29 December – Do not be afraid

Jesus said ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.’
(Matthew 10.28-33)

On Boxing Day I mentioned St Thomas Becket and the sermon that T S Eliot puts into his mouth as an interlude in the action of his play ‘Murder in the Cathedral.’ But today we come back to Becket himself because it is today that we celebrate his feast day. Whereas the other feasts in the days immediately after Christmas Day are in some way related to the birth of Jesus – the first martyr, the theologian of the incarnation, the Holy Innocents – Becket’s day is not like that. Instead it was on this day in 1170 that the Archbishop was murdered, martyred, in his Cathedral in Canterbury by four knights who had rode from London to do the King’s business. They took his infamous words ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ not as what might have been a rhetorical question but as a command, a request, thrown out into the air. You have to listen carefully and not take everything on face value, you have to speak carefully and consider the effect your words may have!

The martyrdom of St Thomas Becket

The martyrdom of St Thomas Becket

But whether or not Henry II really wanted Becket killed the result was that one of the greatest saints in English history was created and, as a consequence, the greatest English shrine and pilgrimage established.

I suppose that Becket saw the ending as inevitable. He couldn’t escape his assassins, the writing was on the wall, the script was written and as the swords descended on him I hope that fear left him.

The Gospel reading for the Eucharist today has those powerful words

Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Fear is overwhelming, it can easily dominate our lives and stop us from acting. Fear can hold us back in life and mean that we cannot be the person that God desires us to be. I was a very fearful young man, shy, worried; it hampered my growing up, it stopped me enjoying life. There came a point of decision making for me – was I going to allow my life to be traumatised by fear, or was I going to let God be my courage? I had to choose God over my fears.

'Perfect love casts out fear.'

‘Perfect love casts out fear.’

Travel forward in the Jesus story until after his resurrection. St John tells us that the disciples were in the Upper Room ‘and the doors of the house … were locked for fear of the Jews.’ (John 20.19) The Upper Room had become a prison for them, their fears were becoming a prison of their own making. But Jesus steps into that locked space of fear and breathes his peace upon them. Yet, even so, by Pentecost they were still in that room and so the Holy Spirit comes and bursts open the windows and drives them into the streets and casts aside their fears so that they can speak.

St John in his First Letter writes this

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
(1 John 4.18)

We have been Bethlehem bound, we travelled a long way for the birth of a child. But this is no ordinary child – this child is love and this love will cast out our fear. The poet Christina Rossetti wrote a poem which helps us with this

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Love came down in Bethlehem and that love, perfect, casts out our fear. Challenge your fear with the love of God in Jesus and live the full life the child comes to bring.

Love divine,
Love, all perfect,
cast out my fear
enter in
that I may live in you.

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