and Isaiah 43:1-3a
We are in a series that talks about life’s problems right now. We have been looking at that for a few weeks and this week we are talking specifically about fear. Fear starts early in life. I got a book here that we read to our son, There’s a Nightmare in my Closet. This is a very well worn book because we needed to use it quite a few times. The nightmare is fairly large, but it turns out that he is not that scary after all. Fears start early and some, like these fears, are imagined, but many more of the things we fear are real.
I can remember when I first started looking deeply at this church, long before it started looking deeply at me. I was carrying that fear around too, I guess. But I was looking at news about Maryland. This was around the fall of 2002. And the news wasn’t very good then because that’s when you had the serial killer in the Washington/Baltimore area. And so Maryland was on the news every night, but it wasn’t good news because it had to do with this irrational attack on people and the incredible response of anger and fear that people were carrying around with them. People here in Maryland were afraid to step out of their cars and fill their gas tanks or walk to the store and pick up things and then walk back to their car in the parking lot. It wasn’t any better back in Baton Rouge because in Baton Rouge we had our own problem with a serial killer. In Baton Rouge there was a person breaking into suburban homes and killing young women. It was a terrible time. People there, because of their fears, were double-locking their doors, and women would go from a church service to the hardware store to buy mace or pepper spray or whatever was legal — maybe some things that weren’t legal. It was out of their fears that they were carrying around in Baton Rouge.
It was a terrible time too because it was just a year after 9/11. Think about all of the changes that have come about in our own thinking about ourselves as Americans — how we have an additional dose of fear in our thinking because of that. Now all of a sudden, we realize that great tragedies and terrorist attacks of great magnitude don’t just happen elsewhere. They happen here. And we forget these lessons fast, but sure enough it came and all of sudden there was, all across our country, people changing their attitudes about flying. People who would fly comfortably decided not to fly anymore. Even now you can see how we have institutionalized our fear because every time I go fly now, I have to take off my shoes at some point, and half of the time somebody is waving a little wand over me. We’ve got all kinds of machinery that surround us — machinery that’s trying to help us deal with a very real danger that we fear. So fears surround us.
But most of the fears we carry around aren’t these big societal fears like this. They are the personal fears that have to do with individual problems that we each face: the challenges, the failures that we worry about. For some of us, they are financial fears that we carry around. You might be looking at the rising house prices and you are in the market, and you realize that every month that goes by, you are farther and farther behind. There is educational debt. There is poor stock performance, for those of us who have some things invested there. We worry about our job performance because that affects our financial future, and many of us have struggled with losing jobs and being in that in-between land where we don’t have a livelihood. There are health issues that we fear. We fear cancer. We fear heart attacks and strokes and all of these are very real dangers. We fear for our children. We fear for our grandchildren. We fear for our spouse. We worry about our marriages. We fear our own weaknesses. That is what Gina was talking about. It wasn’t the dangers outside that give her the biggest worry: it’s the dangers inside. Her own lack of faith. Her own struggles and we can all share in that. We fear those weaknesses, and we fear those weaknesses being made public. We carry all kinds of fears. And the problem is… Well, let me just talk about one more fear. There is a fear that I carry around that even when something good happens, I am waiting for the other shoe to fall. I am waiting for the bad thing that is going to happen next. So even when things are going well, we find a way of being afraid of it.
Now the thing that strikes me is that so many of these fears are very real dangers. We are not protected from these problems. All of these bad things, illnesses and violence on the streets and things like that, happen to Christian people. Christians died on 9/11. And so at a time like that we have to ask, what difference does it make to be a Christian in the face of fears? If being a Christian doesn’t mean that you have a carte blanche protection from evil, then what difference does it make? What then should I do? How should I act differently because I am a Christian in the face of very real threats and fears? Another way of stating that is, what does God say about how we should face our fears?
I would like to read to you two passages — two short passages – that relate to this issue of fear. One of them is from Matthew 10 and then I am going to read from the Old Testament, Isaiah 43. But once I am finished reading with Isaiah, if you have a Bible with you, turn back to Matthew 10 – and there are pew Bibles in front of you, too, if you want to use that — because I am going to go to several spots in Matthew 10, not just to the verses that I am going to read. Okay, Matthew 10, and I am going to begin on verse 28, that’s on page 688 of the Bibles that are here in the church.
