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The Last Word

Acts 18:5-11; I Corinthians 2:1-5

I’ve been spending lots of time over these last few months thinking about the ways in which fear has been shaping the lives, the worldviews, the mind and spirit set of our children. When I was a kid the great existential threat we faced as a nation and world was the specter of nuclear holocaust. We were locked in The Cold War with the Soviet Union and there was much chatter about who might or might not “push the button”. It was a frightening time. Lots of talk of the impending Apocalypse in churches. But a few years later, nuclear disarmament agreements were signed and around 1989-1990 The Cold War came to an end. We left that collective angst behind and moved forward with hope into a brighter future.

Things have changed. And I’m not quite sure when this change set in. Technology and social media have played a large role. Our world is much smaller than it used to be. We are aware of what’s going on all around the globe in a way we just weren’t when most of us were kids. Today, our kids are graphically aware that endless wars sweep our planet. They know about famines and genocide happening in real time. They are painfully in tune with gun violence in schools. They see and hear about the natural disasters unfolding at unprecedented rates.

I was so sad that hours after our country learned about the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian general Soleimani, World War III began trending and the selective service website actually crashed because so many parents and young adults were trying to find information about the draft. Both of my kids came home talking about the draft and World War III in connection with conversations they were a part of in school. That there might be a World War III is only too believable for them based on all the dystopian literature they read and all they see unfolding around them daily.

And this landscape of fear is having a pretty major impact. Among our children and youth, we’re seeing a lot more anxiety, a lot more depression, a lot more suicide. We’re also seeing a lot more teenage activism. And I love this movement. Agree with them or not, it is an expression of health for our kids to be facing their fears and taking action to defeat them by working towards positive changes in society, defiantly and boldly embracing hope.

Sometimes there are things we feel very strongly about and we wish scripture would say a whole lot more to back us up on our opinions. Sometimes scripture talks quite a lot on certain issues we wish it would be quieter about. And sometimes scripture speaks loudly and repeatedly the exact words we want to hear. Though fear’s voice seems a little louder today, our struggles with fear and the way fear manipulates us, makes us dance like a puppet on strings – this is nothing new. We have struggled with fear forever. Thankfully, scripture speaks often, in its entirety, on the topic of fear. The conclusion, in a nutshell: the only thing we have to fear is God.

Leading into this morning’s message, a collection of gospel verses were read that have Jesus addressing both fear and worry – two feelings that often bleed into each other. One of the things I find interesting about these verses is that the people experiencing fear or worry have every right to feel those things. We do worry about putting food on the table, paying rent or the mortgage. If we didn’t worry about tomorrow, there wouldn’t be much need for insurance of any kind. Martha was worried about making sure the evening went well, with guests…with Jesus (!) at her house. We can relate. And then Jesus ramps up the standard by several notches. He questions why his disciples would be scared in the midst of a violent storm at sea. To a father who has just received word that his young daughter has died Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.” He asks some fishermen to leave their livelihoods and homes behind and says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you’ll fish for men.” He talks to his disciples about how they will be persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed and says, “Don’t worry. I’ll give you the words you need at the right time.” And just before he’s arrested, he tells his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid.”

In some ways these verses fall in line with what I consider to be one of the least helpful verses in the Bible, Matthew 5:48 – “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Gee, thanks!

We worry. Some of us more than others, but we all worry at different times. And we all have fears. Jesus tells us not to be afraid. But we often are afraid. And the Bible makes very clear that despite Jesus telling his disciples repeatedly not to fear, they just keep on being scared. But it’s how they respond to that fear that makes all the difference.

Fear can make us behave like real jerks. Maybe we run away when the going gets tough. That’s kind of what Peter did when he denied and thus abandoned Jesus on the night he was crucified. Sometimes when we’re scared, we fight. We get ugly and angry and we lash out with venom and violence. Think about Saul persecuting Christians. Dig down and you find fear behind that. Later, Paul was beaten and imprisoned regularly because of fear within the church. Lots of scared people couldn’t handle what he had to say. Fear can make us stick our head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, insisting that despite all evidence and testimony to the contrary, we’ll cling to our own safer version of events. Doubting Thomas comes to mind. Fear can also lead to a rigid and dogmatic mindset that strives to codify life and imprison the spirit. This is a description of the early church’s great resistance to fully including uncircumcised and unclean Gentiles in the fold. Letting Gentiles have a voice at the table was going to change everything and some of the changes the Jewish Christians were not going to like. It scared them. Change is always scary.

