Love Drives Out Fear

“Love Drives Out Fear”

1 john 4-18-perfect-love-casts-out-fear.

1 John 4:7-8, 13-19 (4:18) – September 16, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When I was in grade school, I remember a story I read where a boy was punished very severely. He was beaten, and sent to the barn without any supper. I don’t remember where the story was from (probably in one of my textbooks), but I do remember my gut reaction to the moving and evocative words that described the boy and his situation. Sullen, lonely, filled with anger, but at the same time torn with some remains of love for the brutal father who had beaten him and turned him out of the clapboard house on the frontier into the cold night.

What kinds of fear do you remember? If not fear that you experienced, fear and anxiety of someone close to you? Those feelings, emotions and experiences can be so traumatic. I know, because I dealt with many painful, fearful, anxious situations while a hospital chaplain. And, sometimes, I was completely helpless to do anything to lend a hand.

Is there some fear or anxiety that even now surfaces from deep within? If so, I am so sorry to remind you of that painful experience. Except—in this sermon, in this scripture reading today, the apostle John deals with God’s love, and with personal fear and punishment. We can relate to John’s moving words.

To back up, in this letter John talks a great deal about love. God is love. Love is of God. We love, because God first loved us. Simple words, yet profound ideas. In our reading today, John continues with more of the same: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Yet, you and I know that we cannot love all the time. Because, we are human. We get angry, and lonely, and fearful. Sometimes we back away, isolate, or even snap back at others. All of us do at times. Mile-deep emotions and mile-wide feelings come upon so many as we live our day-to-day lives—in the first century, as well as the twenty-first. Awkward situations and traumatic experiences choke out the joy and delight of living in community, of life in the family of God. What can we do about these complications of living, and of loving?

The apostle John knew very well about this dilemma. He was the youngest of the disciples. He was identified as “the disciple Jesus loved.” He lived the longest of just about any of the direct witnesses to Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. He wrote this letter late in his long life, a life full of hardship and trauma, full of persecution and anxiety. Yet—he was able to write moving words such as these: “Dear friends, let us love one another.” Matter-of-fact presentation of a simple yet profound concept.

John communicates God’s unconditional love to us in this letter, even in difficult circumstances. He shows us Jesus and His love through these simple words.

John understood very well what kinds of horrible things the persecutors could (and probably would) do to any Christians they got in their clutches. From the writings and letters of the second century, we know that John had personal experience with the persecutions. He was finally exiled to a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea called Patmos.

So, what does John have to say about fear? We are talking about gut-wrenching fear. Remember, he was well-acquainted with fear, and its close cousin anxiety. Verse 18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

The word for “fear” John uses here is the Greek word phobo, or the run-of-the-mill word that is found in the suffix “-phobia.” Many of us are familiar with all kinds of phobias, from fear of heights or enclosed spaces, to fear of spiders or snakes, to fear of the dark. Could I remind us of a certain phobia that Charlie Brown had, in the Charlie Brown Christmas special? He was frightened of everything. He had “pantaphobia.”

Perhaps the apostle John “does mean something closer to Charlie Brown’s depression-inducing pantaphobia in which fear becomes a general way to go at life.  John yokes this fear that has no place in perfect love specifically with a fear ‘of punishment,’ which may be an indication that what he is talking about is the fear of still being punished for our sins.” [1]

What a fear, indeed! Being afraid that God probably will not forgive me, no matter how much I do, no matter how hard I try to gain God’s acceptance. That unfeeling, unforgiving attitude from God would break my heart. Sort of like the attitude of an uncaring, unfeeling, even brutal parent. Not at all like Jesus, like the God whom John knew personally.

After this life is done, we move into the life to come. Common questions many would ask: “’How can I be sure I did enough for God to love me?  What if God plays all the sins of my life on some giant screen for all to see?  How will I ever live down the humiliation of that?  How do I know there is grace sufficient for even me?’ This is clearly the kind of fear of punishment John is pointing to.  And it is a miserable thing to have dangling over your head” [2]

Again, we get full assurance from John. And, John intimately knows Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the Messiah, the creator of all the universe, the Logos, the Word. John is the beloved disciple, the one close to Jesus’s heart. John lets us know that “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Yet, what are the next words from John? “We love, because He first loved us.” John circles back to this simple yet profound truth.

Commentator Judith Jones says, “God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to die for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.” [3] That is the presence John is a witness to. That is the presence John is willing to suffer for. John loves, and through extension, we all love, because Jesus loves us. Unconditionally, fully, and with all His heart. Jesus loves us. Period.

So, it does not matter what our creaturely, very human selves tell us about phobias. It does not matter what Charlie Brown and his fear of everything whispers to our insides. John’s witness is that Jesus loves us, period. Jesus’s perfect, unconditional love drives out fear. Not only fear about everything on the outside, about fighting, hardship, and persecution, but about illness, loneliness, and sorrow.

