What are you most afraid of? We human beings have dozens, perhaps hundreds of phobias. I want to mention a double-handful of the most popular in no particular order.
First (and it really is first!), we fear social situations. Basically, people are afraid of other people. We are particularly afraid of people who are different from us, whether the difference is racial, sexual, economic, territorial, political, national, or whatever. I am convinced that most of the racial problems in America today stem from the fact that many white people are afraid of any people who are darker than we are, like children who are afraid of the night. Yes, the fear is returned, but history proves it starts with whites more often than not. [Note 1]
Oddly, we fear something called “clusters,” including clusters of small holes, bumps, or patterns. Human beings fear beehives, wasp nests, balls of snakes, and the clusters of Covid that may surround us even now. We also fear human faces that are marked and scarred by diseases like smallpox and leprosy. In the New Testament era, lepers suffered not only the disease, but exile from their families, and friends, and community. If they met a traveler on the way, they had to call out “Unclean!” Jesus healed and cleansed lepers, returning them to their human relationships.
We certainly fear failure and Abraham Maslow suggests we are equally afraid of failure’s opposite number, success. I don’t know which is worse, success or failure, but either can cost us and our families and friends, lots of time, energy, money, and emotional capital. Which do you fear, failure or success?
We naturally fear death. In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, great Caesar himself says, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.” In the New Testament, Jesus is speaking not only about overcoming death, but also overcoming the fear of death when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and he who lives and believes in me will never die.” If we think death is the end, we fear it; if we think it is just a gateway to new life, we do not fear it so badly.
Like Indian Jones and his father, we fear snakes and spiders. We also fear tsetse flies, mosquitos, germs, and all the deadly little beasties that refuse to stand up and fight, mano a mano, hand to hand. The prophet Amos spoke about the man who fled from a lion and went into his house and leaned with his hand against the wall only to be bitten by a serpent. Sneaky! What we cannot see is always more frightening than what we can. Covid is more fearful than snakes.
We also fear close spaces (claustrophobia) and open spaces (agoraphobia). We fear heights and flying, both of which involve a fear of falling. Don’t you hate those dreams in which you fall and then jerk awake. This may be a result of a time in our human history when we were tree dwellers. I recently spoke with my son about this. He said that, in his dreams, he always falls from a great height. In my dreams, I usually fall out of bed or trip over a crack in the sidewalk. I suppose the difference is one of age. Older people fear all falls, for even small falls can be dangerous.
I think any list of fears and phobias can ultimately be reduced to two. Primarily, we fear the loss of ourselves whether “in toto,” as in death; or “in part,” as when we lose some ability, such as the ability to walk, or see, or drive, or feed and care for ourselves. Secondarily, we fear the loss of our place, whether physical or social. The farmer who is behind in his payments fears the loss of his farm. The politician who is behind in the polls fears the loss of his office, power, and prestige. At some time or another, all of us fear the loss of our homes, businesses, workplaces, or favorite haunts, whether shops, or grocery stores, or, in the age of Covid, restaurants. We also fear the loss of our schools and churches. Church people are even afraid of losing their place in the pew. I once attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York. Thirty minutes before the service I took a seat in the center of a large, empty balcony. Five minutes after I sat down, a woman came directly to me and said, “That is my seat. You will have to move.” I moved back one row. After a minute, I leaned over and said, “Is this seat, okay?’ She said, “Yes. That was my husband’s seat, but he is dead.” I waited another minute and said, “I am just visiting from Winston-Salem, N.C. I am a Moravian.” I wanted to shame her. I didn’t work. She said, “Yes, I know the Moravians. I grew up a Moravian.” We fear our loss of physical place, and we fear the loss of status. Bishop Spaugh used to say, “It is easier to be a never was than to be a has-been.” [Note 2] He then said that a child of God is never a has-been; a child of God can always count on a future better than his or her past.
In the text before us this morning, the LORD speaks to his people through his prophet, Isaiah, and tells them not to fear. He says:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
In this text, God is not simply predicting the future, God is promising to go with his people into the future, no matter what the future holds. This is our antidote for fear, but only if we will accept it! Like the Covid vaccines, it does require multiple doses.
