November 26, 2020

Epiphany II: Grief and Fear


Epiphany II
Grief and Fear

In the small country church where I am preaching this morning, I will face a congregation filled with grief. A young woman in the congregation died of cancer this week, leaving a husband and family behind. In addition, the pastor lost a relative this week and has been away tending to his own family.

The ministry of bereavement support that I normally practice with individuals will take a different form this week, as I seek to bring comfort to an entire congregation dealing with loss.

One providential factor that will be of help to me is that this church had to cancel services last Sunday because of snow and ice. With everything else that has happened, the pastor recommended that they use the bulletin and order of service from last Sunday so that it would free up volunteers and give them time to mourn. The OT reading for last Sunday is perfect for this week’s situation.

California Wildfire???? ISAIAH 43:1-7

1But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed: No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” 

Lewis then writes about some specific situations in which he felt fear in his grief. He  felt afraid to be alone — even though he had no interest in joining the conversations of others around him, he dreaded the times when they left and he was there all by himself.

However, he was also afraid to be out in public and greeted by other people. He knew they were uncomfortable knowing what to say to him, and he was uncomfortable, realizing how awkward the situation was.

C.S. Lewis also wrote that there was a suspenseful kind of fear he experienced: wondering and worrying about what would happen next and not feeling the strength to face whatever that might be.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” wrote C.S. Lewis.

In this Old Testament text, the prophet Isaiah was addressing the people of Israel in exile. They were grieving. They had lost their homes, their businesses, their Temple, their cities and towns, and had been carried off into exile in Babylon. They had lost almost everything and now they found themselves in a foreign land under the rule of their enemies. Worst of all, they felt abandoned by God himself; this was their deepest sadness.

In one of the verses right before this passage, Isaiah had written:

But this is a people robbed and plundered,
    all of them are trapped in holes
    and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with no one to rescue,
    a spoil with no one to say, “Restore!” (42:22)

The people of Israel had been through a time of death and devastation, now they found themselves in what seemed like a helpless and hopeless situation. They were grieving. And in their grief they felt afraid.

They felt afraid that God had rejected them, that he had withdrawn his presence and blessing from them, that they no longer belonged to him and that he would no longer come to help and rescue them. They feared that God must now have moved on to other people, as though God had divorced them and taken another nation as his wife.

They felt unloved, unwanted, no longer secure in knowing that God cared for them. They were afraid that their sins and the exile had separated from the love of God and they were afraid of the prospects of a life without God. They feared the future.

In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Samantha Smithstein writes: “I’m beginning to understand that grief is not just loss. Grief is also about becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. [It’s like] losing a map and compass all at once – [losing the] way to orient our life. Our love.”

That was what the people of Israel were feeling. They felt untethered. Lost. Insecure and full of anxiety. Afraid.

In our passage, Isaiah speaks the word of God to these people who have lost so much and who are so filled with fear. And he speaks directly to their grief and fear.

  • In verse one, God says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
  • In verse five, God says: “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you…”
  • And throughout this passage, God reinforces his relationship with the people of Israel and reiterates his promise to take care of them always. He reminds them that he created them, he formed them, he called them to himself. And he says, no matter what you go through, you will never suffer ultimate harm — for I will be with you. He calls himself their Lord, their Holy One, their Savior. He says, “you are precious in my sight, [you are] honored, and I love you…”

Isaiah’s words to Israel find their counterpart in Paul’s in the 8th chapter of Romans:

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 
38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In our grief and in our fear, these are words we need to hear, this is the assurance we need to feel.

No matter what we go through, no matter what losses we face, no matter how many enemies seem to be ruling over us and keeping us down, God loves us. God is with us. God will see to it that we never suffer ultimate harm. Just as he said to Israel, we are precious in God’s sight, honored and loved by God. God redeemed us, called us by name, and we belong to him.

Death cannot separate us from God’s love. The circumstances of life cannot separate us from God’s love. No power in heaven or on earth can separate us from God’s love. Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Frederick Buechner once wrote these words to communicate how life is and to assure us of God’s present help. “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

I wish I could tell you that the world is a place where only beautiful things happen. We all know better. In this world both beautiful and terrible things happen. Our hope does not lie in escaping life’s hard things, as much as we wish we could. Our hope is that we are not alone. There is Someone with us to comfort us in our fear, Someone to reassure us that we are not alone, not without help, never in danger of ultimate harm.

Do not fear, says our God. I have redeemed you, I am with you, I will never let you go.


  1. ‘May God reunite those who love one another’

    ( last line from “Hymne à L’Amour’ ) “Dieu réunit ceux qui s’aiment” . . .

  2. God loves us. He is with us.

    Yes. Good. But so often, though he loves us and is with us, we don’t sense either; and though the promise is that he will never let us suffer ultimate harm, we are suffering harm now. If in his presence with us in our current harm, we cannot either sense him or be protected from the harm we are experiencing, how do we find in his current presence, and the words of the tradition that have down to us promising that he is with us and will not let us come to ultimate harm, confidence to believe that either his current presence or his promise to deliver us from ultimate harm have any power? Where is the power? Where do we experience it? What is the powerful token in our present that the future we are told he promises, the deliverance, can actually happen?

    • No easy answers, Robert.

      For our part, we do what we can. We meditate on God’s words day and night. We pray the Psalms. We make use of the means of grace. We love one another. We extend love to our neighbors, especially those who are suffering.

      As Dr. Smithstein from the PT article says, we take fear by the hand and keep walking.

    • None of us are separated from the laws of nature and creation, whether it’s physics (part of an airplane fails, jet plummets, killing all aboard – Christians and non-Christians alike), weather (tornado touches down, killing Christians and non-Christians alike), health (every Christian I know has ultimately died -or will die – of something, regardless of belief in the power of God), financial (decisions made by greedy S.O.B.s at the top at Enron or Washington Mutual will ultimately take down well-being of Christians and non-Christians alike)…etc.