Most importantly, His perfect unconditional love drives out the fear that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be able to do enough, be enough for Jesus. We love, because He first loved us. Period. John is a faithful and true witness to Jesus and His perfect, unconditional love.

Do you believe that? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” John tells us so, right here in this reading today. Receive the Good News of the Gospel. Jesus came to save sinners, of which I am chief.

Fear is done with, banished, gone. Jesus came into the world to love us, unconditionally. That is truly Good News.

[1] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-5b-2/?type=lectionary_epistle

The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2448

Commentary, 1 John 4:7-21, Judith Jones, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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Don’t Be Frightened!

“Don’t Be Frightened!”

1 Pet 3-14 don't be afraid

1 Peter 3:13-17 (3:14) – September 9, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Do you know anyone who talks straight? Comes right to the point? Doesn’t pull any punches? Sometimes, a person who speaks this way can be refreshing. So unlike other speakers or politicians who sugar-coat problems or sometimes sweep difficult matters under the rug.

Except – I am not sure whether we might say the same about our New Testament scripture reading for today. Suffering and pain are not exactly the favorite topics of most Christians in the 21st century. Yet, the apostle Peter is just such a man as I just described. A man who talks straight, comes right to the point, and does not pull any punches. We ought to listen to him, a man who was loved deeply by our Lord Jesus Christ, and a man whom God appointed as leader, the person in charge of the band of disciples after our Lord Jesus ascended.

No one enjoys talking about suffering, pain and harm. But, what do we find here? Peter tells his fellow believers in Christ that suffering, pain and harm will surely come. We do not want to hear that. None of us do! Yet, let us listen again to the words from 1 Peter 3, once more: “13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”

Peter does not mess around. He comes straight to the point. Christianity is not a safe religion. Of course, the first century was not a safe time to live, either. One of the commentaries mentions “the situation referred to in 1 Peter 3:13-22 could range from mild abuse and mockery at the hands of the families of these new Christ-believers, to open, official, harsh persecution by Roman officials under [the emperor] Domitian (81-91 CE).” [1]

Christianity at the time of the apostle Peter was one of many religions, and a brand-new one, at that. It was closely related to Judaism, but the Jews were not high in the regard of the Roman Empire, either. As far as the Roman government was concerned, this new sect or religion called Christianity was nothing but a headache. Imagine, people running around, saying that there was only one God, instead of many gods and goddesses. How demeaning! How insulting to their families and the towns where they live, which all have patron gods and goddesses!

And, not wanting to, even demanding not to bow down to any other god, or call anyone else their Lord except this one particular God? Why, that was treason, pure and simple. On top of everything else, there were rumors that in the Christian worship services, there was cannibalism. They actually ate and drank the body and blood of their God. Imagine that!

If you and I step back from our current understandings of Christianity and try to see this brand-new religion in the same way that the Roman government of the first century did, we might get a little insight on the way that many others—both Jews and Gentiles—viewed this strange band of religious converts. Ridicule and open jeering at least, and harsh persecution, even death, by officials of the Empire. That means soldiers busting down doors in the middle of the night, dragging people into the streets, throwing them in prison. Maybe there was a trial, and maybe there wasn’t. Uncertainty, fear, pain, suffering.

Do you understand what Peter was talking about now? “Clearly, identifying one’s self as a Christ-believer in the first century CE was not something as common and mainstream as it is in certain places of the world today. Christianity as one of the leading world-religions did not yet exist as such.” [2]

Not only from the New Testament, but from other historical writings, we can see how persecuted the early Christians were. Peter had guts, I’ll say that for him. He did not have an easy life. Peter kept on the move, spreading the message of the Gospel, the Good News. He introduced people to his Lord and Savior, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ.

And yet—and yet, he told his fellow believers in Christ to “Be Not Afraid!” He knew very well what could (and quite possibly did) happen to some of them. Yet, he had the faith and assurance to write these very words. Don’t be frightened!

What is the next thing he says? Listen to Peter’s next verse: “15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” We need to stand up for what we believe, and who we believe in. Gently and respectfully.  

Peter knew that even if his friends gave a respectful defense for the Lord they believed in, persecution would come. “Peter wants his readers to understand that, although they may act in a good and right way toward others, they may still suffer. Suffering for doing right is something we may all have to experience.[3]

I am reminded of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, the man called “the Flying Scotsman.”. The movie Chariots of Fire was made about him and his story at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell was a devout Christian. He refused to run in a race he very much wanted to run—the 100 meters—because it was scheduled on Sunday. Liddell believed that playing sports on Sunday was disrespectful to God. So, he calmly announced that he would not run in that particular race.

