Preaching this morning at College Church, Northampton where I served as pastor 1980-2005. It was a privilege to be back.
So, where is your anxiety level these days; level orange? Our culture of fear has provided lots of munchies to feed our fear monsters: terrorism, angry and unstable people (could be that neighbor who seems normal but keeps to himself) committing acts of violence, an eratic North Korea, a desperate Iran, Russian involvement in US politics, the confusion of our whole political system, the future of health care, the debt-ridden economy of Illinois, West Nile virus, Ebola, SARS, H1N1… do you remember these last ones? Now there is COVID-19.
I will spare you the statistics of this present virus and say that while it is very serious, by taking proper precautions (and listening to people who know what they are talking about) we can mitigate the worst case scenarios that the media is suggesting. Mysterious diseases, political intrigue, acts of violence and terrorism make big stories and media hype tends to report the reality disproportionately. If you still watch the evening news on tv, you almost need a sedative afterwards. Such news feeds our fears and diverts our attention from dealing with present issues and concerns, as well as seeing present opportunities for the gospel.
In “Break Open the Sky” Stephan Bauman (former president of World Relief) says, Fear is popular today because it’s profitable. Producers of media in all its forms have become merchants of fear, stoking fires of controversy, threat, or anger in search of larger audiences. Politicians, both conservative and progressive, traffic in fear to secure support and shore up votes. Corporations employ fear to make us buy more of their products. Friends warn us of the latest health scare, food allergy, or crime epidemic. Even religion, as an enterprise, makes use of fear.
We Americans are experts at trying to control our own lives. We are self-sufficient and we tend to provide for ourselves quite well, thank you! We reduce our risks to the minimum, fix all our own problems, and anticipate all eventualities- well, at least we try. When something comes along like a new virus for which no antedote yet exist and which threatens our economy , we feel helpless, frustrated, and out of control—a feeling that Americans hate. We also start to connect our present fear to all the rest in our anxiety-arsenal and overwhelm ourselves with worry and precaution and a bit of paranoia.
Earlier Christians (and many in the third world today*) lived in unsafe and hostile societies which were vulnerable to constant war, natural disasters without warning, and real incurable diseases. They had little control over their lives and had little sense of a bright earthly future. However, they did have faith in a God who never forgets the cross and would never forget them. Their antidote to fear was not an inoculation, but trust in a sovereign and loving God who has all things under control.
When the prophet Habakkuk looked at his uncertain future he was overcome with fear. However, he did not allow this fear to paralyze him and he chose to do two things: focus on the character of God who never changes (1:12); listen to God’s counsel to quell his fear. “The just shall live by his faith” (2:4). The antidote for fear is not courage but faith.
So if we really want to listen to a Sovereign God who never changes then we must begin by hearing the consistent message spoken to the people under the old covenant and to those of us under the new… DO NOT BE AFRAID!
I won’t list all these passages but will mention one found in Luke 12:32 where Jesus told his disciples, “Fear not little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” I wish I had a visual of Jesus speaking to this insigificant little band of wide-eyed men who were ready to be sent out into a violent world to spread the gospel, with little provisions and seemingly little hope of success. And yet Jesus said My little flock- those who are my special ones under my care whom I love- FEAR NOT! The reason not to fear is becuase your Father is absolutely delighted to give you a future, the very Kingdom that you are being sent out to share with others will be your eternal inheritance. And since he will bestow upon you a future glory that you cannot imagine, you do not need to worry that He will provide everything you need in this life as you risk it for His Kingdom.
Apparently, I am included in the most vulnerable-to-the-virus category because I have been on chemo and have diabetes. Yet, I am convinced that there is nothing that will come to me or you which has not first pass through the hand of our heavenly Father and is designed to make us more like Jesus. FEAR NOT…
*In an essay “The Epidemic of Worry,” David Brooks wrote, According to the World Health Organization, 18.2% of Americans report chronic anxiety while only 3.3% of Nigerians,
I preached a sermon 45 years ago on the Silence of God. After 3 yrs of pastoral ministry under my belt I came to the conclusion that God’s silence was never due to indifference, but always to higher thoughts or greater purposes. “For as the heaven is higher than the earth, so are my thoughts than your thoughts, and my ways than your ways, says the Lord.” Not a bad conclusion for a young greenhorn pastor who was trying to be faithful to God’s Word without a lot of experience in ‘applying it.
