Fear

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on September 19, 2021. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, thank you for another opportunity to come together in worship and to lift up our lives in prayer and thanksgiving to you, Lord. Thank you for this opportunity to take communion together and to share this time with people online and people in other parts of the world who can watch it with us and come back to it later when they have time, Lord — just all of the opportunities that we have and the technologies that we have is a blessing, and I pray that it would be glorifying to you, the ways that we use it, Lord.

As we consider a few passages in scripture and our relationships with you, Lord, I pray that you guide each of us in our seasons of life to find something that is beneficial for us — something encouraging and something comforting or strengthening, something piercing, something that is what we need for each of us in our place — in this time and place right now, Lord.

We trust that your Spirit is at work in the lives of individuals, in the lives of families and communities, households, and in all of creation, and so we pray now, Lord, that you would help us to participate in that a little bit — that you would help us to be prepared for this coming week, to participate in that, and that in all things in our lives and in this worship you would be glorified.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

Good morning, again. I’m going to be starting in Matthew, today.

We’re going to look at a few different stories. Starting in Matthew chapter 14… In Matthew 14 and verse 22, we find the story of Jesus walking on water, but in this version of Jesus walking on water, we also find Peter walking on water. That’s different than other gospels, because in other gospels, Peter doesn’t walk on water, like in Mark, so in this one in particular, we find this unique interaction between Peter and Jesus and the witnessing of the other disciples in the boat as Peter steps out of the boat onto this stormy lake. In verse 22, it says,

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-33, NIV

There are two moments in this story that I want to mention. The first in verse 27 when Jesus comes to them and he tells them, “Don’t be afraid.” They’re terrified, because he’s walking on the water, and they think he’s a ghost, and he says, “Don’t be afraid.” The second is when Peter gets out and walks on the water, and then in verse 30, it says, “When he saw the wind, he was afraid.” Don’t be afraid, and then he was afraid.

This relationship, this dynamic between Jesus and his disciples, goes back and forth throughout all the gospels. There’s chapter 17 in verses one through eight in this same gospel, the gospel of Matthew. In chapter 17 and verse one, we find the start of the transfiguration story. It says,

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

NIV

Peter, again, unfortunately for Peter.

There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Matthew 17:2-8, NIV

Same thing happens, again. Peter sees Moses and Elijah standing with a transfigured Jesus shining like the light, he hears God speak, he becomes terrified, and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. Over and over again, this is the dynamic.

In Mark chapter 21… What’s interesting about this passage in Mark is that it’s not to the disciples that he’s speaking. I’m sorry. I said chapter 21. I meant Mark chapter five and verse 21. There is no chapter 21 in Mark.

Mark chapter five in verse 21, we find Jesus crossing over in the boat, and he’s walking with his disciples, and this man comes up to him, Jairus, and wants him to come and heal his daughter. I’m not going to read this whole story, because there’s another story inserted in between it, so I want to jump a little bit further down. We’re going to go to verse 30. I’m sorry: verse 32.

[Started reading and realized it was the wrong verse, again.]

Verse 36 — the people had come to Jairus and told him that his daughter has died, and Jesus:

Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Mark 5:36-43, NIV

He comforts Jairus in the same way he comforts the disciples: don’t be afraid, just believe. Don’t be afraid. He’s afraid because he’s just received news that his daughter has died, and Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.” And, again, it’s Peter, James, and John who were with him, the same ones who were in the boat along with the other disciples and the same ones who went with him to the transfiguration, so they know this message just like Jairus does. This is not unique to them.

In the same way, in Luke chapter five, which I won’t read — Luke chapter five, verses one through 11 — when he calls the disciples in Luke for the first time, they’re out catching fish, and he tells them where to cast the net, and they catch all these fish. Simon comes up to him, and he throws himself — that is, Peter, again — throws himself down and says, “Get away from me, because I’m just a sinner, and you are obviously a holy man.” Jesus tells him the same thing: don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid; from now on I will teach you to fish for people.

Over and over again this is the message of Jesus to his disciples. Over and over again, the disciples are terrified by their encounter with the risen Lord. He’s not risen at this time, either, but they have the same kind of reaction when he appears to them after he’s risen. There is a certain fearfulness that overcomes us when we encounter the divine, when we encounter the unexplainable, when we encounter the mysterious nature of God, when we encounter the power of God — and you see this all throughout the Old Testament, as well.

