This morning is the first in a 4-part sermon series called “Unafraid.” This series is intended to help us live with courage and hope in a time of uncertainty and great anxiety. Isaiah 41:10 is our theme Scripture, which begins, “Don’t fear, because I am with you; don’t be afraid, for I am your God” Today’s message focuses on the importance of faith as the means of living a life unafraid. Today is also Epiphany Sunday, when the church recognizes the arrival of the Magi to the baby Jesus, signifying the “arrival” of the Gospel message to the Gentile world (the Magi were Gentiles).
Scripture Readings: Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany Sunday); Isaiah 41:10
What are you most afraid of? Most of us here have outgrown our fears of monsters under the bed and the Boogey Man in the closet. Which means that we now have grownup fears. The monsters we’re afraid of aren’t furry, or scaly, or have claws and sharp teeth. (Unless, of course, you still harbor fears of certain types of spiders.) No, the things we fear are more experiential in nature.
In this book, Unafraid, Adam Hamilton identifies these things as what we adults collectively fear the most:
- disappointing others
- missing out
- the Lord
Do any of these fears ring true for you? Some of them certainly do for me.
For the next four weeks, I’m going to be addressing the issue of fear. The title for this, Unafraid, is unabashedly lifted directly from Hamilton’s book of the same title. The things I’ll be talking about are indirectly related to the content of his book. Whereas he addresses the above specific fears in his book, I’m coming at the issue of living unafraid from a general perspective. Here’s the four-week thematic breakdown:
- Today’s theme is FAITH, and the main point I hope to get across is that not fearing is something we have to actively choose to do through an ever-increasing faith in God.
- The theme for next week is COURAGE, and I’ll specifically be talking about the courage God gives us to welcome with open arms those who are different than ourselves (because, whether we admit it or not, most of us harbor an unacknowledged fear of those who are altogether different than us).
- The theme for week three is GRACE, and I’ll specifically be addressing our fear of disappointing God, which is most often rooted in our failure to truly buy into the notion that God’s grace is truly greater than our sins.
- And the theme for week four is GROWTH, specifically, the advantages of choosing the redemptive suffering that’s a part of spiritual and emotional growth.
Would it surprise you to learn that fear is good thing? At least, in the right situation it’s a good thing. Healthy and proper fear is what drives you to the hospital when you’re having chest pains. Or keeps you from walking close to the edge of the rim of the Grand Canyon. In and of itself, being afraid is not a bad thing. It becomes bad when we allow it to have a large say in how we live our lives, and when it becomes one of the main driving emotions behind the choices we make. But in and of itself, fear is just one of many God-given emotions we have.
I believe it was healthy fear that kept the baby Jesus alive after the Magi’s visit. From the vantage point of today, you and I know the sinister motive behind Herod asking them to report Jesus’ whereabouts back to him. However, at that time they may have been clueless about his evil intent. But somewhere along the way they were warned – in a dream, we’re told – to take a different route home and not report back to Herod.
We’ll never know the exact contents of the conversation that took place between them. In my mind I hear a spirited discussion during which they debate whether or not it’s reasonable to change their travel plans based on a dream one of them had the previous night. Regardless, though, there were no doubt aware of Herod’s personality and reputation, and probably realized that it was highly unlikely that he truly wanted to “go and honor” the Christ child. They feared for the baby’s life, and maybe even their own. And so they caught a different train home.
Part of the challenge of not living afraid is trying to distinguish between a real, healthy fear and an irrational fear that’s based not on facts but emotions and past experiences. For example, a lot of people have a fear of flying, maybe even some of you. Is that an irrational fear? Some would say it is irrational to fear flying if only based on the fact that hundreds of thousands fly the friendly skies every day without event. Statistically, we’re told that it’s safer to fly than is it to drive. And yet, no one here has qualm about traveling in a car. That, according to some, makes it an irrational fear.
At the same time, we know that planes do crash, and we can only imagine that the experience of being on a plane that’s going down has got to be extremely frightening. And so some would probably argue that a fear of flying is a rational fear, because planes do crash, and when they do crash, they crash big.
Would it make a difference in the rationality of this particular fear if one actually had the experience of surviving a plane crash? In that case, I could see the possibility of us saying that such an experience would make it a rational fear, because it’s based on an actual experience. Whereas a fear of flying on the part of someone who’s never flown might be considered less rational because it’s based on an imagined experience. Maybe the Magi’s dream warning only confirmed an experience they had of Herod when they were passing through Jerusalem on their way to see Jesus. Maybe they witnessed him losing his temper with someone else. Maybe they heard him give the orders to one of his soldiers to “take care of” one of his adversaries. Maybe before they left the city one of Herod’s officials discreetly pulled them aside quietly warned them of Herod’s true intentions. We we’ll never know if their fear of Herod was based on actual experience or just imagined, but the fact was, they knew of what was likely to happen should they report back to Herod, and rationally changed their plans accordingly.
The problem is, most of the time you and I are not consciously aware of when our fears are in the driver’s seat. And if we are aware, we usually choose to let them be there and do the driving. In either case, for most of us the idea of not fearing something probably seems idealistic. Why? Because the fact is, there’s a lot in this world to be afraid of! At least, that’s what we tell ourselves.
Look again at these fears that Adam Hamilton addresses in his book….