Today, after 48 yrs of pastoral ministry experience, I am still and will always remain a greenhorn at trying to figure out the ways of an eternal God. I still believe that God’s silence is one of higher purpose, but I would state it differently now. I would say, God is never silent. We could cite Psalm 19 where we read that the heavens are declaring the glory of God—that God is speaking in creation, loud enough to hold us accountable for not believing that he exists (Romans 1:18-20). Also, we could go to Hebrews 1 and read that God has spoken in the past through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken through his Son, Jesus, the Word of God (John 1).
That God is never silent can also be seen from the few notable occasions in the Gospels when Jesus was silent in the present of someone. He was silent when the Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter (Matt 15:21-28). He was silent before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin at the kangaroo court hastily convened to accuse him of blasphemy on trumped up charges (Matt 26:59-63). He was also silent before Herod who saw him as a bit of a curiosity (Luke 23:9).
I would submit to you that in each of these situations Jesus was shouting in his “silence.” To Herod, whose only interest was to see Jesus walk across his swimming pool (if you are familiar with the Rock Opera, Jesus Christ Super Star), Jesus was shouting “I will not be trivialized!” His silence was a judgment against the spiritual shallowness of Herod. His “silence” before the Sanhedrin was a shout against their spiritual hypocrisy and their self-interest in preserving their own place and ambitions. Finally, in his “silence” before the Canaanite woman he was shouting out “trust me, trust me!” He was drawing out of her a faith born of desperation. She knew who he was and had heard of his compassion, and so in the face of his silence she casts herself upon his mercy and says, “Lord help me!”
We find a parallel between the “silence” this woman confronted and the greatest Silence in all of scripture; the Silence of the cross. In that Silence, Jesus himself cried out “My God, Why have you forsaken me!” In that Silence, the disciples ran away and the women were in despair. And yet…And yet…just a few days latter it became clear that in the midst of this great “Silence” God was doing his greatest work. In the Silence, God was shouting, “I love you!”
Helmut Theilicke wrote a book The Silence of God at the height of the darkness of WW2. In it he said this: “Even when we thought He did not care, or was dead, He knew all about us and behind the dark wings He did His work of love. We live in the power of this Golgatha night of silence. Where should we be without the cross.”
Thus as we face the life-dominating issues which seem to render silent God’s voice, let us hold on to the theology of the cross. Let us remember that even in his silence, God is not silent—he is speaking, he is working, he is fulfilling his higher purposes of a grander plan than we can ever imagine. He is shouting for us to trust him because he loves us. HE WHO HAS EARS TO EAR LET HIM LISTEN!
I was reading the other morning about Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, recorded for us in Mark 6:1-6. The town’s people marveled at his wisdom and teaching, and yet they apparently did not believe that he was the Messiah because they knew him and his family. “He grew up here, we’ve known him since he was a kid and we’ve known his brothers and sisters. He certainly has gotten a good education somewhere, but he’s just one of us. Who does he think he is getting off acting like the Messiah?” They were scandalized by him. Jesus responded by saying “a prophet is without honor in his own country.” And consequently “he could not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” However, the text goes on to add, “but he did lay hands on a few sick people and healed them.”
What are we to make of this? Is it true that God can only work where there is enough faith, and if he does not work does it show that the faith that is present doesn’t measure up?” Many years ago, during a serious back injury that sidelined me for 3 months, someone came to my house to pray for me. This person told me that if someone prayed for my healing and yet I remained bedridden, it was because I did not have enough faith; because God can’t work where there is no faith. This was not an encouragement to me. How much faith is needed before God can work? Is there a barometer in heaven that has a base-line for the amount of faith we must have before God answers prayer? I have always found solace in the words of Jesus that even if we have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, we could move mountains. I’m not sure what that means, but apparently it doesn’t take a hyper-faith to be preset for God to work. The problem at Nazareth was not a “little faith,” but “no faith” that stemmed from stubborn unbelief.