      The only thing I know is this: Jesus walked this stuff just as we did. The past couple years, as I read the gospel accounts of Jesus, I’ve been analyzing and marveling at the things Jesus appears to be unafraid of. The list is astounding. Mind you, I think Jesus DID feel fear, but he never seems to show it. Ultimatlely, what I’ve gained from studying his “lack of fear” or “courage” is this: he’s telling me, “You don’t need to fear what the world wants you to fear.” Maybe it’s as CM (and Dr. Smithstein)…it’s taking fear by the hand and keeping walking. Seems to be what Jesus did.

    • I don’t know, Robert.

      I remember once coming out of the kitchen and finding a dead squirrel on the lawn, torn by cat’s claws. I said, You know, I could make a better world in my f***ing sleep.”

      We sang a hymn this morning: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise/ In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” You get that far and you think, ‘ invisible, inaccessible, hid from our eyes — OK then, what’s the *point?*”

      All I can tell you — and it’s not much — is that I have been there, at the point of despair. I’ve spent quite some time in that country. But I have come out — right now life is OK, and sometimes better than OK. Kind of a B minus most of the time. God helped (though I couldn’t sense his presence), recovery programs helped, and anti-depressants helped. It may sound faintly blasphemous to put all three of those together, but I do now believe that God is the author of the other two.

      I just got through, day after plodding day, and one day the world looked a bit brighter, and that continued. I pray that the same becomes true for you.

    • Trying to find God’s presence is a situation is difficult, especially while in the midst of it. Personally, I look to things that are beautiful as a sign that my hope for the restoration of all things is not without warrant. It makes for a pathetic logical argument, no doubt, but it helps. Often times, I just have to put my foot down and say “This is awful, but I refuse to let it nullify the world for me”.

  3. I don’t understand how, but this meditation is helping me process a crust of shame that has covered my life for decades. I think it’s the connection of grief and fear. It is making sense of why I am looking back on shame after shame and grieving rather than following my knee jerk reaction to hide, even from myself.

    • Andy (Kindle spelling prob), I feel this way so much. Ageing is helping me though. Scales are falling off my eyes, slowly. I wish I could write more about this grief, fear and shame a lifetime, too tired, but thank you CM

  4. I wish you well in your preaching and hope your words bring comfort.

    Me, as one who would prefer to never again step foot into a church of any kind, I just shake my head. Christians have this “nothing can separate us”, you’re never in danger of ultimate harm because God looooves you thing, and yet simultaneously believe that billions (don’t get caught up in the number) ARE going to be ultimately separated and ARE going to suffer ultimate harm in the end. God will “let them go”. Not theirloved ones of course. The key is to be part of the “us”.

    I don’t get how people do the mental gymnastics to not see this. Is it deliberate? It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.

    So something is greater than “God’s love in Christ”, even if it’s human stupidity and the “free will” to “lock the doors on the inside”. I find it rather refreshing when people just admit this. It’s horrible, but at least it’s honest. If God does actually love every person, then the ultimate loss is staggering. Period. Creation is tragic. No comfort in that.

    God’s love is amazingly unconditional…..once you meet the conditions.

    Anyway. As you were.

    • It’s possible the only condition to meet is “being created,” which means you might already be “in.” That might be heresy to some, but to others it’s the only thing that makes sense.


      • I like to think that at our begetting, we are baptized into Christ’s death, and inherit his redemption.

    • You make a very good point, and I understand why you wouldn’t want to set foot in a church again, if this is what so many Christians believe. And let’s not even talk about Calvinism. Jeez! Hell renders all talk about God’s love and life’s meaningfulness utterly moot.

  5. I can’t look at that photo of the guy in the water except thru tears. He makes a much better image of Messiah than the Sunday School picture of Jesus, meek and mild, clean and neat, with a lamb draped around his neck like a fashion accessory. Would make a good picture to put up in front in church. That one on the left is me. The one on the right too.

  6. Ronald Avra says

    I needed this today. Thanks.

  7. What I fear most is that soon the person I loved and lost will be totally transformed into my memory of them and the real person, the aggravating, discomfiting, tender, patient, beauty that was will be lost for ever. When will that moment come? Will I even notice it when it does? Has it come already? I don’t want my memory of them. I want them!

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “Memory is not what he heart desires.” – Gimli (JRR Tolkien). IMO one of the best lines given to any character, in a nearly perfect mostly overlooked scene.

      I think of it often when someone says something like “they will live on in your heart” and I suppres the desire to knock them on thier ass.

  8. Today some snow fell
    a light dusting, nothing stuck
    Big snow’s in the bones

  9. Just as an aside, that photo of the guy standing in front of the raging inferno could have been me thirty years ago. And it likely would have been a prescribed controlled burn as of logging slash prior to replanting. Something like setting off an eighty acre bonfire with fuel piled six foot high and surrounded by valuable standing timber which can’t be scorched. There is no other scenario in which someone would be seen calmly standing and observing so near what could be hundred foot high flames or more. Possibly a long distance lens on a camera. Ordinarily firefighters are not that close to an uncontrolled wildfire. If you were, you would most likely either be struggling to save a valuable structure or running literally for your life. Doing a controlled burn was a lot more exciting than fighting a wildfire, which is mostly just exhausting manual labor outside of the danger zone. Not always. Don’t mean to take away from the picture of the modern day Daniel.

  10. Water into wine,
    and guests already reeling
    stagger even more

  11. Going to bed late
    getting up before it’s light
    letting the dead sleep

  12. January thaw
    Pale green at the bases of
    The doomed lilac buds.