A few months ago a Dutch policeman named Arno was killed by a truck driver. The truck driver was not unknown to the police. He had caused several similar incidents and everyone who knew him said he hated the police. It was a mystery why this man was still in possession of a driving licence. Until a whistle blower was brave enough to give us a clue. Senior police officers had instructed their agents on motorcycle not to interfere with this man for their own safety. And just to be on the safe side, the other officers on the road also stayed out of his way. In other words, they were all afraid of him.
This incident teaches us several things. First of all, it is not uncommon to have fear. It happens to the best of us. We may try to keep up appearances and deny that we are afraid, but our actions will usually give us away. Better to be honest with ourselves and others. Secondly, what seems the safest action at first, may actually be the more dangerous one. First a policeman lost an arm, then a policeman lost his life. The management probably meant well as they warned their staff in the field for this man, but the need for justice was sacrificed and that proved fatal.
Not long after this tragedy I heard a children’s story in church, about Jesus and the storm on the lake. The minister told the children that Jesus did not really walk on the water, because… that would have been dangerous. I can understand that the minister didn’t want the children to try and copy it, but we also know that children like to experiment, especially with things we as adults do not recommend. So how obsessed do we want to be with safety? How do we manage to turn a message of hope and courage into one of hesitation, fear and separation?
Fear is a powerful motivator. It makes us do things we would otherwise not consider and prevents us from doing what needs to be done. It makes us abandon our usual logic and it narrows our sight, so as to overlook important information. No wonder that fear is used more and more often in the advertisement industry and even by governments: the fear of missing out (FOMO), the fear of not being liked, of being different, etc. The more fearful we are, the easier to control. We will take the shortcuts that we are offered. We will be more docile and less inclined to raise our voices, investigate things or ask questions.
Afraid to return to Judah
The author of our reading from the book of Isaiah had a message for the people of Judah, who had been led into captivity in Babylon. These people thought they had little to look forward to. Centuries before them, the 10 northern tribes had been led into captivity to Syria. They were dispersed and never returned. To this day scholars disagree as to what happened to them. That’s why they are called the 10 lost tribes of Israel. So why would the people of Judah have any confidence whatsoever that they would be able to return to the old normal when history showed that 10 out of 12 tribes had failed to do so?
Moreover, such a displacement was usually accompanied by a lot of state propaganda and a kind of cancel culture. The new rulers would have little respect for the origins, religion and ideals of those they had captured. Somewhat like the Uygurs and the Tibetans in China they would be discouraged to use their own language and preserve their customs. And even if these things were tolerated, they would still have to integrate and get used to the new normal. Better not hang on to the idea of returning, or you would be considered somewhat like a person with a double nationality in the Netherlands is looked upon, i.e. not be trusted.
Isaiah knew, by the enlightenment of God’s Spirit, that they had in fact given in to fear.
They also underestimated God’s power to bring change. And they underestimated God’s justice. Babylon might have been used as an instrument to teach Judah a lesson, but that did not mean the Babylonians were the good guys. Terrible things were predicted for them, chapter after chapter, such that the book of Revelation in the New Testament takes Babylon as a symbol of those empires and dark powers which would harm the people of God in the latter days and would also be punished for it. Could that refer to our times as well? I leave you to think about that one carefully.
But at the time of Isaiah’s words, both acts of divine intervention were no more than prophecy. So how should Isaiah approach his timid and fearful fellow-Judeans in captivity? How to show them that there were still ways to be loyal to God, ways to claim his promises, ways to build a stable society of their own, ways to care for each other without the constant fear of being watched or doing something wrong in the eyes of the state? How to give them renewed trust in their God?
Calling for discernment and courage
Let’s see how Isaiah goes about it. Does he hesitate to call his people fearful? They who are in denial of their fears, who just want to be comfortable in a land with a strange religion, might feel insulted and angry when they are told to get moving. Maybe they even thought they were doing the right thing by just remaining in Babylon. But there’s no hesitation with Isaiah. He tells them that they are in fact paralysed by fear, but that this is not necessary. He goes even further. He commissions his audience to tell others not to be fearful! The call to be courageous should be heard everywhere. What was needed was a group of people not afraid to address the apathy and fear and the complacent herd-mentality in their own families, their neighbourhoods and beyond.