Eric Liddell’s decision was not popular, at all. “He had to be brave because lots of people got really angry with him.  He was however gentle.  He didn’t scream and shout about how wrong the officials were to schedule the race on Sunday.  He simply said that he would not run because much as he loved racing, he respected God more.” [4]

I would like us to imagine that we are overseas, today. In parts of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Thailand; in Algeria, Iran, Sudan, or in Saudi Arabia. Christians are less than 7 percent of the population of these countries, especially in Saudi Arabia. Let’s close the blinds and put out the lights. Shh! We can’t be too careful! The police are looking for people who go against the government, and the small minority of Christians are often arbitrarily persecuted. Several pastors and church leaders have recently been thrown in prison, so we need to be really careful and keep a low profile. No public church services! Keep quiet about meeting for bible study. And, make sure to hide your bibles!

In 1924, Eric Liddell still faced a great deal of opposition for his decision not to run. Imagine how much more difficult the apostle Peter and his fellow Christians had it, in the first century, with widespread persecution and suffering?

In the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus tells us “blessed are the ones who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  What is another way of saying this Beatitude? To be righteous, to practice righteousness, is to be like our Lord Jesus. What would Jesus do? We need to do that. Show others the Gospel through our lives and words. Be like Jesus. Love others, with kindness, gentleness, and respect. Always. And, do not be frightened, because Jesus will always be right by our sides. No matter what. Peter would certainly agree.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/easter5ae.html

“Raised to Life,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/04/year-the-sixth-sunday-of-easter-may-25.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 6A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Anxious About Anything?

Anxious About Anything?

Phil 4-6 don't worry

Philippians 4:4-9 (4:6) – September 2, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Worry. Anxiety. Fear. These are natural emotions, and so common to our human experience! When we are on edge, lonely, filled with anxious thoughts—our minds can play funny games. Some people can think frightening or isolating thoughts. We often talk—or think—ourselves into things that cannot be true. Sometimes we talk—or think—ourselves out of things that are absolutely true. [1]

The Apostle Paul understood about worry, anxiety and fear. When he wrote this letter to the believers in the city of Philippi, he was imprisoned in Rome. Prison in the first century was not at all like the functional, barred jail cells we might think of today, when we consider American prisons. Whether in prison today or 2000 years ago, being in prison must be an awful thing. I have never been in prison. I’ve never been arrested. Several of my friends and acquaintances have, though, and I understand it can be a very frightening experience indeed.

Except, the Apostle Paul was not your normal prisoner. He was a Roman citizen. What’s more, in his first imprisonment, he was allowed to remain confined in a private apartment, although chained and shackled to a Roman soldier as guard. Paul mentions his chains and being confined in this letter to the Philippians.

This scary predicament of Paul’s would probably cause most people a great deal of fear and anxiety. Wouldn’t you be afraid, to be chained and shackled to a Roman soldier? They were no joke military men. Not playing. Not even close. And, it was worth the soldiers’ lives, being responsible for a prisoner and keeping him under close custody. Like I said, serious business.

So, what on earth did Paul mean when he said “Do not be anxious!”

Probably few people here have been arrested or put in prison. However, everyone here knows what it’s like to be anxious and fearful. Let’s take finances. How many here have wondered if their money would last until the next paycheck? What about grocery bills? What about unexpected car repairs? Or, house repairs, like a plumber or washing machine repair?

Let’s talk about health, or lack of it. If not for you, then a loved one. Any broken bones or sudden falls? What about an emergency operation? Or a routine procedure suddenly made much more complicated by the unexpected? What about loved ones with recurring mental health issues? Doesn’t that put a great deal of additional stress on the whole family?

Speaking about our families, what about our loved ones? What if something happens in one of their lives? Fights can get particularly nasty, turning into long-held grudges. What about children or grandchildren? Will they be able to go to school? Go to college? Get a job? Avoid drugs and alcohol, and keep to the straight and narrow?

Paul has an answer to growing anxiety, fear and worry: he says to pray! Listen to verse 6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Wait a minute, Paul! That sounds an awful lot like the tricks Jesus used to pull, when He told His disciples to do something that was next to impossible. How on earth are we supposed to keep that fear, worry and anxiety away? I have heard an old expression: “Worry about nothing; pray about everything.” But, how does that work, exactly?

Some might think they need to do everything themselves, with no assistance. Sort of like a big home improvement project. A huge do-it-yourself project. What’s more, if those same people go to YouTube and look online, they will see handy handymen and handywomen doing amazing things to their homes, all by themselves. But, it very rarely works that way in real life.

If you go to the home improvement mega-stores, you’ll find lots of helpful employees, ready to give advice about all kinds of improvement activities. Except—you don’t need to do it all alone. In fact, there are helpful people to come alongside you and give encouragement and moral support, and even assistance.