The first dose declares that God is. When Moses asked the LORD his name, he said, “I AM.” If we believe that God “Is,” then we can overcome a lifetime of anxiety and fear. I once asked my friend David, a Ph. D. physicist, who teaches physics at a major university why he believed in God. He said, “The Wisdom of Crowds.” He went on to explain that it has been demonstrated time and time again that randomly selected crowds of non-experts—willing to bet on an outcome, are often better at solving problems than a carefully selected panel of experts. He then pointed out that more than 90% of all the human beings who have ever lived have believed in God. If I am honest, I received my faith from my parents, I am a child of the covenant. It has grown through more than 72 years of life, 45 years of the critical study of the bible, and more than 40 years of experience as a pastor. Your faith has encouraged my own. I hope it is reciprocal. Of course, skeptics will still say, “Belief in God is just wishful thinking!” Yet people of faith will still insist that our belief in God reflects our deepest reality and confidence. As St. Augustine said, “Each of us has a God-shaped space in our souls and only God can fill it.”
The second dose affirms that God is love. In Isaiah 43 God tells the people of Israel that he loves them and that they are precious to him, so precious that he gave Egypt as their ransom and Ethiopia in exchange for them. He gave nations in order to spare them and maintain his relationship with them. In John 3:16 we read that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” The whole world, including Egypt, and Ethiopia, and all the nations. And in Mark 10:45 Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The third dose, the booster if you will, declares that God’s love is personal and active. We might ask, “How personal?” In Isaiah 43, when God says, “I have called you by name,” he is speaking to the nation of Israel as a whole. This is made clear in verse 5 wherein God promises ultimate deliverance not for the generation who went into captivity in Babylon, but for their offspring. It is primarily the offspring of the present generation that God will gather from the four winds to once more live and prosper in Jerusalem. We all want a better future for us and for our offspring. The people of Israel wanted to return to Jerusalem with their children and grandchildren. We want to return to normalcy. We want to go back to work and worship without masks. We want to travel and go to grocery stores and restaurants without fear. Above all, we want our children and our grandchildren to live in a world that is like our world before Covid, only better.
God called his people, Israel, by name. In the New Testament, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, call his sheep by name, and they know his voice and follow him. Jesus taught his disciples that God has numbered the hairs of our heads and knows our needs even before we ask about them in prayer. In the same vein, in Galatians 4:9, St. Paul writes to the church in Galatia and says, “Now that you have come to know God, or, rather, to be known by him.” This means that faith does not first declare, “I know God!” but “God knows me.” I have no doubt both Jesus and Paul found confirmation or their confidence and teaching in Psalm 139, one of the great evangelical psalms of the Hebrew Bible. Therein we read:
1 O LORD, thou hast searched me and known me! 2 Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. 3 Thou searchest out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. 4 Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether. 5 Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it. 7 Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! 9 If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, 10 even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. (RSV)
We do not fear the past. We may not want to return to it, but we don’t fear it, for we have survived it. We fear an uncertain future we imagine is filled with disappointment, and difficulty, and disaster. Thankfully, we do not go into that future alone. “God goes before us, and comes after us, and lays his hand upon us.” Because God is with us, we can stand stronger, and longer, and smarter. It will not always be rosy. We all owe God a death. We must all face that last cloudy day after which the sun will not return, and sometimes we must pass many dark days before promotion to the higher service. Even so, between this day and that day, with God’s help, we will survive all the ups and downs tomorrow brings. I love the Alison Kraus version of the old song that says:
Many things about tomorrow
I don’t seem to understand
But I know who holds tomorrow
And I know who holds my hand.
And in Romans 8 St. Paul wrote:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. or I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Note 1: Some white say blacks are the problem, but way back in 1917 a white led Chicago Commission on Race relations concluded:
It is important for our white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to America against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that the institution of slavery was introduced, expanded, and maintained by the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and whites likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation. Our Negro problem, therefore, is not of the Negro’s making. No group in our population is less responsible for its existence.
Note 2: My dad grew up in a mill church in a mill village. He often told me that outsiders called millworkers lint heads, and many of them worked long hours for low wages, but in their churches, they were bishops, and preachers, and elders, and deacons, and superintendents. And even when they stepped down from these positions, they often retained the titles. I know this, because, for a time, I grew up in the same church my dad did. We still had some millworkers in our membership, but their children were there, too, and many of their children had achieved some amazing things in a single lifetime. They were teachers, principals, accountants, executives, and builders. They had good, high-paying factory jobs at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. It was the American dream in action.
1 But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”