One commentator said of this passage that it teaches us “there are certain situations where we can ‘tie God’s hands’… because of our lack of faith.” I strongly disagree. Our faith, or the lack of it, does not rule God. I do not believe that this is the lesson of Mark 6:1-6. Instead, I believe the among the lessons of this text is that familiarity with the messenger can often interfere with accepting the message. (Sometimes the hardest people to reach are those in our own family.) The text also teaches that God works where he wills; in most cases he has chosen to work in response to our faith, but sometimes he chooses to work where there is no faith in order to produce faith in hearts filled with unbelief. We see elsewhere in Mark that a person’s faith was not necessary for a miracle (Mark 1:31). We also see the sometimes it was the faith of friends and family that was recognized (Mark 2:5; 7:32). At other times (Mark 9:24), it was a matter of “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Even in this little town of “no faith” (Nazareth), God chose to heal some who were sick.
Faith is not a commodity we offer God in order to merit a hearing. Rather, faith is a position that we adopt wherein we choose to trust God and submit to his will for us no matter what the circumstances. No sincere child of God should ever be judged for a lack of faith just because they do not receive that for which they ask—they are probably hurting enough as it is. Instead, they should be encouraged to trust in the Lord with all their heart, even in the midst of God’s silence (Mark 7:26; Matthew 15:23). It is in this position of trust alone that they will find the growth of a deeper dependency on their Heavenly Father and a greater usefulness in his Kingdom because they have learned how to persevere (James 1:3).
Something given for something expected in return…. quid pro quo. This term has dominated the media lately because of its relationship to the impeachment hearings. President Trump is accused of asking the president of a foreign country to investigate a political rival in exchange for military aid and an invitation to the White House. We will see how such an accusation plays out and whether or not it is found to be an impeachable offense. I’m sure you have your opinions.
However, did you know that many followers of Jesus are also guilty of quid pro quo? In Matthew 19, Jesus finished his interview with a very wealthy and disappointed young man who had asked how he could have eternal life. Jesus said that he needed to give up everything he had to the poor, and come and follow him. The young man’s heart was so shackled to his possessions that it blinded him to his own greed and displaced his ability to exercise child-like faith in the only one who could give him eternal life. And so, the young man walked away.
Jesus then said to his disciples that it would be easier for a Mazda RX8 to fit through the cash slot of an ATM machine than for a rich man to get into heaven (or something like that with a camel and a needle). The disciples were amazed at this because their religion and culture had taught them that prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. So, if a wealthy person could not be saved, who could be? Jesus responded in essence, “It’s not a matter of being rich or poor. It is impossible for anyone to be saved apart from God’s power.”
Peter was a bit destabilized by all of this and felt that he needed to remind Jesus (19:27–30) how much they had given up in order to follow him. Jesus replied that God is not a piker or cheapskate. While he calls us to a life of sacrifice and suffering, he does not remove from us the capability of enjoying life’s blessings that he showers upon us. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (v. 27). I think it was the missionary Hudson Taylor who said that “every time he gave up anything for God he found he received so much blessing that he felt himself better off for having given up whatever it was.” (Leon Morris, Commentary on Matthew, 496) This is what so many have learned about a life of ministry and sacrifice; the more you give, the more God blesses—not as a reward, but because he is graciously generous.
I’m only guessing what Peter must have been thinking, but it could have been, “well ok, if I give up everything to follow Jesus then he is going to give all this to me in return. Wow—what a deal!” Here is the very subtle quid pro quo mentality into which we can so easily slip and begin to impugn God’s generosity. If I do something for God then he will do something for me. If I have enough faith then he will heal me. If I give $100 then he will give me $10,000 because he promised right here in his Word he would give 100 fold in return for what I give. If I am faithful to God and pray every day for my kids, he won’t let anything bad happen to my family. However, when God acts differently than our “deal” dictates, then we cry “unfair!” I remember hearing Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, speak about the financial crisis of his ministry when he faced the hardest year of his life. He told God, “after all I have done for you, and you do this to me?” I also remember a dear pastor friend, who had been in ministry longer than I had been alive, telling me when he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer, “I have served God faithfully for 60 yrs. and look what he has given me?” Both of these men worked through their crisis of faith. Unfortunately, I know those who still carry a grudge against God for not upholding his part of the bargain and are still trying to impeach him.