Commentator Alyce McKenzie writes, “There are other things that I might be able to do but that it would be so much better to have someone else do. We had a bad storm in our area a few weeks ago. The result is that lots of houses in our neighborhood have to have their roofs redone. Could I do this? It is humanly possible, I suppose, but we are hiring a roofing company that knows what they are doing.” [2]

The apostle Paul could have done this prayer thing all on his own. Except—he had some good friends present with him while he was in captivity in Rome. Dr. Luke was one of Paul’s faithful companions. I suspect they prayed together regularly; Aristarchus was another friend, and probably Tychicus, too. Plus, Paul also mentions a number of others in Rome who came to faith in Jesus Christ. One or two, or perhaps even more of these unknown friends came to see Paul, and to pray with him, for the many months while he awaited his trial.

Alas, along with Dr. McKenzie, I am afraid I might not have the faith. I might be anxious and fearful anyway. As she said, I can psyche myself up in other areas of life. But I need God to bring peace to my soul.” [3]

Just like Dr. McKenzie, I wish Paul had reversed the order of this verse and written it like this instead: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God and then you will receive the gift of not worrying about anything.”

Oh, it is so difficult for me to train my heart and not worry or be anxious about things. Things that go bump in the night. Things that are scary, or irritating, or anxiety-producing. Things that can even frighten us to death. Our attitude is often exactly the opposite of the way Paul encourages us to be. Paul wants us to hear: “’Live without anxiety because God cares for you.’ In Philippians 4…the peace of God that comes through prayer counters anxiety because it ‘guards believers’ thoughts and hearts in Christ.’” [4]

The people of Philippi would have understood what it was like to have a guard watching over their thoughts and hearts. There was a Roman garrison in Philippi, so this was a familiar image to them. The Philippians could rejoice—just as we rejoice—because prayer can guard our hearts and minds. Each moment of each day, “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,” we can present our requests to God. And, we can help each other, support and encourage each other, as we pray.

Requests, joys, concerns, whatever is on our hearts, God wants us to bring these prayers to the throne of grace. “This is the peace of God Paul proposes as an alternative to anxiety. The Philippians are not called to imitate the peace of Christ, but to accept the gift of that peace being offered to them by the Grace of God, accessed through the habit of prayer.” [5]

Verse 4:7 is almost a benediction: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Hear the words of the apostle Paul today: the gift of God’s peace is offered to all of us, despite fear and worry. We all can live without anxiety, because God cares deeply for each one of us today. Yes, now, and forever. Amen!

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 123.

[2] http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lets-do-this-alyce-mckenzie-10-06-2014.html

“Let’s Do This!” Alyce M McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 2014

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Don’t Be Troubled

“Don’t Be Troubled”    

John 14-27 don't be afraid, words

John 14:1-4, 25-27 (14:27) – August 26, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Have you ever felt the pain and loss of an upcoming separation, even before it actually happened? Perhaps a good friend or relative is moving far away, soon Or, maybe a loved one is seriously ill in the hospital, in fact, terminally ill. You deeply feel the upcoming, approaching loss even when your loved one is still right there, with you.

Those two situations, those two instances are similar to what actually happened to the disciples. For all they knew, their Rabbi Jesus was going away, permanently. Jesus knew He was going to be parted from His friends for a while. Jesus gave His farewell speech in the Upper Room. What could any of the disciples do or say?

Let us back up a bit. The disciples did not anticipate exactly what events were going to happen. It is not that He kept quiet about His leaving and going away. It was others, the disciples, who said, “Where are you going, Lord?”  What could some possibly hear that Jesus said would happen?

Here in the Gospel of John, the writer John wanted everyone to know that Jesus was in His final efforts to convince His disciples. Jesus knew very well what was going to happen. This discourse is one of utmost significance. Jesus gave the fullest explanation in answering these questions, and in expressing His longing, His care in this Upper Room discourse.

I realize that we here in suburban Chicago are not quite as familiar with the extent of the separation, heightened fear, and anxiety the disciples were facing during that Passion Week before Jesus’s crucifixion. But, many people today do face separation, and anxiety, too. In some cases, their feelings and emotions might border on severe fear, even terror. And, in some cases, these feelings and emotions are diagnosed as mental health challenges.

“According to U.S.A. Today (11/16/11), ‘More than 20 percent of American adults took at least one drug for conditions like anxiety and depression in 2010 … including more than one in four women.’ The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports (adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics, bold type theirs), ‘Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older (18% of U.S. population).’” [1]

Thank God, we do have ways of managing that anxiety, even severe fear, today. Let me say that the various types of therapy and group support and medication we have available to us are all valid. These are all ways to manage anxiety and fear. Jesus gives us another way of managing our anxiety and fear, too.

Listen to the words that Jesus had for us in the reading today, from the new, modern translation “The Message.” From John 14: 1-4 “Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.”