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can both destroy soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Now, the Old Testament reading. That’s on page 514. Isaiah 43, verses 1 to the start of verse 3:
“But now this is what the Lord says — he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Let’s pray. Gracious God, we thank you now for this time that we can look at your Word. We pray that we will hear the things we need to hear, have the insight that we need, and that we will respond to whatever you teach us with the obedience that stems from faith. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I want to go back to Chapter 10 of the Book of Matthew. There’s an interesting thing going on here. Jesus is sending his disciples out to talk about the Kingdom of God, to talk about God’s work on earth right now, through Jesus. To get ready to talk about that without him being present. He is sending them out to different places. And so all of a sudden, they have all kinds of additional fears that are coming up. So he is getting ready to send them out to do some kind of service and ministry in the community around them, and to proclaim this good news about what God is doing, but they are going to do it alone, and so this new change is on their minds. And so Jesus tells them about what they are going to face. And so I would like to go through a few spots in Chapter 10 to show you what Jesus tells them about their future. He begins, for example, where he says (verse 16),
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against men. They will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues. On my account, you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, don’t worry.”
And he goes on. Then in verse 21,
“Brother will betray brother to death. A father will betray his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.”
It’s a very bad situation. And so here is Jesus motivating the troops. “Hey, you’re going out on your own to share this great news about what God is doing in the world…” and he gives them all of this terrible news. Now I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like the way to motivate the troops. He is not even trying to put a spin on it. Then on top of that, he says three times in this passage, “But do not be afraid”. Verse 26: “But don’t be afraid of them.” Earlier he says, “Don’t worry.” Verse 28, he says, “Don’t be afraid of them who can kill the body, but can’t kill the soul.” Three times he tells them not to be afraid. Humanly speaking, people are going to do all kinds of terrible things and yet they shouldn’t fear. Now these words are told to the disciples specifically about their mission to the world and to the country around them. And we share in that same mission, so we need to listen to that. But it also gives us principles for dealing with just the every-day sort of fears that we all face. And so I would like to take time to look at what Jesus tells them about facing fear.
The first thing comes in verse 17, where he says, “Be on your guard against men.” Or as he says in verse 16, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” We are not called to be naive as Christians, or to take needless risks. So, it doesn’t mean that we have to, if we are going to trust God, then you don’t wear a life preserver on a boat. There are certain things that the scripture tells us about the world we live in and one of them is that it is a dangerous place, that there is evil out there and some of the evil is so profound that people are out there who want to hurt you. And so part of what Jesus actually tells his disciples is, be on your guard about people. Don’t be naive. In verse 23 he tells them, “flee persecution.” When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. This is something that the Apostle Paul did. When he got into trouble in one city, he fled and went to another. So he didn’t have to prove his faith or his courage by staying there. Now there are times you can’t escape, there are times when you are called by God directly not to escape, but as a general rule they were to flee if they got persecuted in a place. So, when it comes down to personal life, it means that if there is a danger out there, it’s okay if you lock your doors. This is not a faith issue. You are supposed to use your common sense. It’s okay to be more alert if you are in a parking lot and there have been dangers in the community. It’s okay to have Neighborhood Watch. These sorts of things are the normal responses that we are to have in a world where we have to be on our guard about other people. So that’s the first thing — is he gives us that permission. He tells us that caution is wise. To have a silly sort of attitude that “the world is great and no one would ever want to hurt me,” is just flat out not a Christian viewpoint.
Now, then Jesus goes on and gives us the big surprise. In verse 26, after he talks about being on guard against people, he says, “but don’t be afraid of them.” Okay, Verse 28, “don’t fear those who can kill the body.” Now let me get this straight, Jesus. The world is dangerous. I can’t trust a whole lot of the people that are out there. It’s particularly unfriendly to Christians, in fact you have used words like “flogging,” “being put to death” and “betrayal.” Am I right, so far? Yes. Okay, I’m right. And then you tell me, “so don’t be afraid.” That really doesn’t add up for me.
