Dealing With Fear: The Pessimistic Good News

Sermon, November 13, 2016 – Proper 28, Year C
Luke 21:5-19

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

I will admit to chuckling to myself as I read today’s Gospel lesson and prepared my sermon over the last couple of weeks. It is so appropriate to this year’s election that you think it must have been intentional to have this passage read today. As I heard the dire warnings of how the world would end if the other candidate won the election, I read the description of Jesus about the many tribulations that would take place before the world’s end: wars and uprisings, nations rising against nation, great earthquakes, famines, pestilences, fearful events, betrayal by families and friends. If you listened to the rhetoric of some of Hillary’s supporters, this is a pretty good description of what they think will happen once Donald Trump becomes president. And if you listened to the rhetoric of Trump’s supporters, well, then this is what they thought would have happened under Hillary Clinton.

As many commentators have said, this past election was primarily about fear. Both campaigns whipped the winds of fear to drive their supporters to the polls. I was thinking on this when I watched a post-election commentary by Stephen Colbert who pointed out a recent Pew survey that revealed that 55% of Democrats said that the Republican party makes them afraid, while 49% of Republicans said the same about the Democrats.

Well, I think that the people who are afraid are probably smart. I think that there are a lot of reasons to be afraid regardless who our next president is. Much of the fear that the campaigns whipped up is unreasonable, but there is also much to fear that the campaigns didn’t mention. Our world is a scary place and has been a scary place since…well, since forever.

American Christians seem to be just as consumed with fear as everyone else. In fact, I think that one of the greatest obstacles to Christianity in America is fear. My college degree was in political science and I enjoy reading, observing and analyzing political news and trends. One thing I noted during this election campaign was the development of a significant rift amongst American white evangelical leaders regarding their support of Donald Trump. Many younger evangelical leaders argued that Christians ought not support Trump even if that meant that Hillary would win. In contrast, many older leaders argued that their fear of a Hillary victory justified setting aside their moral qualms about supporting Trump.

As I thought about this, I realized that what this rift was really about is fear, and whether faith should trump fear. Pardon the pun and let me explain. American Christians too often allow fear to dictate our decisions and behaviors, often to the detriment of what God has commanded us in the Bible. Instead of trusting God, our fear leads us to try to solve the perceived problem on our own terms. Once we go down this road, we are trusting in ourselves instead of God. Nothing good can come from this.

Just to be clear – this goes for liberal Christians just as much as for conservative Christians. It seems to me that American Christians fear living in a society in which we are disliked, ridiculed or persecuted. We have this idea that we, as American Christians, have a birthright of living in a Christian nation, living under laws that reflect Christian values, with the social and cultural elites and media outlets nodding their heads in approval at what the Church says. But this fictional world never existed and it is increasingly clear to me that we are no longer a Christian nation, and that our social and cultural elites do not respect the Christian faith.

How has American Christianity responded? On the one hand, some conservative Christians have responded by becoming involved politically, joining forces with the Republican party in the vain hope that they can build a political bulwark against the rising tide of secularism. On the other hand, some liberal Christians have responded by discarding any doctrine or teaching that the surrounding culture questions or dislikes, as if they can appease their way to being liked by our societal and cultural leaders.

In both cases, Christians have allowed fear to overcome their trust in God and have impaired the ability of the Church to be salt and light to society. We have either sold our souls and adopted the amoral norms of American power politics or we have sold out our Christian faith for a superficial pat on the head by cultural powers that be. Neither option is pleasing to God. This is where today’s Gospel lesson speaks to us. The Bible never tells us that things are going to be easy. Quite the opposite.

Today’s passage begins with the disciples commenting about the beauty of the Jewish temple. The Jewish temple was to the Jews like what the center of Washington D.C. would be to us: the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Mall. But the Temple was even more than this – it was the political and religious center of the Jewish people. It was unthinkable that the Temple would ever be destroyed. Yet, this was the response of Jesus. He said to the disciples “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

This was a very shocking thing to say and something that presaged the end of the world for the disciples. And so they asked Jesus when this would happen, and what the sign would be that this was about to take place. Listen to the reply of Jesus: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”

This is what Jesus tells us is going to happen. Not just to the disciples but also to us here and now. Many of these things have already happened to Christians throughout history and around the world. Many are happening today. It sort of puts things into perspective for us, doesn’t it? American Christians, listen to what Jesus is telling us: “they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.” Why do we think we will be spared from this? Why do we think that we can escape this by clever politicking or bargaining away God’s commands and teaching?

Jesus tells us very clearly here that bad things are going to happen. We should be expecting it. Our job is not to try to avoid that which Jesus has told us we will face, but rather to prepare to face it faithfully and obediently. In Tolkien’s masterpiece trilogy Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Frodo fearfully blurts out “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” Gandalf the wizard replies “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” And so we Christians do not get to choose the context in which we live, but rather our decision is whether we live faithfully to God’s call on our lives, or whether we live in disobedient fear.

Let’s look back to the passage. Jesus gives us four critical commands and concludes with an incredible promise. Jesus tells us to “watch out that we are not deceived.” He tells that many false teachers will come in his name, but that we should not follow them. We are much more susceptible to following false teachers when we are fearful. We are liable to grasp at whatever hand seems friendliest and believe anyone who tells us that they will be able to protect us. Just support this political leader and party and we’ll protect your place in society. Just discard this doctrine and that teaching and society will like you. Do not be deceived. Jesus tells us “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Jesus tells us “Do not be frightened” even as we hear of terrible things. Jesus is warning us that bad things will happen. These things will not take us from the love of God though. Paul writes: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Finally, Jesus tells us “make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves.” Jesus is letting us know that the Holy Spirit will be with us. It isn’t up to us. It’s not up to our cleverness, knowledge, wisdom or political strategy. We are not responsible for saving the situation. God is in charge. Jesus tells us that he will give us words and wisdom that none of our adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.

What to do when we sense fear beginning to take hold of our hearts? Feeling afraid is not the problem. The problem is how we respond to fear. Jesus tells us not to be deceived but to remain faithful to him and his teaching as revealed to us in the Bible. He tells us not to be frightened because none of these bad things can separate us from the love of God. Finally, Jesus reminds us that we must place all our trust in him alone, and not in our own cleverness or knowledge.

You might be wondering if there is any relief in sight? Is there any good news in all of this? Or is this all about dodging bullets, wars, famines and earthquakes? What’s the end game? Jesus tells us “But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” Paul puts the troubles of this present age into perspective when he writes “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”

The Irish band U2 has a song titled Yahweh. Part of the song goes like this:

“Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Why the dark before the dawn”

God promises us that light will follow the darkness. And so let us not live in fear, but instead eagerly take hold of the hope we have that creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Let us trust in our God and his glorious promises to us. It will turn out all right in the end. Far, far better than anything we could ask or imagine.

Let us pray.

God of peace, whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom and restored the broken to wholeness of life: look with compassion on the anguish of the world, and by your healing power make whole both people and nations; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.