The words that we are more familiar with, “Do not be troubled,” Eugene Peterson translates “Don’t let this throw you.” The disciples had good reason to be troubled and afraid! They knew that the Jewish leaders were out to get their leader, their Rabbi. And yet—Jesus had walked straight into the trap the leaders were setting for Him. Talk about anxiety! The disciples had every right to be scared to death!

Yes, separation can be triggered by fear and anxiety; in certain of the disciples’ cases, the fear and anxiety of just not knowing. Not knowing anything. That can be a scary prospect, indeed. The disciples enjoyed a deep intimacy with their Rabbi Jesus. Thus, “the disciples were full of fearful questions when Jesus announced His departure. Yet Jesus understood their troubled hearts and assured them of a continued home together.[2]

That was in the case of the disciples, two thousand years ago. But, what about us, today? We can see from Jesus’s words that He means a relational dimension to our interaction with Him. Yes, we can enjoy intimacy with each other, and intimacy with God. At the same time, we can be fearful and anxious at the prospect of separation—even that most permanent of separation, death itself.

How can we sort out these deep-seated feelings? Yes, fear and anxiety are part and parcel of all of us human beings. These feelings are part of our emotional make-up. Jesus goes right to the heart of our fear of separation and loss of intimacy with His words that tell us “I’m getting a room ready for you!” This image describes “the mutuality and reciprocity of the relationship of God and Jesus… [In fact,] Jesus uses the domestic image to say ‘My return to God will make it possible for you the join in the relationship that the Father and I share.’” [3]

How awesome is that? We all can join in on that relationship. Jesus lovingly invites us into that family relationship with God our heavenly Father.

But, that is not all, especially at this stressful, anxious, fear-producing time right before Jesus knows He is going to be arrested and crucified.  Listen to our Lord’s assurance to us, from Peterson’s modern translation of John 14:25-27: “I’m telling you these things while I’m still living with you. The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.”

As if a close relationship with Jesus is not enough, He even promises us the gift of a dear Friend, the indwelling Holy Spirit. Even more amazing!

We are encouraged to think carefully about whether or not we have truly laid hold of the cure for troubled hearts that Jesus promises in our scripture reading today. “Faith in Christ’s person and hope in Christ’s promise will comfort your troubled heart. You may think, ‘That’s overly simplistic! That’s a nice thought, but it’s impractical and out of touch with reality!’ But these are the words of the Lord Jesus Christ to troubled hearts. Either His words are true or they’re not.” [4]

Do you hear? Jesus did not leave His disciples abandoned and bereft, all alone, fearful with separation anxiety. What is more, Jesus does not leave us alone today, either. Sure, we may go through difficult times, but Jesus promises to walk with us.

We will have challenges and difficulty in this world, true, yet we have an intimate relationship with God freely offered to us. So, that is our Lord’s parting gift to us all. His peace. Don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught. Be not afraid. We have Jesus’s word on it.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] bible.org/seriespage/lesson-75-comfort-troubled…

https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-75-comfort-troubled-hearts-john-141-11

[2] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 110.

[3] O’Day,Gail R., The Gospel of John, New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 741.

[4] bible.org/seriespage/lesson-75-comfort-troubled…

https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-75-comfort-troubled-hearts-john-141-11

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

How Not to Be Terrified

How Not to Be Terrified” 

Jesus Transfiguration Georgian relief Luke 9

Matthew 17:1-9 (17:7) – August 19, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Have you ever seen a true transformation? I know we are familiar with tadpoles swimming in water changing to frogs as amphibians, comfortable in water or on land. I know we all are familiar with caterpillars, living their earthbound, wormlike existence…and after a time of preparation in the cocoon, out comes a butterfly! Two transformations. We will look at another marvelous transformation today: what we know as the Transfiguration.

Let us set the scene. Our Lord Jesus has been on the road with His disciples for a long time now. I am certain they are accustomed to His teaching, preaching and healing. To His separating Himself for times of prayer, and of Him worshiping with groups of people in the synagogue. So, when Jesus taps the three disciples—Peter, James and John—on the shoulder and asks them to come apart with Him for a time of private prayer and worship, I suspect it comes as little surprise to the three men.

I remember two years ago I preached on Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, and I brought out the worship aspects of this marvelous account. Yes, Jesus withdrew to the mountain for a time of private prayer and worship with His three friends. But, there was more to this time than prayer. Much more!

The account from the gospel of Matthew doesn’t waste any time, because the marvelous thing happens as soon as Jesus and His disciples are on top of the mountain. Listen: “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”

What on earth is “transfigured,” anyway? What does it mean?

In Greek, the word used in this passage is metamorphomai, or transform. So, from the three disciples’ point of view, it is a total transformation not only of appearance, but also of bodily form.