When people appear… When people are encountered by an apparition of God, whether it’s the angel of the Lord or it’s the angels who come to proclaim the birth of Jesus or whatever it is — when Moses encounters the burning bush, when there’s the cloud and the fire, when there’s the manna, when there’s the ark of the covenant — there is a certain fear that people have when they encounter God. All throughout the prophets, we see this, when the prophets encounter God, and many times they prostrate themselves on the ground in fear. Ezekiel did it. Isaiah did it. Elijah did it. There’s a certain perspective that we gain when we’re standing in the presence of the Lord.

Yet, the message that Jesus gives to his disciples over and over again is don’t be afraid. What’s interesting to me is that these two things run hand in hand, and I think often we take that message of ear and we either use it to convince people to be afraid or we take that message of not being afraid and we use it to ignore any signs of the true presence of God.

Often times, Evangelicals and American Protestant Christians are so unafraid of God that they don’t realize they’ve never been in the presence of God, and when they start to get afraid, they take it as a sign that they’re in the wrong place. Yet, over and over in the presence of God, we see the disciples being afraid in the presence of Jesus, and Jesus has to tell them not to be afraid. Instead, we take that fear, and we use it as a sign that we should go the other way. We don’t dwell in the fearful place and let God comfort us. Instead, we escape the fear. We treat the fear that we experience in the mysterious, divine presence of God in a way that would have been equivalent to Peter turning and running from the mountain during the transfiguration. We say to ourselves, “This can’t possibly be real. I can’t possibly be in the presence of Moses and Elijah and a transfigured Jesus, and God cannot possibly be talking to me, because if that were so, I wouldn’t be afraid.” We say, “Don’t be afraid,” and what we mean is, “You should escape fear.” Therefore, we never experience the will of God.

Then the weird thing is that we turn around, and we use fear as a way to convince people that they should look for God. We fearmonger toward them, and this creates a dissonance. It creates a contradiction in our theology and our way of life. It creates a scenario where we expect everybody to be so afraid that they submit to our will, yet we are so unafraid and so “escapism” about fear that we never experience the will of God [for] ourselves. In fact, there’s a rebuke that Jesus uses in Matthew against the Pharisees for this very thing.

In Matthew chapter 23, in verse one,

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

Matthew 23:1-7, NIV

And then again in verse 13

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

Matthew 23:13,15, NIV

Too often, Christians will use fear as a tool to convince people of what the will of God is — to convince them to submit, to convince them to change — and they neglect the message that Jesus brings: do not be afraid. Too often, Christians will use the message “do not be afraid” to justify themselves so that they can escape fear and never experience the will of God or the presence of God, because it’s uncomfortable, and we rationalize to ourselves that if it’s so uncomfortable and so terrifying, we’re obviously in the wrong place.

These things are not in line with what we see here in the disciples of Jesus. The disciples are both terrified of Jesus and comforted by Jesus. Jesus recognizes that his presence and his power in the Holy Spirit is uncomfortable for them. He recognizes that it is uncomfortable and threatening for religious leaders. He recognizes that it is uncomfortable for a society that lives under a system of violence and anger and fear. It is uncomfortable for them, and yet he also calls them into it and then tells them not to be afraid.

Don’t be afraid; go ahead and step out of the boat. Don’t be afraid; come and follow me, and I’ll make you fish for people. Don’t be afraid; it’s only me. Take courage. Don’t be afraid; just believe.

We don’t escape fear of the Lord by simply turning away every time we get afraid. We escape fear of the Lord by realizing that the fear is from us and the Lord comes to us and says, “Don’t be afraid.”

Here are some other examples.

  • He tells Joseph, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what’s happening with her is something that I am part of.”
  • Don’t be afraid, you’re worth more than many sparrows.
  • Don’t be afraid, not only of me, but don’t be afraid of others, either.
  • “Don’t be afraid; I know you’re looking for Jesus,” he tells the women when they come to the tomb and they find it empty. They see the angel, and they become scared, and he says, “Don’t be afraid. I know who you are. I know who you’re looking for.”
  • In Matthew 28 and verse ten: “Don’t be afraid but go tell my brothers,” Jesus tells them. They encounter after the angel.

Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to stand in the presence of Jesus. Don’t be afraid to stand in the presence of the Lord. As terrifying as it may seem at first, don’t be afraid.

