4th Sunday of Easter May 7, 2017
29, 457, 437, 54
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. “All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish. Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them. Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all. For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.
I was startled from sleep that night by a ferocious Florida storm. The lightning flashed. The thunder cracked and boomed. The rain pelted and the wind howled. Branches clawed at my bedroom window like brittle, bony fingers. In the dark interludes between bolts of brilliance and peals of doom, monsters. Monsters multiplying in every shadowy corner. Monsters with glowing yellow eyes and tombstone teeth. Monsters with an appetite for ten-year-old boys wearing Underdog pajamas.
I sounded the alarm. “Dad!” I screamed. “Dad!” A moment later, the bedroom door swung open, the hall light spilled in, and Dad sat down next to me on my bed. “What’s wrong?” he asked. I replied, “I’m scared.” “Scared of what?” he said. “Scared of the storm,” I answered. “Scared of monsters.” Suddenly his arms—those strong, loving arms that I can still feel decades later—enveloped me. Dad said in a reassuring voice, “Son, there is nothing to be scared of.”
“Nothing to be scared of.” I have no idea how often I heard that phrase as a child; or how often I repeated it to my own children when they were afraid of the dark or afraid of a playground bully or afraid of a first day at school. No matter how comforting or well-intended, that phrase is not entirely accurate. Is it? There are many things to be scared of. Many things that can make us afraid.
World events, for example. Our world is an increasingly dangerous and chaotic place, filled with wars, riots, racism, natural disasters, senseless crimes, unspeakable evil, and acts of terrorism. The purpose of terrorism is to terrify. Jesus Himself described the final age of the earth as an age of terror. In Luke 21:26 He says, “Men will faint from terror.” The Greek word for “faint” literally means ‘to breathe out,’ hence, to faint or even die. “Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world.” He added in the same chapter, “There will be fearful events.”
You and I witness such fearful events daily on FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, or in our local newspaper. North Korea and Iran have nuclear weapons. ISIS, major hurricanes, and school shootings have millions wondering, “What is happening? Is anyone safe? Will I be next?”
Financial difficulty can be frightening. “What if I lose my job? What if I’m forced to accept a part-time position with no health benefits? What if I can’t pay the mortgage or buy groceries or afford my prescription medications? These are frightening questions.
What of health concerns? Life can be turned inside out and upside down by an unexpected injury or accident or medical diagnosis.
Relationships can also cause fear. People who have gone through a divorce often fear future relationships. “Why make myself vulnerable again? Why risk the pain?” Sadly, this same fear of marriage is then passed on to their children. “I know what happened to mom and dad. All the arguing. All the hurt and bitterness. I’ll never get married. Never!”
For many people, nothing causes more terror than the prospect of death. People “who all their lives,” according to Hebrews 2:15, “were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Slavery. Bondage. Chains.
During the two years I worked as a Family Services Counselor at the Lakeland Funeral Home, I also sold “preneed” funeral arrangements. I quickly learned that, despite all the advantages of preplanning funeral arrangements—lower costs, better choices, monthly payments, and most of all, removing this heavy burden from grieving family members—the majority of people refused to even contemplate their own death. Ironically, I offered a service everyone needed and no one wanted.
Of course, not all fear is wrong or unjustified. God equipped us with the emotional response of fear to alert us to surrounding physical dangers. Hopefully, each of us has a healthy fear of high voltage lines, intoxicated drivers, and the spinning blades on power lawnmowers.
A healthy fear, however, becomes unhealthy and wrong when it consumes and controls us; when it fills our lives with doom, gloom, excessive anxiety, and the dismal expectation of the absolute worst. This is the type of fear that the Bible warns against. The reason for this warning is clear. When our lives are characterized by terror, when we are constantly and hopelessly afraid, we are living as if we have no God—or as if the God we have is weak, unreliable, and unloving.
Paralyzing fear is at odds with faith. Remember the storm on Lake Galilee, when Jesus walked on water and empowered Simon Peter to do the same? Imagine the faith and conviction it took for Peter to step out of the boat and onto the white-capped water. But the instant Peter’s gaze shifted from Christ to his own circumstances, to the howling wind and pelting rain and boisterous waves and booming thunder, he literally began to sink in fear. What did Jesus say to Peter? Significantly, Jesus did not say, “Why were you so afraid.” Jesus said, “Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31). Doubting God is the cause of all uncontrollable, paralyzing fear. Doubting God’s love, God’s power, and God’s willingness to help.
What do you fear today? Do you fear world events? Do you fear ISIS? Do you fear illness or growing old or being unnoticed and alone? Do you fear for the well-being of your children, the condition of your marriage, or the size of your retirement fund? What circumstances are keeping you awake at night, ruining your appetite and robbing you of peace?
