Sermon for March 1, 2020

Every one of the readings for today speaks about temptation.  Adam and Eve were temptedto eat the forbidden fruit.  Jesus went to the desert and was tempted by the devil.  He refused all three of the devil’s temptations.  It would be most appropriate for my sermon to be about temptation.  After all, we just started Lent.  In Lent, we seek to free ourselves from temptation and bring ourselves closer to God.   I am sorry if I let you down today.  Perhaps I am just revolting a little today or being a contrarian. I think I will blame my choice on our Lenten study on Thursday which is about the book Les Miserable and has themes of revolution.  Today, I feel called to talk about fear. 

Fear and worry are found in scripture often.  One example was last Sunday. As Jesus was being transfigured in front of the apostles and God spoke about Jesus, the apostles fell to the ground in fear.  In another passage, the apostles were fearful when Jesus came walking across the water to their boat.  It happened again when they were huddled in the upper room just before Jesus appeared to them on the first Easter Sunday

Ash Wednesday is a time when we reflect on our mortality. I started contemplating fear when I encountered someone who was afraid that a loved one would die.  This past week, I started playing the game Lent Madness, sponsored by Forward Movement. On Ash Wednesday, the leaders of the game paused and posted a message about fear. On the blog, they said that “We live in a world that is gripped by fear and hatred.”

They wrote, “Now is the time for us to renounce fear, to reject hatred, and to take the more difficult high road. Now is the time to make space in our lives for prayer, study, and worship. Now is the time to look carefully at our lives and to open up our hearts to change. Thanks be to God, the church has given us an entire season to do just these things.”  It seems I am to the only one focusing on fear.

What fears are you dealing with?  It seems that the Coronavirus has gripped the nation with fear.  So far there have only been a few cases of the new virus and just one person in the United States has died from the disease, but the threat is looming.  The number of cases of this virus has grown significantly and countries outside of China are seeing a huge increase in the number of cases.  We are fearful because about 2,800 people have died from the disease.  The threat of coronavirus coming to the United States is real.  It is something that we must be prepared for and be ready to take appropriate actions. 

Another fear that some people have is that they will be killed in a mass shooting.  We had another one of those this week in Wisconsin.  It is a sad fact of American life and one I don’t understand.  I just don’t see why people want to kill others before killing themselves.  

You might ask why these two fears are so prevalent.  After all, the chance of either happening is remote.  In fact, more people have been killed by the common flu than by the coronavirus.  Automobile accidents kill many more than mass shootings do.  Our fears are not totally logical and we are frequently afraid of the unknown.  For example, I have never dropped from the sky in a parachute so I am afraid of doing so. 

Because fear is a feeling, we don’t think of fear as something we can control.  It is a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain, whether the threat is real or imagined.  Fear is induced by perceived danger or threat, which causes physiological changes and ultimately behavioral changes, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events.

How can you change the feeling of fear that you have?  I am not sure that you can.  What I do believe is that you can choose how you react when you are fearful.  I don’t like fear because it can take away hope.  It can cause us to do something that doesn’t really help us, like choosing to stay in our house so that we will not be subject to a mass shooting.  Fear can cause us to freeze and take no action at all.  Our fears can cause us to do irrational things.  In a recent poll, 38% of Americans said that they wouldn’t buy Corona beer because of the outbreak of the coronavirus.  On the other hand, if the coronavirus becomes a pandemic, it will be a wise choice to stay in your home and avoid contact with others.

God doesn’t want us to live in fear.  It is repeated over and over again in Scripture.  I am not speaking of the expression fear the Lord which is mentioned many times in Scripture.  The word fear in that case carries the meaning of respect, not the sense of being afraid.  

A good example of God’s encouragement to us is found in the book of Isaiah,  Chapter 43, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine.”   That chapter of Isaiah was written to calm the people of Israel and to remind them that God chose them, they will not be forgotten.  This verse is just one of the eighty times in Scripture when we are told to have no fear.   An author named Jessica Kastner shared her perspective on fear this way.  “I’m still in awe that God, who created the universe, cares about every detail of our lives. We belong to an all-powerful, all-knowing, victorious father who cares deeply about us. When we really meditate on this truth, it’s hard to remain fearful about the trials we face.”  Is it possible that faith can win out over fear?  Maybe we will still be fearful but our faith will give us the presence of mind to respond to our fears in a more rational way.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be fearful. When the apostles fell down in fear at the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  When Jesus walked across the water to the boat he said to the terrified apostles, “‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’  When Jesus heard that a young girl had died while he was on his way to see her he said to her father, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Jesus continued on his way and the girl was healed and she lived.  When Jesus entered the room after his resurrection, he said to his apostles, ‘Peace be with you.’*  Jesus said that people will be afraid when the end of the world is coming and that they will faint with fear.  But he told his followers to stand up because their redemption is coming.   Followers of Jesus have less reason to fear anything.  Jesus came to calm our fears and to bring us peace. 

Sometimes, we will fear the wrath of God.  It is written in the Hebrew Scriptures and is also found in the Gospel of Matthew, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”.  (“Matthew 10.28)  Let us use this time of Lent to come into God’s presence and make ourselves faithful.  It will help some of our fear.

Fear is a common reaction in all humans.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” Overcoming fear may take practice.  Dale Carnegie suggested that it takes action to overcome fear.  “If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”  That is some good advice. 

My suggestion is that we turn to God in our fear.  We turn to God in prayer and contemplation, asking that God will help us make good choices, choosing to make thoughtful responses to our fear and not let our fear control our lives.  Sometime you might do a google search to find out what people think is the opposite of fear.  You will find many answers.  The one I like the most is trust.  Let us pray that God will help us find trust in God’s loving arms. 

On Ash Wednesday I mentioned that for my Lenten discipline, I have chosen to reach out to some friends whom I have not connected with in a long time. I hope that some of you will have a Lenten discipline that brings you closer to God.  One possibility is to seek peace and comfort in the arms of God, to pray that you will trust in God, knowing that God will always be with us even when we are fearful.  I always find solace in the words of Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.  May God give you peace and comfort.  May God put to rest your fears so that you may live in hope.  Amen. 


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