The prisons of our own fears may just begin to open up
Christopher Seaman, 30 January 2022
Malachi 3: 1–5; Hebrews 2: 14–18; Luke 2: 22–40
‘I’m not afraid to die’, said Woody Allen. ‘I’m not afraid to die – I just don’t want to be there when it happens!’
Today’s second reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, may not have been familiar to Woody Allen. We heard that Jesus shared our flesh and blood, and died ‘to free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’. The word for ‘fear’ in the Greek is phobia.
I’m not a Greek scholar. The headmaster of my senior school made me do Greek for two years because he said it would be ‘good for my brain’. (We can have a vote at the end about that if you like.) So the word is phobia. Of course, all of us have phobias of different kinds, often very small ones. I have a phobia of getting into water deeper than my waist. One of my friends screams if she sees a spider. Another can’t look over the edge of a tall building. They’re not ‘wrong’; it’s just part of being human.
But as we heard in the reading, the letter to the Hebrews sees fear as slavery, and slavery does two things, doesn’t it? First, it keeps you in captivity, and secondly, the ‘slave-driver’ drives you to do things you would not choose to do for yourself. In the same way, our own fears stop us being what we could be (in my case, an Olympic swimmer), and they drive us to do what in our heart of hearts we know is not ideal.
When I started conducting orchestras in my twenties, I was so afraid that the orchestra would all fall apart and not play together that I was beating time in a very exaggeratedly clear, controlling kind of way, which chokes the natural creativity of musicians. I had to learn to loosen the reins a bit, to give them a little freedom and wiggle room. It has been said very wisely that a controlling person is a fearful person. To call someone a ‘control freak’ is not usually a compliment.
Simeon, in our gospel reading today, has no fear of death at all, but he embraces the vision given to him by God. We’re all familiar with his words, aren’t we, going to an evening service? Nunc Dimittis, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’; in our version that was read today, ‘Lord, now you are dismissing your servant’. ‘Dismiss’ can sound a little bit military: ‘Squad, dis-miss!’ But I looked up this word as well, and it means ‘to release’, ‘to set free’ – like releasing a prisoner from captivity. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Lazarus staggered out of his tomb, all bound up with grave-clothes. ‘Release him!’ said Jesus, using the same basic word.
So Simeon didn’t say, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant slink off to his grave’; he talked about being released in peace. Peace, shalom, that wonderful Hebrew word. When you go to Israel – I’m sure some of you have – people greet you with shalom. It can either mean ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’.
And shalom isn’t the kind of peace that means no war – although we pray for that, my goodness – not that kind of peace. And it doesn’t mean no noise; my Scottish friends used to say to their noisy children, ‘Gie us peace!’
No, shalom doesn’t mean the absence of something; it means the presence of something. It means contentment, completeness, wholeness, well-being, harmony. Simeon was holding in his arms the Prince of Peace, the Prince of Shalom, and he had no fear.
We could say, ‘It’s all very well for Simeon. He had a hotline to God; I don’t. He held the Messiah in his arms – what a privilege; I haven’t. What about me, struggling down here with all the difficulties, temptations and stresses that challenge and test my faith every day? It’s all very well for Simeon!’
But just a minute. Today we, you and I, know more than Simeon knew. We know Jesus’ words about God’s love for us; Simeon didn’t. We know about his death on the cross for us, reconciling the world to himself; Simeon didn’t. And above all, we know about his resurrection, proof that Jesus was indeed who he said he was, and that he had conquered sin and death; Simeon didn’t know that either, because the full story had yet to unfold.
Luke’s gospel tells us how Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Many prophets and kings longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it’, and that would include Simeon. But with Simeon, a wonderful exchange was taking place. Just as Simeon held God, come to earth as a baby, in his arms, that same God was holding Simeon in his arms, and that same God holds you and me in his arms in just the same way. For me it’s so crucial. Many years ago, at a Christian camp, I was taught a wonderful promise from the Old Testament, from the book of Deuteronomy: ‘The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms’.
Just as Simeon held God, come to earth as a baby, in his arms, that same God holds you and me in his arms.
We perhaps all remember how often Jesus said, ‘Don’t be afraid’. And Jesus never asks us for the impossible – the difficult, oh yes, don’t I know it, but not the impossible. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That must mean that maybe you and I don’t need to be totally stuck with every one of our various fears.
Everyone has a different way of praying at home. I know people who don’t jump straight away into words – worship words, praise, praying for people, praying for people they’re worried about. Instead, they begin by just sitting and becoming aware of being held by God, just as Simeon was being held by God. And who knows, if we try that each time we pray, maybe for us one or two of the prisons of our own fears may just begin to open up. Amen.