What Do We Fear?
I’ve decided to open this early based on a few things I have seen overnight.
do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you…
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
From Isaiah 41 (NRSV)
In a recent Wednesday evening class, a good friend teaching on love in Advent asked us what God might say to the church in America. Among all the amazing answers, one stuck out. “Do not be afraid.” We discussed Isaiah 40 and 41 and listened to the beautiful aria from Isaiah 40 in Handel’s Messiah.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
I believe that a letter to the evangelical church in America might begin with something like this:
Quit being afraid for you serve a God who is with you. You should no longer use the language of this world, which is fear. The ways of the world are not your ways, and embracing the language and strategy of fear is not the way of those in Christ. Remember that absolutely nothing can separate you from the love of God. There is no fear in Christ Jesus, because in Jesus we have perfect love. As John wrote, ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.’ Quit using fear as motivation and start inviting people into relationship so they too can experience the perfect love of Jesus.
I do not blame us because many Christian expressions in America were born in revivalism in which the fear of hellfire was a string motivator. Fear is still a string motivator because it can cause us to make hasty and rash decisions. Fear can push us toward the embrace of those who would wield power and oppression. While fear can motivate, it is a very poor sustainer. Salespeople who use tactics such as fear know that not closing that sale will allow the person time to calm from their fear and look at the cost and benefits of a purchase rather than rush in. Discipleship should be more like a measured and relational invitation than a fearful push.
What are we really afraid of? The earliest Christians faced true existential threats, yet they adopted a martyrial faith that removed the fear of death and punishment. That is the core truth of 1 John; God is love and perfect love casts out fear because fear is more about punishment than invitation. Casting our own shadow may precipitate an all out panic based upon the language of fear being used by many in the church. An organism that is supposed to be so infused with the love of God that we reflect the truth of God through Jesus should not fear. It is especially strange since the scriptures tell us that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church.
Regardless of what we interpret the gates of hell as, it is strange that the church then fears things less than the gates of hell. The church fears people, ideas, loss of power, and missing out. The American evangelical church seems especially afraid of queer people, immigrants, those of different ethnicity or race, those of other religions, and, most confusing, those who vote differently. We fear a loss of cultural power and of irrelevance. The decisions often driven by fear make us irrelevant.
How do we expect to invite people into a flourishing and loving relationship with Jesus when our words, actions, and approaches use the world’s language of fear? No wonder so many cannot hear the message of hope present in the Gospel. Because it is so obscured by our fear that we say the same things the world says to get people to make harmful decisions. We have become culturally irrelevant because we fail to show an alternative to the fear induced ways of the world. We are not an alternative, but one more expression of fear and crowd dynamics amongst many others. Instead of living into the beautiful freedom of being exiles, we continue to fight our way toward being a version of Babylon with a veneer of Christ.
The beauty of what the Church offers is the absence of fear-based dynamics. Instead, the Church is the story of a people united in an inviting story. Christianity is the story of a God who is with us, a God who became us, and a God whose love knows no barrier to reaching us. We have the freedom of not being gatekeepers to God, but story tellers inviting others to see the gate who is Jesus.
At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he reads from the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18 NRSV)
Jesus then does the scandalous thing as reminds the synagogue that God loves and invites all. This is why the people of his hometown want to stone him.
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. (Luke 4:25–28 NRSV)
Jesus was announcing his invitation to all at the beginning. He was telling them that the people they feared or hated and laid a curse from Noah on are blessed by God. Jesus was telling the inviting story of God, whose love has no barriers to reaching us. So fear not, God loves you and is with you in whatever you face. The God who is constantly at work to promote flourishing is not a God who wishes us to fear. No, God is a God who tells us to “fear not, for I am with you.”
I go back to the beginning and ask us; what are we afraid of? If we believe the truth of scripture, how can we claim a fear of those things that cannot keep the love of God from us? Can the Church tell a better story than one based on fear? Of course, that is the true Gospel, as Jesus explains. I leave you with the words of Paul in Romans as an encouragement and one brief nod to cultural truth. God is not anything like Saruman or Thanos, instead God is more like Sam Gamgee, who knew that love triumphed over fear.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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. (Rom 8 NRSV)