Our sermon series for Lent is called “Let’s Give It Up!” We’re looking at what we should give up for Lent—not things that we should give up, but attitudes, feelings, behaviors that we need to give up because they’re keeping us from getting closer to God. And today we’re going to talk about a big one: fear.
Do you know how many times the words “fear” or “afraid” show up in the Bible? It depends on the exact translation you use, obviously, but in the New International Version “fear” shows up in the Bible three hundred thirty-six times. “Afraid” is there two hundred five times. And most of the time, it’s in the context of God telling someone not to fear, not to be afraid. Obviously, fear is a huge factor in human life, and it has been for a long time.
So what can we do about that? How can we keep fear from playing such a big part in our lives?
Before we get into that, a couple of things. First, just as we said about guilt, there’s an extent to which fear is a good thing. Fear is what keeps us from running in front of a speeding car. Fear is what tells us to be careful when we’re driving. Fear can be what keeps us from breaking the law. A certain amount of fear can be a good thing, just because fear can keep us from doing dumb things.
And second, I come to you today as someone who has felt a lot of fear in his life. Not because I’ve led such a terrible life or anything like that. I’m not saying that my fears were always legitimate. But the fact is that for a lot of years I was a very shy person. I had a really hard time interacting with people. I had a lot of fears.
And the thing is that when you feel fear, even if it’s an irrational fear, there’s really nothing anyone can say to you that will make the fear go away. Here’s an example. One of the fears I still deal with is that I really don’t like to fly. Anyone else have that fear? I can force myself to do it, but I’m never comfortable while we’re in the air, and I’m always very happy when I’m back on the ground. And you can give me all the statistics about how safe air travel is, you can show my how I’m more likely to get killed in a car accident, you can show me how there’s an almost infinitesimally small chance of anything happening when I fly, and it won’t make any difference. I’m still not going to like flying. That’s just the way it is.
But there are a few things that can help with fear. Want to know what they are? The first one is being prepared. Looking at a situation in advance, thinking about all the things that could happen, and being ready for them. If we’re ready for a situation, if we know what’s going to happen, then we won’t be nearly as scared of it.
That brings us to our Bible verses for today. Jesus sends out the twelve disciples. They’re supposed to spread Jesus’ message, that the kingdom of God is near. In a verse we did not read, Jesus tells them they’re supposed to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons”.
But it’s not going to be easy. The disciples are going to have a tough road ahead of them. And Jesus does not want them to get scared and give up when the tough times come. So, Jesus gets them prepared. He tells them, “Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
Now, Jesus never forced the disciples to do anything. They could’ve quit and gone home at any time. But Jesus is telling them, yes, if you follow me, if you do what I’m telling you to do, bad things are going to happen. But you don’t have to be afraid of them, because you know ahead of time that these things are going to happen. And you know something else, too. You know that the Holy Spirit is going to be with you. Again, “do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”
That brings us to the second thing that can help with fear: knowing that God is with us. Being confident that God is going to help us, that God is going to be there no matter what may happen. We may have to face scary things, but we don’t have to face them alone.
Remember what it says in the Twenty-third Psalm? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
When we follow God, when we do what the Lord tells us to do, we can know that God will be with us. The Holy Spirit will be speaking for us. God will give us comfort and strength. And things will go the way they’re supposed to go.
But that does not mean things will go smoothly and easily for us. Even though Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would tell them what to say, Jesus did not promise that the disciples would be released. And there was still that bit about being flogged. Jesus did not promise that the Holy Spirit would prevent that from happening, either.
And so, even though we know God is with us, we can still be afraid. The disciples were, too. And that brings us to the third thing that can help with fear: taking the long view. Jesus says to them, in effect, you don’t have to be afraid of what’s going to happen. These people who are going to arrest you cannot hurt you. All they can do is kill your body.
You say it that way, and it almost sounds like an old comedy routine. You can hear Moe saying that to Curly. “Go ahead, kid. Why are you afraid of? Those guys can’t do anything to you. All they can do is kill you.”
But if we believe in Jesus, if we truly believe, that’s the absolute truth. If we follow Jesus, if we do our best to serve God, if we truly believe that we can have eternal life in heaven, then we don’t need to worry about what people do to us on earth. All they can do is kill us. And if they do, we’ll go to heaven and be with God. Again, here’s how Jesus says that. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Jesus puts that about as bluntly as he can put it. You and I have nothing to fear from following Jesus. We do have something to fear if we don’t. Period.
And that’s when our faith gets tested. Because it’s easy to be afraid of what happens to us on earth. Earth is real to us. Our earthly bodies are real to us. The pain our earthly bodies, whether we’re talking about physical pain or emotional pain, is real to us. The pain of hell, and the joy of heaven, seem more speculative. We may believe in them, or claim to, but we’ve never seen them and we cannot feel them right now. We have to have faith that the joy we’ll feel in heaven is real, too, and that it’s going to be worth any pain we may feel on earth.
Maybe you think you’ve never had your faith tested that way. And certainly, if we’re talking about the kind of faith that Christians have shown in other parts of the world, where they’ve been beheaded rather than deny their faith in Jesus, you’re right. We have not had our faith tested in that way. And I pray we never will.
But still, you and I have had our faith tested. And we still do. Any time we make a decision about whether we’re going to take a risk on behalf of Jesus, we have our faith tested. When there’s an opening in a conversation to talk about Jesus, we have our faith tested. When we have the chance to invite someone to church, we have our faith tested. When we see someone who’s not part of the “in” group and needs a friend, we have our faith tested. Any time we have a chance to do or say something that we know is right, but that might make us less popular, we have our faith tested. And we could go on and on.
It’s fear that keeps us from doing the right thing. It’s faith that tells us to do it. It’s fear that keeps us from living the way Jesus told us to. It’s faith that tells us to do it. That’s the choice we make: fear or faith. And we have to make it over and over again.
Fear is a powerful emotion. But if we’re prepared for it, if we know that God is with us, and if we have faith that following Jesus is worth the risk, then you and I can give up fear. If we invite God’s Spirit into our hearts, the Spirit will tell us what to do and what to say. And we’ll be able to give up fear, not just for Lent, but for the rest of our lives.