldn’t ever have been known or recorded.
Fear, as I said earlier, is a strange thing. It can be a horrible experience, something dark and destructive, which crushes our spirits and makes us shrink from life, but there are also times when we feel the kind of holy fear which Isaiah and Nicodemus felt, times when our fear is a sign that something is happening that really matters, when we realise we are encountering something bigger and more mysterious than we are, when we discover that we are standing on holy ground, being drawn into the life of God, into his holy work.
I recall coming home from hospital with my first child, and finding myself entirely alone with this tiny, fragile, brand new human being, knowing that his safety and happiness lay in my hands. And he didn’t even seem to have come with a manual… A small child, but a huge responsibility and a huge privilege, which I knew I didn’t have the resources to handle, because none of us does. I was, rightly, afraid but looking back I can see that it was a holy fear, a good fear, and I’m glad to have felt it.
I recall the time when I battled with the sense that I was being called to ordained ministry, something which felt impossible to walk away from. I knew that saying yes to God would have consequences for me and for those around me, and I knew that I couldn’t possibly do it in my own strength. In the ordination service, priests are told that “the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross”. There was no way that I felt I was up to such a precious job, and that’s still the case. It is only by the grace of God that I’m here. The day I stop being aware of that holy fear, the privilege that has been entrusted to me, is the day I need to give up.
I’m sure there have been moments in all our lives like that, when we quake, knowing that we are doing something, making some decision that really matters.
I’ve often stood at the top of the chancel steps and watched couples tremble as they say their marriage vows, as the nerves about the practicalities of the day give way to the proper, holy fear at the scale of the promises they are making, to love and to cherish, till death us do part. If they weren’t at least a bit frightened at that point, I think I’d be worried for them.
Chronic anxiety is a terrible thing and needs professional help to address, but a life in which there is no fear is no life at all, because it means there is no growth, no challenge, no point at which we are called out beyond our comfort zone, knowing that we are doing something that really matters simply by being ourselves. What those callings look like will be different for each of us, and they will change through our lives. Our fears will be different too, but if we can face them and acknowledge them to God, we too can find ourself in the Holy of Holies, as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, weave themselves into our lives and lead us into true joy.