So what does Jesus mean? Well, first I would like to just reflect for a moment what I don’t think he means. First, I don’t think he means that we shouldn’t feel that sort of dryness and tightness in the back of our throat when we are getting ready to do something risky. I don’t think he is saying that that’s wrong. For example, I went cross-country skiing a number of years ago and I am from South Louisiana; snow is not a natural thing for me. I am cross-country skiing and I find myself at the top of a very long hill. It is no longer cross-country skiing, it’s downhill skiing and it’s downhill skiing with cross-country skis, which I knew enough to know that’s not great. When I got to the top of that hill, I had a tightness in the back of my throat, my mouth got dry, my heart started pumping. That was an appropriate response. So if our heart starts pumping and we throw the shower curtain back and listen, because we hear a funny sound in the house, that’s not a wrong thing. That’s a natural thing. That level of just survival instincts and things like that, that is a part of who we are that keeps us safe. Just like the reflexes that help us pull our hands away from a hot stove. But what does Jesus mean when he says, “don’t be afraid?” I think he means a deeper kind of fear, a kind of fear that ends up controlling our lives. So all of these things are going to be out there. All of these dangers are very real, but don’t let the fear of that control your life. Fears can make us do something wrong that we know we shouldn’t do. Fears can keep us from doing something right that we know we should do. At times like that, fear is in control, and that’s what Jesus is saying: “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid like that.
Let me just reflect a moment on a fear that was even earlier than 9/11. Y2K. Man, what a fear that was. I can still remember watching on New Year’s Day, watching and watching in particular Australia, to see if Australia collapsed because if it did we were getting it just a few hours later. Now because of that fear, that fear that the computer systems weren’t ready, businesses invested a whole lot of money and time in upgrading their computer systems to deal with that danger. That was an appropriate response. All of that intervention might have actually helped the stability of our whole economic and political system. It was okay in the face of a danger like that for the businesses to say, “Okay, this might be a problem. Let’s try to solve it.” But at the same time, I was reading in some Christian magazines about people who were digging fallout shelters, stocking it up with food and then buying weapons so that they could kill their neighbors, if their neighbors tried to come and share their food. This was in Christian magazines. Now at that point, fear is controlling your life and making you do something that you know is wrong to do.
And so fears can come and there are appropriate responses and there are inappropriate responses. The issue is, how is fear controlling us? And so we need to ask that question about ourselves. Are we controlled by our fear? Are we avoiding something, for example, because of some kind of fear that we have? Are we avoiding something that we know we should do? Now there are all kinds of personal levels that this can hit us – in the job, in the family — but let me talk about one that just hit a whole community. In Baton Rouge, when they had this problem with the serial killer, all over the city, in the inner part of the city, Christian ministries lost many of their volunteers because people were afraid to go into the city and do the volunteer work that they normally did. Now, this is despite the fact that the problem was basically in the suburbs. It was happening in their homes. But that fear made them cocoon up and decide that they weren’t going to take risks in any area of their life, not even the risk of driving to the other side of town to be part of a shelter or soup kitchen. That’s an obvious sort of one that hit a whole community, but on a personal level there are things that you know you should do that you are holding back, because you fear something and that fear is controlling you.
Sometimes fear can make us do something that we know is wrong. Again, a big issue: 9/11. Right after 9/11 before all of the current safeguards were in place, people in Baton Rouge and all over the nation were carrying guns and knives onto planes. Not because they wanted to hurt somebody, but because they were so concerned that someone else might have a box cutter that they were going to know that they had their .38 with them, just in case. They knew it was illegal, but they did it anyway. Fear’s in control. And Jesus says, “But don’t be afraid.”
