Whenever an angel or even God appears in the biblical story, the first words we hear are usually “Be not afraid.” There’s a reason for this. Heavenly visitations don’t occur very often, so we need to hear words of assurance that everything is going to be okay. The word we hear this morning is that the Lord is our light and salvation, so “whom shall I fear?”
The word of the Lord this morning might be “do not be afraid,” but if we’re honest with ourselves, we all experience fear once in awhile. It might be spiders or snakes, or heights, or something else. Whatever it is, what does fear to do us? Does it paralyze us? Does it cause us to flee? Does it cause us to fight? I expect our answer depends on the person and the situation, but whatever the situation, fear usually brings a reaction of some kind.
In The Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown is feeling depressed. He’s not sure why, but he knows something is wrong. So, he pays a visit to Lucy’s psychiatrist booth. After he gives her his nickle, Lucy asks Charlie Brown what’s bothering him. She names a series of phobias to see what he might be afraid of. These phobias range from the fear of cats to the fear of climbing stairs. When, she gets to “pantophobia,” she leans across the counter and asks Charlie Brown: “Do you have pantophobia?” He asks her for a definition. She tells him that “pantophobia” is the “fear of everything.” “That’s it!” he shouts so strongly and loudly that he knocks her right out of the booth. So, do you have pantophobia?
Even if we don’t have pantophobia, I think we can sympathize with Charlie Brown. We too struggle with fear, and the causes of these fears are often very real. Even going to a place of worship can produce fear. Once again we witnessed a terrorist attack on houses of worship. This time it was two mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand. The perpetrator was a white supremacist who claimed inspiration from American white supremacist and anti-immigrant groups. This past Friday, when Muslims gathered in the United States for Friday Prayers, they did so with a sense of apprehension. Could this happen to us? I expect some of us feel the same way when we gather. We might not be Muslim or a predominantly immigrant community, but these occurrences are becoming all too common. It is in the midst of these concerns that we hear the promise of God, who is our stronghold and refuge.
Our fears are compounded, by the increasingly global connections that are emerging. We’ve become so connected to the world through social media and television that it’s easy to become overwhelmed by everything. It’s almost as if Chicken Little is correct: “The sky is falling.”
But even if world events don’t get our attention, we might have other reasons to be anxious. It might be a doctor’s visit, for instance. I will confess. I have a biopsy scheduled in the very near future. My doctor doesn’t think it’s likely, but I could have prostate cancer. I might not show it, but I’m a bit anxious about the biopsy and the results.
It’s in the midst of these concerns that we hear the promise of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Last Sunday we began our Lenten journey with a word of assurance from Psalm 91, which invites us to “abide in the shadow of the Almighty,” and say “to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.”
The word we hear this morning from Psalm 27 brings us another word of assurance. The Psalmist is a realist. There are enemies encamped around him, but he’s not afraid because he trusts the promises of God. He breaks out in song, declaring: “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.”
This season of Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on what it means to live faithfully in the presence of God. In our times of reflection, we can look to the stories of people like Abraham and Sarah who stood firmly on the promises of God, even though their situation hadn’t yet changed. Consider the words from the Book of Hebrews, which declares:
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the summons to go out to a place which he would eventually possess, and he set out in complete ignorance of his destination. It was faith that kept him journeying like a foreigner through the land of promise, with no more home than the tents which he shared with Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs with him of the promise. For Abraham’s eyes were looking forward to that city with solid foundations of which God himself is both architect and builder. (Hebrews 11:8-10, J.B. Phillips)
This is the promise that sustained Abraham, even when he had his doubts and fears.
When God appears to Abram in Genesis 15, God again says to Abram: “Do not be afraid.” God wanted to reaffirm the covenant God was making with Abram, but it’s clear that Abram had some questions for God. God keeps promising descendants, but Abram and Sarai still don’t have any children. So, how is this going to work? Their questions are our questions. God simply reaffirmed the promise that Abram’s descendants would be as uncountable as the stars in the heavens. It is said: “he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:1-6). It is good to remember that word from Hebrews 11 that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). This is what Abraham was asked to embrace, and the same is true for us as we navigate the world around us.
Later this morning, during fellowship time, Rick has an art project for us to complete. He’s asking us to consider the question: Why does Central Woodward exist? Here’s one of my answers to that question. We exist as a community of faith where we can honestly explore our doubts and fears and remain faithful to the promises of God. We can do this because we gather in the presence of God, who is our refuge and fortress. Furthermore, it’s in the context of being part of a worshiping missional community of faith that we can share the love and grace of God that is revealed in Jesus with the world.
We come to this place, bringing our fears, our doubts, our questions, in the hope that we might join the Psalmist in living “in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” This isn’t the expression of one who wants to hide from the world. It is instead, the desire expressed by St. Augustine in his exposition of this Psalm: “That as long as I am in this life, no adversities may exclude me from the number of them who hold the unity and truth of the Lord’s faith around the world.” (Exposition on the Book of Psalms). In other words, nothing can separate us from the love of God we know in Christ Jesus!
When we gather in this space to “sing and make melody to the LORD,” we do so knowing that there are challenges facing us in the world around us. Our songs sometimes turn into a lament. With the Psalmist we beg God not to “hide your face from me.” We pray to God: “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence” (Ps. 27:12). These concerns are often on our hearts as we gather, but by confessing our fears, we put ourselves in a position to receive the promises of God.
So, with the Psalmist we can declare: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Like Abram we make this declaration even though there is plenty of evidence that rules against such confidence. This is especially true in an age of instant gratification. So, this word of faith comes with a word of caution. That word is— “Wait.” Yes, “wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”
God appeared to Abram and reaffirmed the covenant promise, and Abram chose to believe God in spite of everything. As a result, it was credited to him as righteousness. The devil offered Jesus several shortcuts to glory, but Jesus turned these offers down. Instead, he chose a different path, the path of the cross and resurrection. All of this, we’re told, is the product of faith in God’s promises (Rom. 4).
So the word for today is this: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life? Of whom shall I be afraid?” We hear this promise in the context of our calling to be a “missional community of faith” that gathers together in this space to “sing and make melody to the Lord.” By doing so, we embrace the promise God made to Abraham, that his descendants would be a blessing to the world. We do so as part of the body of Christ.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 17, 2019