Again, I am bringing up the fact that first-century Palestine did not have electricity. The people of that time were completely unaware of the fancy special effects that we have today in stage shows, much less in the movies. When their leader and Rabbi suddenly became shining bright and His clothing as dazzling white as snow, well…that must have totally frightened these disciples. So much so, that they began to cower and hide their eyes.

What is more, Jesus wasn’t the only person to be transformed, shining bright in front of them. This Scripture passage also mentions Moses and Elijah, bright as the sun, talking to Jesus.

It is true, the three disciples had been traveling with Jesus for some time. They had observed Him preaching, teaching, and healing. They knew their Rabbi was a great teacher, perhaps a mighty prophet, and even a miracle worker, But, this unbelievable metamorphosis was something completely outside of their experience.

Of course, Peter tries to make sense of this amazing situation. He stutters and stammers, and wants to put up three tents or places of worship.  “On top of the mountain, Peter recognizes that Jesus’ dazzling appearance in the presence of Moses and Elijah is significant–‘Lord, it is good for us to be here!’–but he does not fully understand what he is seeing. One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like an elementary student who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not fully understand the question.” [1]

I might be scared to death, too. Imagine, seeing our almighty Lord Jesus, coming down to earth in glorified form. Seeing His majesty, this spectacular view of our Lord. I don’t blame these guys for cowering and hiding their eyes, not one bit.

One commentator has a fascinating insight into this instance of “Be Not Afraid,” happening at this momentous time in our Lord’s life. “Did this glorious ‘vision’ produce faith in [the disciples]? No, it caused extreme fear. Being in direct relationship to God, hearing the voice from the cloud did not produce faith, but fear — so much fear that the disciples literally ‘fell on their faces.’” [2]

Jesus recognizes that fact immediately. He encourages the disciples with the words “Don’t be afraid!”

We might wonder: how could the disciples possibly relate to Jesus again with any sort of naturalness? Any kind of normalcy, after this clearly supernatural experience?

The answer? Jesus transformed back into human form, and touched His friends. He encourages them with the words “Don’t be afraid!” By touching them and reassuring them that it was really and truly Him, just as He was before? It wasn’t the glorified, “glowing” Jesus who touched them, but the all-too-human, relatable Jesus.

How many of us are frightened or anxious, and need to hear those words today? How many of our friends or family members find themselves in difficult places, or walking through scary situations, and could be encouraged by those words today? Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

How much do we need this healing, life-giving, transforming touch from Jesus? The words of Jesus—“Be not afraid!” are surely for each of us. Yet, there is more. “In addition to our need for this divine touch, I think that we are also called to offer it to the world. For our congregations and our people, rather than seeking to appear ‘glorious’ as God’s people, perhaps it is more helpful to be simply human beings who offer a healing and life-giving touch to the scared, worried, anxious people with whom we come in contact.” [3]

We can have a view of Jesus as more than just an untouchable, glorified, majestic being. He is also a relatable, human being. The incarnate Son of God. Jesus reaches out to you and to me. He reaches out to everyone we meet, too.

Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

Be not afraid. Jesus is with us always. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=27

Commentary, Matthew 17:1-9, Audrey West, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.

[2] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm    Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks Christian Resources.

[3] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm    Exegetical Notes by Brian Stoffregen at CrossMarks Christian Resources.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Courage, Not Fear

“Courage, Not Fear

Mark 6-50 jesuswalkingonthewater

Mark 6:46-52 (6:50) – August 12, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

“O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.” So says the Breton’s fisherman’s prayer on a small brass-inscribed plaque. The plaque was given to John F. Kennedy by Admiral Rickover, and President Kennedy kept this plaque on his desk in the Oval Office.

When I started to think about this Scripture passage from Mark, the narrative where Jesus walks on the Sea of Galilee by night, this plaque came to mind. I suspect the disciples did feel afraid on that small boat as they faced the choppy waves, strong currents, gusty winds, and other weather conditions. Similar to that Breton fisherman.

I have never been to Israel, but I have read that the weather around the Sea of Galilee is particularly changeable. There are hills and even small mountains surrounding a portion of the inland sea. Sometimes, the weather patterns can cause rough weather to flare up with next to no warning. According to the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, the weather that night on the Sea of Galilee was windswept and the water was churning and choppy. The disciples were out on the water after dark. Some of them were fishermen, but not all. So, some of them were used to being out in an open boat in the middle of open water. Others of the disciples were not fisherman at all, and were probably extremely uncomfortable.

What was the general morale of the disciples? Jesus was notably absent—not with them in the boat. I suspect some of the disciples were fearful and anxious. Maybe even complaining about their sorry situation, out in the middle of the lake and with no Jesus. Just think about their desperate situation, and compare it to your own. From time to time, I am sure all of us have felt like we are adrift in choppy water, all alone, someplace like the Sea of Galilee. Heavy weather is on the horizon. Who can help us deal with our fear and uncertainty?