Last week I outlined all the different ways our church was active in serving last year. It was a long list and we should feel really good about it. But worry and fear have also been sitting here with us on Sunday mornings. Our attendance has declined. It’s easy enough to explain these numbers. We’ve had several factors at play beyond our control that have contributed to this drop. Our church is also not immune to the societal trend seemingly impacting all churches as every year church attenders attend less often. According to numerous articles I’ve read and anecdotal conversations I’ve had with pastors in Inman, Buhler and beyond, averaging only two Sundays a month is now considered regular church attendance. I can also say that our ratio of average attendance to regular attenders is higher than most churches. But!… But that doesn’t translate to more people in the pews. That doesn’t fill the emptiness. That doesn’t do much to offer consolation when we’re longing for new people to come. Understanding the decline doesn’t help take our fear away as we get smaller.

And so we acknowledge this fear and we also react to the fear in all sorts of different ways. Maybe we run away. We come less and less often. Maybe we get angry and pick fights. Maybe we try our best to act as if it’s not happening. We choose not to talk about it. Maybe we hunker down into this safe space we love and work at resisting change of any kind. Truthfully, I’m going to guess most of us have reacted in one or more of these ways in the last year. Fear is powerful. And part of its power is that fear so often sneaks up on us in disguise. We don’t even realize that it’s fear pulling the strings.

Because I believe the Bible is meant to speak to our hearts right where we’re at, I suspect when Jesus told his disciples and others not to be afraid, what he meant was that we can’t let our fears control us. We can’t let them dictate our actions. Instead, we have to face those fears, openly and honestly. As soon as we confront them, they lose a lot of their power. And then we take that energy that fear dusts up and we channel it in more healthy and life-giving directions.

Let’s look at what Paul has to say to us this morning. In our I Corinthians text, Paul is admitting he was not only scared, he was terrified. What’s the context for these words? Well, up to that point Paul had been beaten multiple times, once even stoned and left for dead. He had been imprisoned once. More recently, friends and believers had smuggled him out of a few towns in fear for his life. He hadn’t been in Corinth that long and as was his custom, he had been going to the synagogue to try and persuade the Jews that Jesus was indeed the Christ. But the Jews there started to become abusive towards Paul. That’s the word the NIV uses in Acts 18:6, “abusive”. So Paul shakes out his clothes, tells them off, leaves the synagogue and keeps right on proclaiming Jesus as Lord and many people believe because of him, including Crispus, the synagogue ruler.

Nonetheless, Paul is struggling.  He’s scared.  And so one night, in a dream, God comes to him and says, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.  For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city – Acts 18:9-10.”  Seizing hold of God’s words, Paul stays in Corinth for an unprecedented year and a half, teaching them the word of God.

Paul was scared. He had good reason to be scared. And in his letter to the Corinthians he speaks openly and honestly about his struggle. (paraphrasing) “I felt totally inadequate – I was scared to death if you want to know the truth of it – and so I know my words probably didn’t impress you. I just kept it simple and told you what was on my heart – Jesus, who he is, what he did – Jesus crucified. And somehow God’s spirit gave my words the power that I couldn’t. Despite all my shortcomings, God worked through me and you believed.”

         Are fears going to creep in when we see our church get smaller.  Yes.  The fears will be there.     We’re human.  The question is, how will we respond?    And I think that’s what has made me so proud of our congregation this last year.  Sure, fear has manipulated us at times because we are not perfect.  But fear did not have the first or last word in 2019.  I think we’ve been working hard to confront our fears.  And we seem to have decided fear isn’t going to get in the way of us working to “be” the church.  We have been living the weight of scripture – striving for justice, practicing mercy, working hard to be faithful.  Part of being faithful is believing God has our future in His hands.  Worrying about tomorrow will only rob us of the riches to be found in our today.  God has this.  God has us.  When Paul is overwhelmed by fear, God comes to him and says, “Don’t be afraid.  Don’t let anyone silence you.  I am with you…”  That’s our last word for today.

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