I think this is true in our time as well. First of all we need to be reminded and remind others that God is not asleep. He has seen our suffering and fear. He will be our saviour. What will we He save us from? Because that is not always clear. As Christians we often say that we are saved from our sins. But what does that mean? Can the things we did wrong by mistake come back to hurt us? Well, in a way. In any case, our text in Isaiah makes one thing very clear: Succumbing to fear always gets in the way of spiritual progress. So that is one thing to be saved from. What God wants to do most of all is to open the eyes of the spiritually blind, to give hearing to the deaf, to cure the people’s paralysis and to give them back their voice, their freedom, their land and their true identity.
We see this prophecy literally being fulfilled in the miracles which Jesus performs in Mark 7 and elsewhere in the gospels. But apart from this literal fulfilment there is an equally important spiritual fulfilment. In John 1:9 it says that Christ is the true light and that this light shines on all people. It is because of this light that Luke can say in his gospel (8:17) that “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be made known”. In other words, God, through Christ, will open eyes and ears, if not now, then later. He helps us to leave Babylon. The name Babylon means confusion. God does not want us to be in the dark about what is good and what is evil. But nothing happens against our will. God needs our consent and our desire to be healed. Maybe that’s why Luke adds in verse 18, “Pay attention, therefore, to how you listen”. For it is possible to listen and still miss what God is trying to say to us.
The easy way
And this reminds me of the gospel reading of last week about the traditions of the pharisees and scribes, collectively called the elders. They knew all there was to know, added “a few” rules themselves and taught the people to observe everything. But they apparently still missed the essence. The thing is that you cannot improve your own life or the lives of others by adding rules and constantly worrying about compliance. That would be obedience by fear and by social pressure. It does not necessarily come from the heart. Jesus was quite different. He was not afraid to be “contaminated” via his contacts with the poor, the tax collectors and the outcasts. That is not to say he didn’t feel tempted to give in to fear for his own safety, but He was not swayed by it.
In psychology it is well known that action helps us to feel back in control. And it doesn’t really matter what kind of action. So when the action isn’t the right one, or not enough, we will still feel safe. The feeling of fear will be suppressed or, actually, postponed. This is also how superstition and addiction work. In reality there are still considerable dangers, but we can’t see them anymore. And in some cases, like the true story of the police and the truck driver, our initial fear and our superficial responses actually make things worse.
Many of the man-made rules in the time of Jesus were also counter-productive. Yet they were sold as something very pious. You were made to feel selfish if you didn’t comply. But just think about it. In a society with little or no social security it had become possible and even respectable to neglect your parents. All you had to do was to claim that your possessions were corban, that is an offering to God, and then you didn’t have to share. And this made Jesus furious. Of course! For religion was used to give people a false sense of superiority instead of improving conditions.
What it means for us today
Today, once more, many put their own safety first, or they sacrifice everything for one kind of safety, while ignoring much larger issues. It is as Paul predicted in his letter to Timothy, “People will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly”. We can be fooled into thinking that a few outward acts of obedience are enough, and then we can sit back. Going beyond that may scare us. But our vision for a better world does not deserve to be obscured by fear. Good things cannot come about by carrying out a prescribed ritual (whether imposed by church or government) or by just avoiding a few risky things.
Again and again in the Bible, we see that the vision for a better future is combined with fearless criticism of the latest abuses and vice versa. The one never excludes the other. “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help”, it says in Psalm 146. Jesus is not afraid to point out hypocrisy and deceit. And we have the apostle James who quite bluntly states that the rich usually oppress the poor and thrive on class justice. Once our eyes have been opened, we will inevitably see things as they are. And we cannot work for justice and for a better world when we are more or less satisfied with the way things are, with ourselves or with the world.
So what I am sure we need, is to have a new Christian clarity to see through the deceptions. We used to call it an awakening or a revival. Next we can help others to see. Isaiah tells us to go to those who have been hypnotised by fear, afraid to do anything, let alone make a new start. They are thirsting for encouragement, for salvation. Let it be our calling to observe and point out what the Lord is doing in our midst and what still needs to be challenged. For God will come with vengeance as well as salvation. Corruption will be punished and the weak will be made strong. All this has already started with the first coming of our Lo