- disappointing others
- missing out
- the Lord
Would you say these are things that are truly likely to harm us in the next day or two? Or even in the next month, or year? While there are aspects of each one of these which make life challenging, and a few could even result in harm to us, the truth is, in most cases the fear of these things is actually worse than the thing itself. The fear is what debilitates us more that the thing itself. And living in fear is really no way to live. Especially for the Christian. Why? Because we’ve specifically been given the Holy Spirit, and Paul reminds us that “the Spirit received does not make us slaves, so that [we] live in fear” (Romans 8:15). Rather, the Spirit gives us an assurance that despite all of the fearful things that exist in our world, we’ve already been made victorious over them through our faith in Jesus Christ.
Let’s take a brief trip back in time and join those Hebrews who’ve recently escaped their Egyptian imprisonment. They’re encamped in the desert of Paran, and have gathered to hear the report of 12 men who’ve just returned from their secret 40-day scouting trip into the Promised Land to check things out before they go in to take it for themselves. They begin with a good report. We entered the land to which you sent us. It’s actually full of milk and honey, and this this is its fruit,” (Numbers 13:27), at which time I assume they pulled out a big bag full of produce from that region. So far, so good.
The report goes on. “There are, however, powerful people who live in the land. The cities have huge fortifications. And we even saw the descendants of the Anakites there. The Amalekites live in the land of the arid southern plain; the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the mountains; and the Canaanites live by the sea and along the Jordan” (vv. 28-29).
Most of the people didn’t hear that last part about the various tribes who live in the land because they can’t get past the part of the report which said, “There are powerful people who live in the land…the cities have huge fortifications.” The report about a land flowing with milk and honey and delicious fruit is starting to sound out of reach on account of these obstacles in their way.
Sensing their discouragement, Caleb, one of the spies, quickly jumps in and adds his two cents, saying:
“Regardless, we must go up and take possession of it, because we are more than able to do it” (v. 30).
But fear has already taken root of the hearts of most of the spies. Because they cut Caleb off and retort, “But we can’t go up against the people because they’re stronger than us” after which they start making stuff up. They tell the people that it’s a land that devours its residents, where all the people are huge, even unnaturally gigantic, against which they themselves would seem like grasshoppers in stature.
You can probably guess how the people responded. In accordance with human nature, in their fear they believed the lie, and concluded that it would be impossible to take the land which they had been promised by God generations before. We can’t do it. It’s too scary. We’re too afraid to do it.
None of us here should point an accusing finger too quickly at them. You think we’re any different? Just like them, we too often let our fears dictate how we respond to life’s challenges. And this happens on both an individual and a corporate level. Each of us respond to challenges through the lens of fear; and as a church we often do the same thing.
There’s a story in the Gospel of Matthew in which a man asked Jesus’ disciples to heal his epileptic son, but they couldn’t. When the father goes to Jesus for help, Jesus’ response is a bit harsh, but it’s also revealing. He responds to no one in particular, but to everyone in general, “You faithless and crooked generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” And then heals the boy himself (see Matthew. 17:14ff). When his disciples later ask him why they couldn’t do it, he tells them it was a matter of faith. “I assure you,” he says, “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it’ll go” (v. 20).
Two things from this story. First, Jesus calling them a “faithless and crooked generation.” ‘Faithless’ I can see, but ‘crooked’? In what way were they crooked? ‘Crooked’ brings to mind someone who dishonest or fraudulent. But the disciples weren’t being that way. They weren’t purposefully trying to deceive the man or his son. What gives?
Well, the Greek word Jesus used is ‘diastrepho,’ which has the meaning of leading others astray, and passively, allowing oneself to be led astray. Unfortunately, they usually go hand-in-hand. Someone says, “We can’t do that,” and the rest of us respond, “You’re right, we can’t do that.” For their lack of faith (which is probably the content of a different sermon), the Disciples unintentionally led the father to believe that his son could not be healed. In that regard, they led also themselves astray. They all believed what wasn’t true.
Back to the Hebrews at the edge of the Promised Land. Ten of the twelve of spies allowed fear to decide their course of action. They told everyone “We can’t do it.” Caleb, who was also probably fearful, took a different approach. He, in faith, told everyone, “Yes, it’ll be difficult, but we’re more than able to do it.” Did he know how they would do it? Probably not. But what he did know was that God had promised them they could do it, and he trusted that God would fulfill his promise.
Here’s the bottom line. A good starting point for talking about living unafraid is to know this: not fearing is something we have to actively choose to do. I’ll say that again. Not fearing isn’t something that passively happens to us. We don’t wake up one day and unexpectedly find ourselves living courageously. No, not fearing is something we actively choose to do through making faith-based and faith-enhancing choices in life. And the truth is, this usually happens while feeling afraid. Faith and courage are things we choose. We choose to live by faith, and we choose to live courageously in the face of fear.
Not fearing is something we have to actively choose to do.
Here’s the good news (and for those of you counting, this is the second thing from the Jesus quote). You already have the faith necessary to live courageously. Jesus said that it only requires faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains. And our fears are certainly a type of mountain that’s standing in our way of living the life of victory Jesus lived and died to make possible.
So, when you come to the Lord’s Table in a little bit, take the opportunity to do two things. First, confess to God that too often you allow your fears to determine your life choices. Then second, receive and thank him for the faith that he’s given to you through his Son, Jesus Christ, who lives in you. It’s his faith in us that enables us to live courageously.