9:30AM Sunday School
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Austin, TX 78705

Don’t Be Afraid

San Williams

December 19, 2010
Isaiah 35:1-11; James 5:7-10; Matt. 11:2-11

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The realization that there are only five more days till Christmas may stir up anxiety and raise your blood pressure. These last few days of Advent can be stressful, especially if you haven’t finished your shopping, planned out your menus, wrapped your gifts or prepared your house for guests.  For some of us this time of year is fun, but for others the holidays are just something to grit your teeth and try to get through.Whether this morning finds you in a state of good cheer or anxious dread—or maybe a mixture of the two—let’s clear our heads of holiday clutter and listen again to these encouraging words from Isaiah:  “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.’”

God sounds like a broken record when it comes to the command, “Don’t be afraid.”   This phrase is repeated so often that this short phrase has been called a distillation of the whole Bible.  The Lord said it to Abraham before cutting a covenant with him: “Don’t be afraid.”  Gabriel said it to Daniel when he was frightened by a terrifying vision:  “Don’t be afraid.”  An angel said it to Zechariah, future father of John the Baptist.  Gabriel said it to Mary, who was troubled at the news she received.  An angel said it to shepherds startled by the Christmas glory that shone round them…Jesus repeatedly said it to his disciples, culminating in his resurrected appearance when he came to his grieving, fearful friends and spoke the words, “Don’t be afraid.” Mary Magdalene heard this same command when she was in the garden searching for Jesus. So on this last Sunday in Advent, as we draw close to Christmas, perhaps this command is the very one God would give to us today. Don’t be afraid.

That was Isaiah’s message to the exiles. This oracle we read today is associated with what may have been the most terrifying period in Israel’s history.  The Jewish exiles to whom Isaiah wrote had every reason to be frightened.  Their armies had been defeated. Their lands had been confiscated, family members separated from one another, their means of livelihood taken away, their cities in ruin.  There were plenty of weak hands and feeble knees among that frightened, displaced people.  Yet the prophet declares to them: “Be strong. Do not fear.”

Surely the Bible has so much to say about fear because fear blocks us from the life God wants us to live. This is not to say that all fear is bad.  Certainly, legitimate fears can be a good thing when they alert us to danger. But the Bible is talking about the fears that keep us from loving God with all our mind, heart and strength, and keep us from loving our neighbors. After all, it’s hard to love when you are always afraid. It’s impossible to be joyful about anything when you are afraid. In an article in Christian Century magazine, Peter Steinke wrote that “when fear becomes overwhelming, alertness diminishes, and adrenalin floods the body, riveting the body on the object of the fear. Tunnel vision occurs and fear takes over.”

Is this what’s happening in much of our society today?  Consider an example that’s near to home.  Mo Ranch, our Presbyterian Assembly in Hunt, invited a Muslim youth group to MoRanch this coming week. This group, called the Islamic Society of North America, is a very moderate Muslim organization which has taken a lead in fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. Their leaders have been guests at the White House and one of them spoke last summer at our Presbyterian General Assembly. A couple years back, we had representatives from this group join our adult church school here at UPC to engage in dialogue.  Jan and I went on a trip to Turkey sponsored by this group. They have never been on any governmental list for terrorist groups.  However, when certain Christian groups heard that Muslim youth would be attending a Christian camp, MoRanch became inundated with e-mails and phone calls, accusing MoRanch of hosting terrorists.  As the news spread, the allegations became more far-fetched and incendiary.  For example, one allegation spread the rumor that MoRanch planned to close the ranch except for this Islamic youth group and give all the staff the week off so that this terrorist organization could train these Muslim youth to combat Christians.  This one episode right here in our back yard shows how quickly fear can take over our ability to think clearly and judge fairly. As Steinke noted, fear replaces reason with tunnel vision and mind-numbing paranoia. This is why Robert Frost once said that what really frightened him were frightened people.

So how are we to live as people of faith in a frightening world?  Certainly not naively, ignoring clear risk and danger.  Still, Isaiah’s formula is the most relevant:  “Say to those of a fearful heart ‘Be strong. Do not fear!  Here is your God.’”  Notice that the injunction to “fear not” is joined to the affirmation that God is with us.  For the prophet Isaiah, God’s presence meant that the current dangers and desolations would not last. When the exiles fixed their hearts and minds on God, the dry landscape of their lives became signs of hope—hope for the healing, restoration and new life that would break forth like streams in the desert. 

Likewise, in our Gospel lesson we heard about John the Baptist sending some of his disciples to ask if Jesus was the one from God or must they wait for another.  John, too, had reason to be afraid.  He had been cast into prison and would soon have his head delivered to Herod on a platter. But Jesus responds by reassuring John of God’s presence working through Jesus——the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed…the poor have good news brought to them.  The encouragement Jesus sent back to John was that God was at work in the world.  Transformation was happening, healing was taking place, salvation had drawn near.  We typically say that Jesus came to save us from our sins, which he clearly did, but it’s just as clear that he came to save us from our fears.  As we joyfully sing on Christmas:

Yet in the dark streets shineth
The everlasting light:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

Friends, isn’t this the essence of the Christmas story—God is with us to save us. I read this week of parents who told how, when they put their young daughter to bed, said their bedtime prayers, kissed her good night, for years she would say, “Make sounds.”  She wanted the security of her parents’ presence, the comforting sounds of their voices, dishes being dried, sound of home and safety and love.  In Jesus Christ, God comes close, in the sound of a human voice.  And that voice speaks us today as it has spoken to people of a fearful heart across the centuries: “Be strong. Do not Fear.  Here is your God.”