Frankly, I’m tired of being afraid; aren’t you? I’m tired of giving fear a place in my life and relationships. I’m tired of lying sleepless at night, reaching for another antacid, and always expecting the worst from God instead of His very best. I don’t want to placate fear or negotiate with it. I want to defeat fear. And in Bible passages like Isaiah 41:10-13 and in many other verses, the Spirit of God tells us how.
First, if you’re afraid of something today—something, anything, sickness, loss, loneliness, financial difficulty—take your fears to God in prayer. “God, I’m afraid I may lose my job. God, I’m afraid I may not recover from this illness. God, I’m afraid of being alone. God, I’m afraid I won’t have the strength or will to overcome this temptation.” Articulating your fears to God will not only help you distinguish between real fears and imaginary fears; it will give you the peace that can only come from committing your fears to the Lord.
And so Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Second, when you’re afraid, remember that God has not called you to a life of fear. Far from it. As Paul explained to Timothy: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline,” (2 Timothy 1:7). The Greek word translated in this verse as “power” is the word from which we derive our English word “dynamite.” Here, Paul writes of the dynamite of God’s Spirit working through His word.
The phrases “do not fear,” “do not be afraid,” and similar words occur more than three-hundred and twenty-five times in Scripture. Could God be trying to tell us something? In a real sense, “do not fear” is the essence of the Gospel Message. When Jesus Christ was born, the skies over Bethlehem rent asunder with song, as the angel told terrified shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
When we read our Bibles, we find God telling His people—that means you and me—“do not be afraid” in every conceivable situation, from the smallest task to the most hopeless circumstance. When Abraham faced the impossibility of fathering a child in his old age, God said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1).
When the Israelites stood terrified on the shore of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh and his mighty army in feverish pursuit, Moses told them, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today” (Exodus 14:13). When Jesus taught His disciples not to worry about the basic necessities of life—food, drink, and clothing—He said to them, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). When the daughter of Jairus died, even then Jesus declared to the grieving parents, “Do not be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed” (Luke 8:50).
Today’s text, Isaiah 41:10-13, was written at a time of great fear for the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom of Israel already been enslaved and deported by the Assyrians. Led by ruthless King Sennacherib, the Assyrians now threatened to do the same to Judah. In fact, according to Isaiah 36, emissaries of Sennacherib stood at the very gates of Jerusalem, shouting, “Do not let Hezekiah mislead you when he says, ‘The LORD will deliver us.’ Has the god of any nation delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria?” (Isaiah 36:18).
In the face of such opposition and evil the Lord God assured His people: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
Third, when you’re afraid, remember that almighty God is with you. The same God who created the universe by speaking it into existence and of whom we confess: “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” is the same God who redeemed you from your sins with the priceless blood of His own Son. And He is with you.
Yes, in times of trouble, we may wonder if God is truly with us, but His solemn promise is this: “Do not fear; for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10). And this: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). And also: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). For this reason we say with the Psalmist, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). Well, whom? A petty dictator in North Korea? A pesky problem at the office? Nonsense.
God is not a temporary helper. He does not arrive for the good times and depart for the bad. Instead, He has said, “I am with you, so do not be afraid.” More than this He has said, “for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).
So fourth, when you are afraid, remember how the One True God became your God. He did not become your God by accident, He became your God because He wanted you, not because He was obligated to you. He was willing to sacrifice what was most precious to Him, namely, the life of His only Son, Jesus Christ. If God was willing to sacrifice His own Son for you, do you really believe He will withhold any other blessing from your life? Of course not! So, why then should you be afraid of anything at any time?
Each time you feel fear creeping into your life, place it into the great equation Paul used in Romans 8: “What, then, shall we say in response to this?” he asked. And he answered, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Fifth and finally, when afraid, remember that God has promised to give you the strength to endure and overcome any burden. You have His word on it. “I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish. Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them. Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all” (Isaiah 41:10-12). When you and I say, “I can’t fix this problem,” “I can’t endure this burden,” or “I can’t take this situation any longer,” there is entirely too much “I” and too little God. “I will strengthen you,” said God. When or where did God ask us to find strength within ourselves?
This is precisely why the apostle Paul declared with such clarity and confidence: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
So, dear friends, what have we learned today? No matter what, God will be with us. No matter what, God will strengthen us. No matter what, God will provide for us. No matter what, God will protect and deliver us.
Therefore, let me ask you: Do you believe what you learned today? Do you believe that God loves you with all of His infinite heart? Do you believe that God loved you enough to sacrifice His only Son for you? Do you believe that God has the power to do anything? Do you believe that Almighty God Himself will fight every battle for you and with you, bringing about a glorious conclusion that you could have never imagined or accomplished on your own? Do you believe the promise God made at the conclusion of today’s text? “For I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13).
If your answer is, “Yes, I believe;” then why should you go on being afraid? Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.