Monday, December 14, 2015

“Fearlessness in a Time of Fear” (Philippians 4:4-7 & Isaiah 12:2-6)

What scares you?

According to a survey by Chapman University and shared by Time magazine, these are the ten biggest fears of Americans in 2015:

  • Corruption of government officials

  • Cyber-terrorism

  • Corporate tracking of personal information

  • Terrorist attacks

  •  Government tracking of personal information

  • Bio-warfare

  • Identity theft

  • Economic collapse

  • Running out of money in the future
  • Credit card fraud

Those were the big fears of Americans . . . the ones we worry and fret about as we watch our news on television, hear it on the radio, or read it in the newspaper.  Those are the biggies, but we also have some of the more minor and common fears that strike us too.

According to a Gallup Poll, a few years ago, we Americans have lots of other fears.  According to that poll, in the greatest to the least, these are the more common and everyday fears we Americans have:

  • Snakes

  • Public speaking

  • Heights

  • Being closed in a small space

  •  Spiders and insects

  • Needles and getting shots

  • Mice
  • Flying on an airplane

  • Dogs

  •  Thunder and lightning

  • Crowds

  • Going to the doctor

  • The dark

I think that we can also add to that list our fears or concerns about getting older and everything that goes with getting older . . . illnesses . . . natural disasters . . . crime and violence . . . and, on and on the list could go. 

We are living in fearful times.  But, we are not the first people to live in a time of fear.  In our scripture readings this morning we hear two different readings—though very similar—of two time periods in the history of God’s people.  We hear a reading from the prophet Isaiah, and one from the Apostle Paul to a congregation in Philippi that he had started.  In both the people are living in a time of fear.

Isaiah is addressing God’s people who are in exile in Babylon for their indifference towards their covenant with God.  Despite Isaiah’s words of warning for the people to repent and turn back to their covenant with God, the people ignored his warnings . . . and, the result was that they were invaded by the armies of Babylon and severely defeated, captured, and moved to a strange land.  Behind them their homes were laid to waste and all that they knew and understood . . . even their relationship with God . . . was ripped away from them.  Now they were living far from home, and in their minds and hearts they were far from God . . . it was a time of fear as their past was destroyed and their future looked bleak.

The Apostle Paul has left the congregation he established in Philippi.  He is now in prison in Rome.  It is not a good time to be a “Christian” as there is persecution from both the Jews and the Roman government.  No longer does the congregation in Philippi have their leader, teacher, and mentor to lead them through these uncertain times.  It is a scary time . . . a time of uncertainty . . . a time of fear.

In both situations the people were living in fear.  In both situations they are given the word of hope.  Both the prophet and the apostle tell the people to have no fear for they are the children of God . . . they are not to live their lives in fear or the shadow of fear.  No, they are encouraged to rejoice . . . to always rejoice in the Lord.  Both the prophet and the apostle offer to the people words of encouragement.

Don’t you dislike those sorts of people?  Those people who are always telling us to put on a happy face no matter how rotten things seem to be?  Aren’t the words of Isaiah and Paul sounding a lot like one of that peppy song by Bobby Ferrin a few years ago . . . “Don’t worry, be happy”?  Don’t they realize how rotten things really are . . . the children of God in Isaiah’s time are captives in another nation—basically slaves far from their familiar home . . . the congregation in Philippi is in a hostile environment where they are constantly looking over their shoulders fearful of who might persecute them, might throw them into prison, or even kill them?  How is anyone supposed to rejoice in the Lord when life sucks?

Isaiah and Paul are well of the times and circumstances of the people they are addressing . . . shoot, Paul is sitting in prison of all things.  Times are hard . . . times are scary . . . the future is not certain . . . and, it is definitely a time of fear.  And, both understand that the problem is not with the captors or those who are persecuting them . . . it is not being thrown into prison . . . it is not even the threat of death; the problem, as they understand it, is fear.  Fear is the issue.

Fear is the great immobilizer of life.  Fear is what keeps people from trying things.  Fear is what keeps people from growing.  Fear is what keeps people from forming relationships.  Fear is what keeps people from loving.  Fear is what makes people lock their doors, shudder their windows, and go into hiding from the world around them.  Fear is what makes people set up barriers to keep out that which they fear.  Fear does not allow people the opportunity to discover who it is that God created them to be, nor does it allow them to step into the Kingdom of God.  Fear freezes people in their tracks, they spin their wheels, and they never complete the journey . . . the journey of faith . . . the journey of life.

The children of God in Isaiah’s time had screwed up majorly . . . they had broken their covenant with God despite God’s plea through Isaiah to come back into relationship with God and one another.  This did not make God happy . . . no, God was angry.  Captivity in Babylon was the result of that anger; and, yet, God still loved them . . . still desired a relationship with them . . . was still present to them whether they could see it or not . . . God did not abandon them—ever!  Even when the people screwed up, God still loved them.  Isaiah understood this . . . God is always there . . . always loving . . . always desiring a relationship no matter how good or bad things are—God is always there.  Because of that, Isaiah tells the people: “I will praise you, O Lord.  Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me.  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid . . . Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name . . . for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”

Even in a time of captivity, the call is to rejoice in the God who never abandons.

What greater witness could the congregation in Philippi receive than a letter of encouragement from their founder, leader, mentor, and friend—the Apostle Pau, from a prison cell in Rome.  Sure times were hard . . . times were fearful, but here is Paul sitting in a prison cell praising God and telling his disciples to do likewise.  The apostle writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice! . . . The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything . . . And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Paul understands that God never abandons the faithful . . . never abandons the family . . . never abandons creation.  No, God is always there, still loving, caring, and desiring that relationship.  Nothing ca ever strip away the presence of God . . . not persecution, not imprisonment, or even death itself.  God will never abandon you.  In that news all one can do is to rejoice . . . in the good times and in the bad.

Our journey during this Advent season has been one that has been disturbing in the news of the world in which we live.  It is a time of great fear of things that are big and scary, and of things that are small but put fear into us.  Our gut reaction is to shut down and hide . . . to dig our heels in and stay right where we are . . . because that is what fear does to us.  It immobilizes us and keeps us from completing the journey we have been called upon to take.  So, what are we scared of?

Someone once said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Fear is always going to be a part of life . . . always going to be a part of the journey through life and through faith.  But what have we . . . the followers of Jesus . . . what have we to fear?  Jesus demonstrated and continues to show us that God never abandons us . . . that God is always with us.  No matter what . . . in good times or bad times . . . God is always there . . . always in relationship with us.  Because God is, we should do as the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Paul encouraged . . . we should rejoice!  Rejoice!  God is with us!  Always with us!  Let us continue to make the journey.  Amen.

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