I don’t know about you, but the first time I read through these lessons, (Jeremiah 10:7-13; Psalm 67:7-18; Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39) there was one overwhelming reaction that I had to them – despair. These, my friends, are tough readings! In fact, I have to tell you, my first thought was, what a good week this would have been to have brought in a guest preacher. How to address these challenging texts?
But then, I kept coming back to them, and I was reminded how God’s promise and encouragement seep through the words of even the most challenging texts. Isn’t it just like God to challenge and teach us through this living Word of God.
In the gospel text today we read about some of the challenges and threats that may afflict Jesus’ disciples. Following Christ is risky. As Jesus points out, all kinds of distractions and dangers await. Discipleship sometimes, though not always, feels like a one step forward, two steps back kind of proposition. It takes vision, trust and courage to be a disciple of Christ. It takes endurance.
Three times in this short gospel passage, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.” That is the dominant message here. Do not be afraid. No matter what fate awaits those who follow Jesus’ call to follow him, to witness and serve in his name, Jesus’ compassionate, persistent message is, “have no fear.” Jesus knows the power of fear. Jesus knows how squeamish fear can make even the most faithful and devoted of Jesus’ followers.
We, too, are well acquainted with the power of fear, because it affects all of us at various times and in the various spheres of our lives. Let’s face it: Fear drives our economy, fear can and often does impact and influence our political process – just think of the headlines and political claims that dominate every news cycle during election years, for example – so many of them, driven. by. fear.
There are times when we might fear for our loved ones, or for our jobs. We might fear for our health or for changes taking place in our lives; we fear where the future will lead. We might fear the rise of crime in the streets and in our schools. We fear that war will never truly cease.
The problem with fear is that it cripples those caught in its crosshairs. Fear can silence us even when we know we should speak. It causes stress and stress affects us physically, emotionally and spiritually. Fear keeps some of us from sleeping well at night, adversely affects our focus, and can overtake our decision-making and limit our creative processes.
A few years ago, after I had been taking voice lessons for a year or so, I was scheduled to sing a beautiful song from the Messiah called “Come Unto Him” during our church’s annual Advent Lessons and Carols program. I had been singing and preparing this song for months, and I knew it better than I knew about any other song or hymn in my repertoire. It was, however, the first time I had really sung a solo in a program like this, in many, many years.
The afternoon arrived for the service. Rehearsals went smoothly. In fact, in rehearsal, my solo went beautifully - better than it had ever gone before, my voice strong and clear, those high notes perfectly in tune. Following the rehearsal and before the service, we shared a wonderful potluck meal, and then it was time for Lessons and Carols to begin.
As I sat with the choir waiting to sing my solo, though, nerves began to set in. My heart started to race and pound. My breathing changed. I felt all sweaty and overheated. Fear began to overwhelm me. When I finally got up to sing, I took a deep breath, opened my mouth - and barely a sound came forth.
I wish I could say that soon, the prayers I was desperately praying for my voice to immediately come unto me, worked and suddenly my voice was healed and restored, but no. That is not the case. Instead, it felt like a heavy damp cloth had been thrown over my vocal cords. I tried to push, to sing through the restriction, but nothing worked. It’s possible that something I ate or drank during the meal affected my vocal cords, but I doubt that was it. I think it was fear that took my voice away.
That’s how fear works. It might cause our heart to pound and even to beat faster, but it also constricts blood vessels, so the work of our heart becomes less effective. Fear makes us uncomfortable, it makes our breath hitch as classic “fight or flight” physical changes and reactions overtake us. Suddenly our ability to think, to act, to problem solve all vanish. Fear makes our voice change and shake, and sometimes, it mutes them.
Such paralyzing fear can steal our joy and be the death of discipleship.
What is it that drives our fear and keep us from participating fully in the God’s mission? How might fear mute our proclamation of the good news of mercy and grace that we experience at the hand of God; what makes our hearts beat ineffectively? What keeps us from shouting from the rooftops, the wonder of God’s creative and redeeming love? Does fear limit our capacity to embrace, and to fully follow the cross of Christ?
For many of us the fear of conflict or the risk of judgment can stifle our voices. Gone are the days of a Christian society that supports church activity and involvement. Gone is the cultural support for claiming allegiance to church institutions or to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gone is the societal practice of honoring adherence to religious activity or worship.
Instead, external demands on our time – and our many and varied commitments may make it feel risky to place priority in time consuming religious activity, and even riskier to testify to our faith experience and beliefs. Jesus reminds us that adherence to the gospel and following in Christ’s footsteps will not always be easy.
In our gospel text today, Jesus acknowledges the power of fear. He acknowledges that faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel will put the disciples on a collision course with the powers of this world. Jesus acknowledges that those fears are not unfounded but are very, very real - And yet, Jesus says, “do not be afraid.”
Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it?
And yet, my brothers and sisters in Christ: this phrase, “do not fear, do not be afraid”, is a characteristic hallmark of Good News throughout Scripture, in one form or another appearing some 365 times. Anytime a messenger of God begins a message with the words “Do not fear” you can be sure that good news is about to come…but you also know that there’s a reason you’re being told not to fear in the first place: the messenger knows that, all things being equal, fear is warranted here. So, 365 times throughout the scriptures – the equivalent of one time per day each day of the year, God sends this message – do not be afraid. Even though it is more than likely that on any given day, 365 days of the year, somewhere, something is happening that would cause any reasonable person to be afraid; still, Jesus encourages his disciples: “do not fear”… .Rather, fostered by Jesus’ instruction “do not fear” and equipped with the promise “you are of more value than many sparrows” and “I am with you always, to the end of the age”, we are bold to face these challenges, and so many more, not with fear but with excitement and anticipation for the new God can and will bring.
Jesus invites his disciples instead to have courage, and to know that their courage is rooted in God’s promise. For we worship a God of resurrection and life. And if we have died with Christ, we believe that we—and all creation—will also live with him. Jesus went to the cross so that God’s promise of everlasting life, and of new life through baptism would be secured. God’s love has dictated that the kingdom of heaven was inaugurated with the coming of Christ and sealed through his death and resurrection cannot and will not be threatened by any of the powers of the earth. And so, Jesus encourages us, do not be afraid to speak, to follow, to hope, to live this faith – instead, proclaim the gospel “in the light and from the housetops” because this proclamation is the most powerful tool we possess against fear and the powers of the world.
Jesus promises that nothing can take away God’s promise, no one can drive away God’s continuing presence, and nor dim God’s ultimate protection. God alone has power over our body and our spirit. God is present in the world in mercy and compassion and will never leave our sides.
Friends, Paul reminds us in the epistle reading today, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so too we might walk in newness of life.” Let us boldly remember, therefore, Jesus’ encouragement, “do not fear” and may God strengthen us to not fear the challenges that surround us, but to enter them with confidence and joy, not on our own accord but on account of Christ who lives within us. Amen.