Whom Shall I Fear?
Based on Genesis 15:1-12, Philippians 3:17 – 4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Not long after we arrived in Madison, the young men in our house decided to go out and climb Old Rag. Being “city boys”, they needed to know that they could encounter wild animals including the black bear and what to do about those encounters. They both had anticipatory anxiety when I told them about black bears and the possibility of them running into one on the trail. Seeking to have some fun at their expense, I gave them the “helpful” fatherly advice that they didn’t need to be able to outrun the bear, they just had to outrun each other!
Fear is a conditioned reaction to a stimulus. In pre-historic times when a human was confronted by an animal that could eat it, those that survived developed a “fight or flight” response in their bodies. This elevated heart rate, secretion of cortisol, increased blood flow to the muscles, etc, allowed the human to have the wherewithal to either stand and do battle or flee from the danger at hand. Thus, the theory of behavioral development holds that we are the recipients of millennia of situation-response conditioning such that the fear response comes from deep within the “old” portion of our brains. We can no more resist the fear response than we could stop our hearts from beating (also under old brain control).
Once people settled down into communities and began to be civilized, the likelihood of encountering a Cavebear or similar life-threatening stimulus decreased and other humans became the fear inducer. This is still true today; we are much more likely to be in fear of humans in positions of power or control over us, those with whom we have meaningful relationships and those who we want to impress. Many fear the unknowable future and the inevitable change it brings, so they cling to the past – to the “good old days”. When these fears – anxieties really, get out of control, then we develop anxiety disorder and have a defined mental illness. Up to 40 million humans who are teen-aged or older suffer from anxiety-related disorders which limit their full participation in life. Our scriptures for today speak to our fears and teach us some ways to understand and live better having faith that God is in control. Before we move farther, let’s ask for God’s peace to calm our hearts and minds…
Father Abram has visions and dreams where God speaks to his deepest fears. His fear revolves around the fact that though God had promised him an heir, the only heir to the rapidly aging Patriarch was the son of a slave. Abram had done much with God and had made the offerings that God had commanded, yet still “a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him”. In this darkest of places, God shone the light of the future laying out all that would befall Abram’s descendants. God’s light of life was that Abram need not fear even though his offspring would go through difficult times, God had promised to make them into a great nation from Egypt to the Euphrates River.
Paul is writing to the believers in Philippi and giving final words of exhortation. He is calling to them to not be fearful of the Cross of Christ, but rather to understand that through the Cross comes salvation; while fear-based avoidance leads to “destruction”. Paul is reminding these followers that we live in the in-between time of when Jesus came and when he will come again in glory. We need not fear anything during this time and we need to take heart in a God who keeps promises that Jesus will come again and subject all things to himself.
Jesus has been teaching about the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel scriptures right before ours today. Some Pharisees came to Jesus as he was teaching and let him know that Herod was plotting to have him killed. They told Jesus to get out of town for his own health and safety. Jesus chose to confront Herod by telling the Pharisees that he would be continuing to heal and cast out demons for three more days – and then he would head for Jerusalem. He stated that only in Jerusalem would his end be accomplished because that is where prophets went to die. Jesus knew his fate and accepted that it was part of God’s larger plan to save humanity. He wished that it would be otherwise, that humans would allow him to nurture and protect them. Yet their love of power and control and fear of losing those things would ultimately lead to their destruction by the Romans.
The writer of Psalm 27 says over and over again that if we really believe that God is our refuge and great protector, then what mortal do we need to fear? No matter what manner of earthly danger arises, trust in the LORD (which is the essence of the word “faith”) conquers all of them. The LORD will triumph if we are faithful and wait in hopeful anticipation for the LORD.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, what or whom do you fear and why? Have you stored up treasures here on earth and are thus anxious that they might be taken from you? Are you fearful of death? Are you fearful of other humans – those who are characterized by television and movies as lurking out there in the dark (i.e., terrorists, extremists, mentally ill with guns, immigrants, minorities)? Are you fearful of the unknowable future and the changes that it contains for you and your family?
Abram knows this last fear all too well. He is three chapters into his relationship with God and has already picked up wife and family and moved from Ur in Chaldea (modern day Iraq) following God into an unknown future on the promise of being made into a “great nation”. However, Abram’s no spring chicken and the years are flying by…Sarai’s not getting pregnant, by the way. He’s worried and he’s saying as much to God as they speak in his dream time. God is honest to Abram and tells him that the future will have its ups and downs, but that the descendants of Abram and Sarai will occupy the lands between the Nile and Euphrates rivers. Interestingly, Abram goes directly from this promise to impregnating Sarai’s slave Hagar because he is fearful that God won’t keep God’s word.
That is the essence of our spiritual journey, dear people. We are promised things to wonderful to believe with our rational minds, by a God we cannot perceive with our senses. We see humans being inhumane to other humans and we wonder aloud where God is and why God allows such things to happen. We have learned to not trust our senses very much, so it is no surprise that we believe the promises of God through Jesus incompletely. We are like the man asking Jesus to cure his son…we believe, but we need help with our unbelief. This is because the opposite of faith is fear; we fear that if we give everything over to God that we will lose control and suffer a huge let down; just like Abram feared. However, if we invest in daily scripture reading and in being open to what God has to say to us through the living Word, then we find ourselves becoming more able to see that God is at work in our world. When we move our allegiance from things of the world to things of Jesus, we find that our burdens do become lighter and easier to handle.
I follow the Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer, Father Richard Rohr, as part of my daily devotional. In his message on Friday he wrote: “Christ is the power of God among us and within us, the fullness of the earth and of life in the universe. We humans have the potential to make Christ alive; it is what we are created for….If we can allow the Spirit to really take hold of us and liberate us from our fears, anxieties, demands, and desire for power and control, then we can truly live in the risen Christ who empowers us to build a new creation. We can look toward that time when there will be one cosmic person uniting all persons, one cosmic humanity uniting all humanity, one Christ in whom God will be all in all….God invites us to become more whole within ourselves so that we may become more whole among ourselves….”
Danny and Chris did encounter a bear that day on Old Rag. Danny ran away so fast (my words had primed his fears too much) that Chris dissolved in fits of laughter. Chris stood his ground and got some great pictures of a young black bear cub because he had his fear under control. The Psalmist writes, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?…” Our world and its media outlets seek to divide us by conditioning us to fear each other. If this continues, evil will gain the upper hand and the world will descend into chaos. Faith and trust in God yields the opposite worldview – when our faith and trust is fully in God, we become unified and stronger. Put away your fears of worldly things and seek this Lent to draw closer to God and God’s promises through prayer, fasting, meditating on scripture, attendance at worship, acts of mercy; that you might fear-less and become more whole within so that all humanity might become more unified and whole through us. This is the word of God for the people of God – thanks be to God! Amen. =