We need Jesus, that’s who. Just as much as the disciples did.

This scary situation on the Sea of Galilee did not just happen all by itself. This nighttime situation followed after a very busy day for Jesus. This was the day that Jesus miraculously fed several thousand people with a few loaves and fishes. When this all happened, they all were in a lonely place far away from any village or town, near the Sea of Galilee.

I want to be sure all of us understand. This feeding was not just a little miracle. Instead, Jesus did a huge miracle! Feeding well over five thousand people with just a boy’s sack lunch of a few little loaves and fishes? How astounding is that? The disciples were right there with Jesus, serving and distributing all the loaves and fish to all the crowds who attended Jesus’s after-lecture luncheon. Except, Jesus provided all of the food! Miraculously.

Listen again to the beginning of today’s Scripture reading from Mark, which follows the paragraph on the feeding miracle: “ 45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.”

At the end of a really busy day with a lot of public ministry, I can see why Jesus wanted to be all by Himself, not only to pray and rest and recoup, but also to spend some down time rejuvenating with His loving, caring Heavenly Parent. Wouldn’t you, if you were in a similar position? Resting and recouping after a long, challenging day of ministry, just about anyone would want to be reassured by the loving embrace of their Heavenly Parent. I know I would!

After Jesus withdraws to be with His Heavenly Father for some hours, it’s time for Him to rejoin the disciples. Let’s continue with the reading from Mark: “ 47 Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48 He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake.”  I would have loved to be with the disciples in that boat!

Just imagine all the exciting information we would hear about leadership and discipleship, serving and helping others, and getting closer to God!

Or, even more, I would love to have a film camera and crew on their boat that night! What a bunch of reaction shots! Shots showing fear, anger, uncertainty, anxiety—the whole range of emotions and reactions to the unexpected and miraculous appearance of Jesus, supernaturally walking on the Sea. Considering what huge miracle had just happened only a few hours ago, “what confidence did the disciples would have had to believe that Jesus would now help them in this terrifying situation?“ [1]

We’ve talked about this before, how the disciples sometimes had a problem believing what Jesus plainly said. Or, a problem seeing what Jesus had just clearly shown them. Or, a problem understanding an illustration or object lesson Jesus had just brought to them. This was one of those situations.

The disciples were a bit thick-headed. They just did not get the full ramifications of the huge miracle of the loaves and fishes. They just did not understand how Jesus—who was God’s son, fully God, and creator of the heavens and the earth—could possibly walk on water.

Jonah had this problem, too. He was a prophet of God, he heard the word of God regularly, but he just didn’t get the message clearly. It took getting swallowed by a fish in the middle of the ocean to get the cotton out of Jonah’s ears.

Listen to a part of Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the huge fish, from the 2nd chapter of Jonah: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and God answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the depths, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. But you, Lord my God, brought my life up from the pit. “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.”

It took a miracle of a huge fish to get Jonah to see clearly. It takes a miracle of Jesus walking on the water, on top of the feeding-and-provision-of-food miracle, to get the disciples to see clearly. Yet, God is with them all, even through the darkness and the storm, even through being swallowed by the big fish or being buffeted by choppy seas.

“What does this story reveal about Christ’s involvement in our own trials? He is both aware of and concerned about our struggles and acts on our behalf. In addition to helping us in our plight, His deliverance reveals to us His supernatural power.” [2] another way of says it is that Jesus is God’s son. Fully God, and fully man. Of course, Jesus can walk on water! And, of course, Jesus can be with us, in and through and beyond our trials and problems. Having God incarnate as my—as our personal Friend and Savior is very reassuring, believe me.

Sometimes we do go through the storm, and even repeated storms. Sometimes we do have serious illness happen to us or to a loved one. Sometimes we travel through the valley of the shadow, and we need that reassurance that God is with us. Jesus can say to us just as much as He said to the disciples, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

These are the words of Jesus. We can take them to heart. These reassuring words are for the disciples, and for us, too. Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 101.

[2] https://intervarsity.org/bible-studies/mark-6c

Mark 6:45-56: Confounded by Christ | InterVarsity

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Mary and Joseph, Unafraid

“Mary and Joseph, Unafraid”

angel with trumpet

Luke 1:26-31, Matthew 1:19-21 – August 5, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

When a woman is pregnant and expecting a baby, it can be a marvelous experience. However, an unexpected pregnancy can be surprising, even worrisome. I know I have heard of several unplanned pregnancies over the years, and I suspect many of you have, too. An added complication can occur when the parents of the unexpected baby are not married.

That was exactly Mary and Joseph’s situation. Both were unmarried, only engaged. Both were very much involved with the birth of this unexpected baby. And, both had angels appear to them, telling them “Be not afraid!”