Do you gravitate toward this kind of thinking? It can be ruinous to your friendship with God. It can lead you to treat him like an adversary. The opposite of quid pro quo is fiducia- trust, confidence, assurance, faith, reliance, and security. You don’t have to make deals with someone you trust; just …. trust him. God will take care of you even though the road is difficult and dark and not at all what you expected. He doesn’t cut deals, but honors his covenant promises in Christ. Wait for him. “Anyone who trusts in him will not be disappointed” (Rom 10:11). “Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who hope in me will not be disappointed” (Isa 49:23).
A couple of weeks ago I was driving from Annapolis, Maryland to Strasburg, Pennsylvania—before sunrise. It was a beautiful drive once I got around the Baltimore Beltway into the countryside and onto the serpentine roads of northern MD and southern PA. As the sun was starting to bulge over the horizon, some of the houses were still mostly dark with just a light or two flickering on as people were getting up for work or school. A new day was dawning. I’m sure that most thought it was just going to be another day of doing the same old thing—at least it was Friday, relief was in sight.
I mused that for some, however, something might take place today that would change life forever. Life would never be the same. Someone might die or receive a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Someone might discover a spousal affair or get divorced. Someone might get fired or go bankrupt; whatever the event, everything would change. Life would be dominated by it—nothing would be able to contend with its significance, not only to an individual but to an entire family. How does one ever prepare for such a thing? How does one cope once it happens?
It brought to mind the lives of two of our next door neighbors. One was an older lady who had cancer and was one day being picked up by a friend for a chemo treatment. There was no answer when the friend knocked on the door or tried to call on her cell phone. I was in the yard, packing the car for a vacation trip. The friend saw me and asked if I would go into the house and see why the neighbor was not answering her door or phone. I went in, calling her name and heard a muffled “help” coming from the basement. Apparently, our dear neighbor had fallen down the cellar stairs and was lying on the cold cement floor. She was conscious but very weak. She said she had been there since the night before and could not move. I covered her up with more blankets, called 911, and prayed with her until the paramedics came and took her to the hospital. When we returned from our vacation 2 weeks later, we found out the she had died. Life suddenly changed for her entire family.
A second neighbor, a good man in his late 50’s early 60’s, also fell down his basement steps less than two months ago. His adult sons estimate he had been lying at the bottom of the stairs unconscious for 2 days before they found him. He never fully regained consciousness. I visited him in the hospital as did some of our neighbors. It was determined that he had injured his brain in the fall and would never regain the use of his limbs. When his organs began shutting down, they brought him home under Hospice care. He died last week and we had a very meaningful celebration of life service for him hosted by his sons. My neighbor and I had talked a few times about eternal things—one time being just after I received my cancer diagnosis. He was open and receptive. I pray that he continued to move towards God. Life has suddenly and radically changed for his family.
I am sure that you can think of more examples of how life suddenly changed for some of your neighbors, friends, and their families—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. First there was light . . . then came the night. Maybe you have had such an experience.
So, as we turn the lights on every morning wondering if this will be the day life will change, we can do so in one of three ways:
- We can take life for granted and believe that things like this happen to others and not to us—anyway, the weekend is coming.
- We can fear life and what it might bring to the extent we take no risks, close our hearts to others, and never enjoy the adventure of our journey.
- We can embrace life in all its richness by daily entrusting ourselves into the care of a loving and sovereign God who will not allow anything to come into our lives that has not first passed through his Fatherly hand. A God who loves us more than we know and gave himself to us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
In the darkness and uncertainty of WWII, Pastor Helmut Thielicke wrote a small book titled, “The Silence of God.” In it there is a sentence that has helped me face my own fear and uncertainty about tomorrow. He said, “If the last hour belongs to God, we do not need to fear the next moment.”