Sermon for August 31, 2014, “What are we afraid of?”

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

Deuteronomy 1:19-33

August 31, 2014

  Fear is one of our basic instincts and we live in a fearful world.  Part of this is natural.  We fear what we don’t know.  We fear what we don’t understand.  We fear what we can’t control.  And since none of us can know or control the future, fear slips in.  As a basic instinct, fear is a powerful motivator which is why advertising executives, parents, employers, politicians and, sadly, even preachers appeal to this basic instinct.[1]  We live a fearful world, but because we have faith in Jesus Christ, we should heed our Master’s command not to worry.  We should listen to the angels who often begin their message with “fear not.”[2]  But because fear sells, we are bombarded with it.  We should ask ourselves what our fear says about our faith in Christ. Last week we began looking at the opening to the book of Deuteronomy and heard God, through Moses, tell the people of Israel it was time for them to be moving on.  They’d spent a generation in the desert, waiting.  They’d had an opportunity to seize the Promised Land once before, but the people resisted God’s call because were afraid.  Now, as they prepare to head out to claim that which God was giving them, Moses preaches a sermon in which he recalls what happened forty years earlier. Instead of putting their faith in the power of an Almighty God, the Hebrew people looked around and realized what they were doing was absurd from a human perspective. They revolted and found themselves spending four decades in the Wilderness. What were they afraid of?  And what are we afraid of?  Read Deuteronomy 1:19-33