He doesn’t just tell us not to be afraid; he gives us some reasons, and I want to look at two reasons he gives us for not being afraid. I want to go back to verse 28. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The first thing Jesus teaches us about fear is there is one fear that’s appropriate in life. If you are going to fear, if you are going to have fear, then there is one kind of fear that can actually lead to a positive response, and that is the fear that our relationship might not be right with God. Jesus says that there is Someone that can do more damage — there is an issue that’s bigger in life than the issue of your own success, your own safety or even your own life, right now: the issue of your relationship with God. And so the first principle that Jesus gives us in dealing with fear, is that we take all of these small fears and replace them with one central fear which is, are we right with God? That is an appropriate thing to think about. Not in a panic stricken way, because Jesus is now going to tell us about how much this God loves us, but we have to deal with the fact that to not respond to the love of God brings consequences bigger than any of the other mistakes or dangers that we worry about in life. Don’t fear people who can only kill you! Fear God. That’s the first thing that Jesus tells us.
But then he goes on to tell us that this God cares about us. He gives us this image of the sparrows. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered, so don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.” In this one short type-image, Jesus teaches us a whole number of things about God. The first is, is that God knows everything. He knows all the things that we are worried about around us. Not one sparrow falls, apart from God knowing it. In Baltimore we don’t sell sparrows for whatever they were selling sparrows for there, probably to eat, I don’t know. But we know a lot about cicadas. God knows every cicada that died here in Baltimore by name. He knows these things. He cares about it. Ecology is a reflection of the concern and care of God, and yet God says that we, as individuals, as people created in his image, are worth more than many of those other things. He knows these things and he cares about us in the midst of it. So he knows it and he cares about us. He knows, he cares. In the Old Testament passage that I read, it talks about “when you go into deep water, I will be there with you. When you go through the fiery trial, I will be there to protect you.” God is with us in the midst of this. This is another thing that we see. God knows, God cares, God’s with us — and then it says here, “Not one of them will fall apart from the will of your Father.” God is ultimately in control of it all, as well. That’s the other thing that Jesus teaches us here. That God’s caring about us, but it’s not an ineffective sort of care. He has a powerful hand upon all things. God knows, God cares, God is in control and God is with us.
So we need to look at our own lives. What are the fears that are controlling us right now? What are the fears that keep us from doing what we should be doing, or are actually leading us to do things that we know we shouldn’t do? At times like this we need to fill our minds with what Jesus teaches us about the reality of who God is. The first is that God knows the things we fear. He knows how many squirrels have been hit by cars in our neighborhood. He certainly knows every single fear, real or imagined, that you are facing right now. God knows! And God cares about it. God cares so much about the biggest problem in our lives, which is our relationship with him. God cares so much about the biggest threat to our existence, that he gave his only Son to deal with the problem of our godlessness, our selfishness, our unwillingness to let God in to our lives. God has dealt with that in Jesus Christ. And if God is willing to do that at such a great cost to himself, how much more in that same love will he not care for us over all the lesser dangers that attack us?
The third thing is that God is with us. If he allows danger to come close, he’s there to keep it from overwhelming us or from doing any eternal, permanent damage to us. But he’s there in the midst of it. He’s not some distant God that’s looking at us saying, “Oh well, you suffer. You probably deserve it.” He’s not like that. He says that we belong to him and he is there with us.
And then finally again, he’s in control. God will never be surprised by things that we fear. God will never be outwitted by the politics that surround us. God will never be overpowered by the things that threaten us. God is in control. If danger actually does then touch our lives, it’s because, for whatever reason, God is allowing it to happen. An author, C.H. Welch, put it this way, “The Lord may not have definitely planned that this should overtake me, but he has most certainly permitted it. Therefore, even though it were an attack of an enemy, by the time it reaches me, it has the Lord’s permission and therefore all is well. He will make it work together with all life’s experiences, for good.” We have very real problems out there and God will allow some of those problems to touch our lives and we don’t always know why. There is a mystery to it. Sometimes it is because he is trying to build our faith, so we stand against the problem and claim the deliverance that he is willing to offer. Other times, he allows that evil to shape us and to change us into new people. But in the midst of those fears, we need to remind ourselves that God knows, God cares, God is with us and God is in control. So Jesus tells us, “Do not be afraid.”
Let’s pray. Gracious God, we do carry all kinds of fears before you, and so we pray that we might be able to lay these fears down, and that we might have the discipline to fill our minds with the things that you have told us, so that our eyes will be upon you and not just upon the problems. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.