Just imagine: Mary and Joseph, considering the exact same unexpected situation, with two very different reactions and quite separate expectations. We are not told, but I cannot help but wonder whether Mary’s fear and Joseph’s fear of the unknown was compounded by fear for the other. How were their fears for the other encountered, and addressed? [1]

Both Mary and Joseph have angels suddenly come upon them. Both angels immediately say, “Be not afraid!” This occurrence is starting to become familiar to us by now, after two months of this summer sermon series. The sight of angels must be terrifying, since the first words out of their mouths is almost always, “Be not afraid!”

Mary must have been completely flabbergasted at the appearance of the angel. Even though she had heard about miraculous and angelic appearances in synagogue on the Sabbath for years, it’s a quite different thing to have it actually happen to her. Mary probably was interrupted while she went about her usual routine at home.

In Luke’s account, the angel Gabriel—God’s special messenger angel—comes to Mary and reassures her with the words “Be not afraid!” In this longer narrative of the birth of Jesus, the angels come to several people (and one group of people). What is more, according to commentator Shively Smith, “the simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 24-25); miracles to those not looking for miracles, as in the case of Mary (Luke 1:26-27); and even disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds (Luke 2:8).” [2]

Matthew tells us that Joseph was interrupted by the angel of the Lord in a dream. From the short, spare account of Matthew—only a verse and a half!—we do find out that Joseph was called a righteous man. Joseph certainly was considering the unexpected news that Mary had brought to him. Both Joseph and Mary considering the same situation, but in different circumstances.

We all realize that today’s cultural references are different from those of first-century Palestine. The cultural marriage practices of the Jews of that time were patriarchal and highlighted the joining together of two families, not of two individuals, as marriage is seen today here in the United States. Nevertheless, we can see how God breaks apart first-century cultural practices and societal expectations through this miraculous birth narrative.

Joseph was, indeed, a righteous man. When his fiancée Mary first came to him with this unexpected news, he first thought she had been unfaithful. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t that the first thing anyone would think of? Either that, or that Mary had been raped, which is even more unpleasant and shocking. (But, the Gospel doesn’t go there.) Joseph does not want to expose Mary to public disgrace. So, how to deal with this unexpected situation?  

I suspect the situation was looking pretty desperate to Joseph. That is where the angel of the Lord steps in—or, flies in—to the situation.  The angel reassures Joseph that the baby within Mary’s uterus is indeed holy, conceived of the Holy Spirit. What is more, that the baby will be the Messiah! The words of the angel: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is quite similar to other appearances of supernatural wonder in the Gospel of Luke. Commentator Shively Smith tells us “each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel (Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:32).” [3]

Let us come back to Mary and Joseph, two individuals going through a difficult, even traumatic time, in terms of society’s expectations as well as cultural norms. This is a different way of thinking about the birth of Jesus than that we are used to, every Christmas. Commentator David Lose tells us “let’s not forget the distress, sense of betrayal, disappointment, and a host of other emotions that Joseph must have experienced, or the fear and hurt that Mary would likely have also felt as they sorted out their divinely complex relationship.” [4]

On one hand, Mary has this assurance of supernatural power and presence within her from the angel. On the other, Joseph gets a reassurance of supernatural power and presence concerning Mary from the angel. We might presume from all this that there is some far greater plan that neither Mary nor Joseph has any clear idea about. The injunction “Be not afraid!” is a part of this greater plan.

A supernatural plan, a plan that overarches all time and space, whereby the Savior of the world is going to enter in to our everyday lives, and blow apart every cultural norm and societal expectation. It blows our minds, just thinking about the birth of Jesus, two thousand years later. The encouragement “Be not afraid?” Don’t be afraid to step forward with TRUST, as part of a larger plan that comes from above.

You think the situations we find ourselves in today are complex? God understands the complexity and the ins and outs of every situation, every predicament, every sadness and trauma and difficulty each of us might find ourselves in. As we take a closer look at Mary and Joseph, we see that they are not just figures from some stained glass window, but instead flesh and blood people with the same emotions and fears and family difficulties we might have today.

“And the more we can imagine them as people like us — with ups and downs to their relationships, for instance — the more we might imagine ourselves to be people like them — that is, people who go through all kinds of things, some quite damaging, and yet whom God uses nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.” [5]

The angel’s words, “Be not afraid!” We can take them to heart, too, and be encouraged, reassured, that God is with us, today, just as much as God was with people in bible times, just as much as God was with Mary and Joseph, all the way through their wonderful and frightening and even shocking experiences. Even though we may go through all kinds of things, God will never leave us, nor forsake us. Be not afraid!

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 97.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3531

Luke 1:26-38 Shively Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2961

“Matthew’s Version of the Incarnation,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)