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  What are we afraid of?  What’s holding us back from being the people God wants us to be?  What might cause us to lose traction and spend forty years—actual or metaphorical—wandering aimlessly? Recently I finished a book by Barbara Brown Taylor titled Learning to Walk in the Dark.  Darkness is often used as a metaphor for what’s bad or evil in the world, but when we deal with actual darkness, which consumes half of the created world at any one given moment of time, we realize that our fear of darkness keeps us from many good experiences.  If we fear the night, we will never see the stars or experience the magic of a lightning bug or enhance our other senses which take a backseat to sight.  Yet, as she began the book, most of us in our childhood have heard our mothers call, “Come inside now, it’s getting dark.”[3]  “What are we afraid of and how different might we be if we could foster courage to face our fears and to trust in God? I used to be envious of the disciples who got to witness first-hand Jesus’ great miracles.  Or the people of the Old Testament who experienced God’s great work.  I’d think if I was fortunate enough to experience such events, my faith would be so strong that I could move a mountain on a command.[4]  Of course, in my naiveté, I overlooked the fact that those who experienced God’s great works also struggled with faith.   Sometimes they even knew they lacked faith which is why the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith.[5]   When I dug into the Bible story, I realized these witnesses to God’s word often took their experiences for granted.  Why would I be any different? The truth is that my idea of what faith is all about was all wrong.  I wasn’t looking for faith; I wanted assurance that things were going to work out my way.  I wanted knowledge of what was going to happen in the future, which only God knows, and that it was going to work out for my benefit.   If we study scripture, the Bible doesn’t let us hold such a position very long. The 19th Century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky captured this human weakness in a story that appears within his book, The Brothers Karamazov.   In this story, which one of the brothers wrote, Jesus returns to earth to check things out.  He comes back to Seville, Spain, during the time of the Inquisition.  It had been a long day in which many heretics had been burned at the stake.  When Jesus walks through the plaza, with the embers of the flames still warm, people rush to him.  They are blessed by his presence.  But the Inquisitor isn’t so happy about this change of events and when he sends soldiers to arrest Jesus, the crowds flee.  It’s just like the first time, all over again.  Jesus is led away and his followers disperse, hiding in fear.  Would we be any different? Faith is a gift from God; if it was not so, why would the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith? Yet, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role to play.  Faith comes from hearing God’s word, from prayer and from the work of God’s Holy Spirit.[6]  It means we trusts our lives to God even when we can’t see or comprehend the future or even when the evidence to what we hope for seems contradictory.[7]  Yet, when things look dire, it seems as if it a part of our DNA make-up to forget about God, to toss our faith in the Almighty out-the-window, and to take in charge.  When we do that and find ourselves facing huge obstacles, we throw our hands up in registration.  That’s what the Hebrew people did, over and over again.  They had seen “God’s Word” first-hand, in Egypt, but they kept forgetting.  Sometimes they blamed their fear on Moses, other times they blamed it on God, but the refrain was always similar:  “Why did you bring us out here to die in battle, to starve, to thirst to death, to die of boredom from the same food?” In January 1996, the church I served in Utah was moving full steam ahead with plans of building a new church.  We had the property and in a few months would begin site preparation.  We were working with an architect and talking to a contractor.  And then something happened.  A family that had been very involved in the church (the father worked for the forest service and the mother ran our youth group) was relocated to the mountains of California.  Another family moved to Vegas.  A woman that had been the backbone of our Christian Education program needed to be closer to her mother and moved to Michigan.  Another couple (she was the church’s secretary and he was the stewardship chair) found themselves transferred to California.  In all, in the first six months of 1996, as we were busy making building preparations for building, we lost seven families.  And the congregation that January only had about a little over a 100 members!  This was a big hit.  The skeptics began to come out of hiding and questioned the vision for a new church.  But we moved forward, and although there were some tough times, God was faithful and God was glorified as others joined and filled the gaps as the building became a reality and as the church membership grew by leaps and bounds. Following Christ makes no sense to the world at large.  Yet, it is how we are called to live.  We are to trust that in the end God’s goodness is going to win out and that God is working through us to fulfill his plan (which we do not fully understand). The Heidelberg Catechism defines faith in this way (I’m paraphrasing):  Faith is the knowledge by which I accept as true God’s word and that God, through the Holy Spirit, is working in me to trust (and to share such trust with others) that through the gospel my sins are forgiven, I’m being justified and sanctified to live in everlasting righteousness, and to do Christ’s saving work in the world.[8]    It is in the fulfilling of the last part of this definition, doing Christ’s saving work, which God seems to take particular delight in making the world look foolish.[9]  Think about how the Hebrew people, a rag-tag group of refugees” were saved from sure destruction by the largest army in the world.[10]  We have the story of a young shepherd boy named David knocking out the giant.[11]  Jesus talks insistently about the last being first.[12]  Such things do not happen in the economy of the world, but in God’s economy, miracles abound and God is glorified. Our story today is a part of a sermon by Moses as the Hebrew people are preparing to one again claim their destiny.  Moses recalls what happened when Israel had just been freed from slavery by providing an abbreviated version of the story of spies being sent into the Promised Land.  In the Book of Numbers, there is a more complete telling of the story.  These two accounts mostly agree, and certainly agree on the major details.[13] The spies sent into the Promised Land returned with some good and some bad news.  The good news is that the land is wonderful; the fields produce an abundant harvest of which samples are brought back to give the Hebrew people a foretaste of what is in store.  The only problem is that those who inhabit this land are much stronger than Israel.  In Numbers, we learn the spies themselves questioned the feasibility of going forward.  Here, Moses only mentions that the Israelites began to grumble (but where did they receive their information if not from the spies?).  At first, the complaints are within their tents, but people continue to talk and there is a rebellion.  Along the way, the truth begins to be stretched. No longer is the focus on the vision of a Promised Land, but on something that doesn’t even exist: city walls stretching to the heavens and people who are stronger and taller including mystical giants.  Not wanting to take the risk, they invent stories to support their position and which clouds the vision. Do we ever do anything like this?  I wonder how many projects God has inspired in which we fail to seize the opportunity because we worry about things that aren’t even in play.  How many stories are enhanced in order to kill a good idea?  Yes, Israel was going to have a fight on her hands, but the battle isn’t against people stronger and who live in those fairytale castles that appear to reach into the heavens.  And besides, the people have God on their side, something they seemed to forget.  Therefore, they spend another forty years wandering as they learned to trust the Lord. What are we afraid of?  Why do we as individuals, as a church, as a community, even as a nation, always fear change?  Is it the fear of failure and embarrassment?  In the case of the Hebrews this would have included death on the battlefield and the enslavement of everyone else.  Yes, sometimes the consequences are great, but the alternative is that they die out in the wilderness.  Why do we fear change?  There is a comfort in the past, but sometimes change is necessary unless we are happy being slaves.  Sometimes we hold on to our bad behaviors, we take comfort where ever we can find it be it a bottle or a pill and we don’t want to give it up even though to continue with such behavior may lead to our destruction.  But No Sir, we don’t want to change.  Or maybe we fear that with change, we will lose control.  But are we really in control?  Or is it an illusion? What are we afraid of?  Is there something you feel you should be doing but are holding back?  Are their things that we at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church should be doing but don’t because we are afraid? We shouldn’t let our fears define us.  Instead, we need to trust God and take risks as we move into the future.  What are we afraid of?  With God at our side, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything.  Amen.

©2014

 



[1] The opening chapter, “Fear for Profit” of Scott Bader-Saye’s Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear provides a good introduction to how fear affects society.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007).
[2] Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 2:10.
[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 1.
[4] Matthew 17:20
[5] Luke 17:5
[6]Second Helvetic Confession, XVI, as found in the  Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church USA, 5.113
[7] Hebrews 11:1
[8] Heidelberg Catechism, Question 21.  Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA), 4.021.
[9] 1 Corinthians 1:18
[10] Exodus 14
[11] 1 Samuel 17
[12] Matthew 19:30, 20:16; Mark 9:34, 10:31; Luke 13:30
[13] See Numbers 14 & 15.  In the Numbers account, it is God who tells Moses to send the spies out.  In the Deuteronomy account, the people ask that spies be sent.  Also, in Numbers, the spies are the ones who question Israel’s ability to conquer, where in Deuteronomy the dissent rises from the people.  In both accounts, Caleb argues for the people to go forward.


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