Jesus on Anxiety 2016-0821
Call to Worship, Psalm 25.11-22
Children, Exodus 14
Message, Luke 12.4-7
One of the classic Far Side cartoons is captioned, “The Lemming family on vacation”. The drawing is of an automobile with stereotypical family: dad lemming in the driver seat, mom lemming in the passenger seat, and kid lemmings in the back. An exasperated dad, responding to any one of a hundred potential driving distractions by children, cries out, “If you (fill in the blank with your offense of choice – don’t shut up, don’t sit still, stop asking me how much longer) ... If you ... I’m going to drive this car right off a cliff!”
FEAR ... it’s such a wonderful motivation. It might give us power-broking parents the upper hand in a given situation, but, generally, fear is a wonderful motivation for wrong-headed decision-making, risk-averse thinking, status quo entrenchment, attachment disorders and lack of commitment.
And, we’ve struck gold with this one, the big time: The Fear of Hell. When I was a teen, the church our family attended had an old fashioned revival, complete with graphic preaching on hell. And I remember one guy who got himself converted that week ... but it didn’t really seem to “take”. Within a couple years, he’d run his life and his faith completely aground.
Thomas Merton, Cistercian monk, reflected on one of the first “hell sermons” he heard: “My opinion is that it is a very extraordinary thing for anyone to be upset by such a topic. Why should anyone be shattered by the thought of hell? It is not compulsory for anyone to go there. Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God . . .” (The Seven Storey Mountain, p 238).
The fact remains that hell is an upsetting topic for most of us, and we deal with it in various ways. Sometimes, we just shut our mind to the biblical language. Sometimes, and preferably, we look for deeper biblical understanding (there are, after all, a variety of theological approaches to the biblical material). Sometimes, we thrive on some good “hell fire and brimstone”. Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest minds in the history of America, is known for preaching what may be one of the all-time greatest messages on hell. Remarkably enough, though his writing is extraordinarily dramatic, he read in a monotone and didn’t look up from the page. Nevertheless, this pastor was used by God in one of the great revival movements of history known as the Great Awakening. Some lines from his July 8, 1741, sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”, read with a bit more drama than he provided:
The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.
You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder ...
Edwards maintained that our sin was a “fire” in the soul that was just waiting to destroy us and that we were only preserved by the “mere pleasure of God”, and an angry God at that.
I’d prefer, personally, to emphasize a line from a bible passage on judgment, from Romans 2:4 – “Do you not realize that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?”
At some point, fear breaks down as a motivation. Either you drive your young lemmings over the cliff or you have a change of heart.
We all know what it is like to be paralyzed by fear. Aside from the basically healthy fears of truly dangerous things, we face fear in relationships – a crisis of trust. We face fear in economics – whether it is having enough or having just a bit more than we have now. We face fear in relation to uncertain futures. And, we face the fear of putting our most intimate self on the line in sharing our faith.
But for Jesus, the answer to our fears, our anxieties, isn’t “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. It was a more radical change of perspective: Why fear all these things if you are on good terms with God? “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell”. Jesus isn’t saying that God is out to get us, just waiting for an excuse, a pretense to squash humans like an annoying bug. In fact, he tells us that we are of great value to God: “Not one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Jesus is just using this great big fear to knock some sense into his followers: Why fear all these things if you are on good terms with God, if you are so valuable to the Lord? Actually, Jesus doesn’t urge us to fear hell, but to “fear God”, a traditional expression of a core virtue, used in an expression describing a good person who “fears God and respects people” (Luke 18:2, 4).
I suppose it is a little like the work of a drill sergeant in basic training. An old DI told me about the obstacle course in basic training and the ladder of logs that recruits had to climb. A drill instructor would often be straddling the top of the ladder to comfort, reassure, and encourage the tenderfoot recruits. Well, maybe “comfort” and “reassure” aren’t the correct words. But, if for a moment you are more fearful of the drill instructor than of heights or weakness, you may find yourself capable of doing more than you thought possible.
In a time of national insecurity, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:12-14a).
Let’s look at the context a little more, let’s consider why the disciples might be dealing with fear, with anxiety.
First, in 12:13, someone asks Jesus to arbitrate in the distribution of the family inheritance. Jesus declines and proceeds to tell a story focused the impermanence of wealth ... the old “you can’t take it with you” story that asks the question: “Have you laid up some true treasure that will last forever?” And, he instructs his own disciples on the side: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (12:22-23).
Instead of the anxiety of stuff, Jesus recommends the age-old practical antidotes of simplicity, generosity, and, for some, poverty: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, and unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (12:32-33).
In Luke’s gospel, anxious fear is contrasted with faith. Jesus and his disciples are crossing the sea in a boat and a fierce storm threatens to sink the boat. He calms the sea, but the disciples are afraid. “Where is your faith?” he asks. On the other hand, proper “fear of God” in the gospel is treated as an expression of true faith.
There is a second fear or anxiety in this context. At the very end of Luke 11, we are told that the “scribes and Pharisees began to be very hostile toward [Jesus]” (11:53). And, in this very chapter, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God. . . . When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (12:8-12). No wonder Jesus is telling his followers not to fear those who can kill the body; they are dealing with folks who just might do it, and who indeed did.
When we talk about evangelism, with a capital “E”, we get nervous. Even when we think of something as simple as inviting a friend to church, we get nervous – and they are not out to kill us. Nevertheless, it is easy to get a little awkward, tied up in knots, even over a simple invitation to share the journey. In Luke’s gospel, we’re offered another antidote to fear that addresses just this concern. It comes in the Christmas story: The shepherds are out in the fields, caring for their sheep, when an angel appears and they are terrified, “greatly afraid”, using the same Greek term we have in our passage. The angel’s response is, “Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all people” (Luke 2:9-10).
When it comes to the witness of a disciple, then as now, no matter the thing we may fear, the antidote is the same: good news for all people, good news that we cannot, we must not, keep to ourselves. When we’ve had an authentic, powerful, life-changing, direct encounter with the Living God, we will never be the same . . . and we cannot keep silent.
“Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). “But the LORD of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:13-14a).
Whatever your anxiety today, remember how important you are to God and let God be your sanctuary. Surrender everything, anxieties and all, to the kindness of the Lord.