Now, let’s look at Matthew chapter ten, because there is a problem passage that I mentioned just now about the sparrows, and this isn’t the only one, but I want to consider it for a minute. Matthew chapter ten… What we find is Jesus giving this long exposition, and in verse 21, he says,

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

“The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 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. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Matthew 10:21-31, NIV

What a confusing passage. Don’t be afraid of them, but then do be afraid of God, but then don’t be afraid of God. It’s important to take that in the context, and it’s important to take that in the context of scripture, as a whole, because, yes, there are times when we talk about fearing the Lord — and I talked about, before, how fearing the Lord is a matter of humility, not a matter of actual fear, and Jesus seems to reiterate that hear. He says why be afraid of the one who can only kill the body? Instead, be afraid of the one who can kill the body and the soul, but then in that same paragraph, he comes back later and says, “But don’t be afraid, because if I care about the sparrows, how much more does God care about you? You are worth more than many sparrows.” So even here, that idea of being afraid of the one who can kill the body and the soul isn’t really about being afraid.

What he does is he makes this contrast, and he says, “These people can kill your body, yes, but compared to God, that’s nothing. Also, by the way, don’t be afraid of God, because you’re worth more than many sparrows.” In the end, the message is the same: you have nothing to fear, and as the New Testament tells us in another place, perfect love casts out fear, and God is love.

The idea that Christians would walk around and say you have to be scared — you have to be scared of hell, you have to be scared of your own identity, you have to be scared of who God is and what God’s going to do to you — that idea is counter to what we find in the life and the teaching of Jesus. When we pull out just the fear passages without the “don’t be afraid” passages, we run the risk of just fearmongering people into what we call faith.

And, yes, I understand that there is a temptation to go the other way. I understand that this sermon is completely biased on the other side of that to say “don’t be afraid” and forget the fear passages. That’s not my intention, but I want to balance out what many people have heard over and over and over again in churches, not just in the way that they are taught explicitly but in the way that they are shamed and shunned implicitly. The things that they have learned implicitly because of how they are treated and what they see in others: that God is a god to be feared, that love is a thing that is unempathetic and hateful, and that at the end of the day, loving our neighbors is secondary to fearmongering. That kind of a message needs to be counteracted.

God is not a fearmonger. Love is persuasive not compelling. We aren’t here to force people into faith by convincing them that they should be afraid. Quite the opposite: you should be confident in your pursuit of God, confident in your questions, confident in your concerns, confident in the way that you seek after things that perhaps are counter to what you were taught. You should be confident in that, because God approaches his disciples and tells them, “Don’t be afraid,” and when we receive a different message from leaders in the church, it is safe to say that that message is not from God.

If your leaders are telling you that you should be afraid of your questions, you should be afraid of your doubts, you should be afraid of your concerns, then that simply is not the message we find in Jesus. When the disciples are terrified, he says don’t be afraid. When they encounter him transfigured, he says don’t be afraid. When they are concerned in the face of God’s words, he says don’t be afraid. When they are concerned because of the life they have and the events that are taking place, like the death of their child, he says don’t be afraid. When they are concerned about how they are going to be perceived by others, like the Joseph when it comes to Mary, he says don’t be afraid. Over and over again, don’t be afraid, and even when he says you should fear God, he then says but don’t be afraid.

A message of fear is not reconcilable with a message of love, and since we preach a God who is love, we also then cannot preach a God who dwells in fear. Don’t be afraid, and if you are in a community that is causing you to be afraid, I suggest that you find a new community, and I don’t say that lightly, because I have been a part of many communities like that, and I have often resolved myself to continue in that community, but I think that if you’re going to make that resolution — to continue in a community that fearmongers — that you should try to do so from a place that is strong and unafraid. Resign yourself, then, to the idea that they will persecute you. If you can handle that, then don’t be afraid, but if you’re not ready for that, then find a new community, because only in a place that is anti-fear can you thrive in your pursuit of truth. Only in a place that is anti-fear can you thrive in your pursuit of God, and what I desire for you more than anything else is that your pursuit of God be filled with love and safe spaces and honesty, because at the end, what matters is how you pursue God, not how far you get or whether you conform to some expectation of some community.

If you want to know more about that — if you’re wondering about it, if it sounds different than anything you’ve ever been taught, especially — I really want to encourage you to continue to ask questions and seek people out who can answer those questions. If you’re here in Las Vegas, come and join us and ask questions. Come and join us and see what we mean. Contact me. Contact us online or on Facebook or on social media.

The invitation is not simply to give your life to Christ. The invitation is to pursue God, and if that leads to Christ, then that is where we will walk with you, but in the fear that people are thrusting upon you, you will be stifled. I invite you to leave fear behind for the sake of love and pursue a God who is love.

Thank you.

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