Monday, February 1, 2010

do not be afraid

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

“Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.”

I want to begin tonight’s sermon with a little trivia. I am going to ask a question that I’d like each of you to answer, preferably not out loud. What would you guess is the most common command in Scripture? From Genesis to Revelation, what is the most frequent non-optional statement made by God to God’s chosen people? I’ll give you a few seconds. Did you guess to be more loving? Even though loving is God’s goal for human life and existence, the command to love is not God’s most frequent instruction. Perhaps you guessed to be more humble? After all, theologians insist that pride is at the root of all sin, but oddly enough, the Bible’s most frequent imperative says nothing about gaining humility. Did your guess involve words like money or sex or honesty? If so your guess was wrong. The command in Scripture that occurs more frequently than any other command is summed up in four simple words. Do not be afraid.

Now, why does God command us not to fear? After all, fear doesn’t seem like the most harmful emotion or vice in the world, and last time I checked, fear wasn’t on the list of Seven Deadly sins. So why does God command those with whom He is in relationship to not be afraid so frequently? The answer is actually pretty simple. Fear is the number one reason that we fail to trust God. Behind every act of disobedience is fear. When we don’t trust God, it’s because we’re afraid.

Now, I want to be clear. Fear isn’t always bad. Fear is merely an internal warning cry that danger is nearby, which urges us to act. Fear can be quite good, like when a child fears touching a hot stove or when a person fears the consequences of driving drunk. But the problem is that for most of us, fear arrives as a thief. It breaks into our lives when we least expect it. And the fear we often experience is neither helpful nor wanted and we often fear things that pose no ultimate threat to us. And because of that fear can easily become paralyzing instead of motivating, habitual instead of sporadic. In fact, we have a name for people habitually paralyzed by fear. We call them worriers, and people that constantly worry have a difficult time trusting God. And it’s for this reason that God’s most frequent command is “do not be afraid.”

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we encounter a terrified young man named Jeremiah that lived around 600 BC, who according to our text is only a boy. And this boy is terrified. Here's why: First, Jeremiah and his fellow Israelites are going through a tough and painful time. The Babylonians have conquered their capital and the whole nation is in ruin. Cities are destroyed, hopes are dashed, and faith in the goodness of God is gone. The people are in exile and surrounded by enemies, and for these reasons, Jeremiah is terrified. But there’s more. The word that God gives Jeremiah to speak is an unpleasant one. As we heard in tonight’s reading, Jeremiah will “pluck up, pull down, destroy, and overthrow” before he says one thing of God’s intention to build up and plant once again. In other words, Jeremiah’s message to suffering, hurting, exiled Israel is that their present problems are the result of their own unfaithfulness. In other words, what God wants Jeremiah to tell Israel is this: “it’s your fault. You did this to yourselves.” Well, Jeremiah knows that God’s people aren’t going to react too well to his sermon. I mean, imagine coming to church when your life is in the crapper and hearing me tell you that you that it’s your own freaking fault. I’d be a worried to preach that sermon, but to say that Jeremiah is worried would be the understatement of the year. Jeremiah is terrified.

But is Jeremiah the only one? Perhaps we have never had our homes burned and our land conquered, but who among us is unaware that we still live in a world where such things happen? War, famine, pestilence, and genocide are the realities that characterize life for many in our world, not to mention the millions displaced each year by natural disasters. Of course we may be shielded from someone else tearing our homes and families apart, but many of us have experienced homes and families torn apart from the inside. We live in a world where the gentle art of being kind and thoughtful, sensitive and generous are going out of fashion. Homelessness has become a metaphor for many people in our generation. Many of us feel uprooted, uncertain about the future, fearful in the present, and guilty about the past. And so no – I’m not so sure that Jeremiah is the only one to feel this way. We too know what it means to be terrified. I don’t care who we are, we all have those moments – those moments when we’re terrified that God isn’t really big enough to take care of us; when we’re terrified that we are not really safe in God’s hands; when we’re terrified that God has left us, or was never with us, and that we have to fend for ourselves. We too know what it means to be terrified.

Well, in the midst of Jeremiah’s fear comes the command of the Living God. “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you. Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.” In other words, God’s word to Jeremiah is “be strong. Be courageous. I actually know what I’m doing here. You can trust me Jeremiah, for I am with you.” So Jeremiah does. Jeremiah courageously carries out God’s call for his life and you know what, he never sees outward success. In fact, because he makes Israel come to terms with their own sins, Jeremiah is viewed as a traitor, and over the course of his life, Jeremiah experiences a whole lot of pain – he’s beaten, put in stocks, imprisoned, and is thrown into a pit from which he could not escape.

Does this mean that Jeremiah fails, or that God is wrong? Of course not. You see, Christians need look no farther than the cross to know the paradox of God’s power. Not only is God able but God delights in bringing about unimaginable good from unspeakable evil. At one point in the book of Jeremiah God says to Israel, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” In other words, the purposes of God, though mysterious, are beyond our wildest dreams. The purposes of God are far greater and magnificent than what we see, feel, perceive, and sense. The purposes of God bring good out of evil and life out of death. God is with Jeremiah when he is beaten, put in stocks, imprisoned, and thrown into a pit, and the promise of God’s presence is what enables Jeremiah to trust God until the day that he dies. Jeremiah experiences difficulty and hardship and perhaps more than his fair share of fear. But Jeremiah is not paralyzed by fear. When fear arrives as a thief, Jeremiah remembers God’s promise. Do not be afraid, for I am with you. God is with Jeremiah in the midst of his pain and Jeremiah knows, he trusts it, and he owns it.

But is Jeremiah the only one that God promises to be with? When God becomes human in the person of Jesus, do you remember the words of the angel? “And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” Or after Jesus rises from the dead, do you remember his final words spoken to his disciples? “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The same word God speaks to Jeremiah God speaks to each of us. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. And before you were born, I consecrated you.” “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

C.S. Lewis once made the following statement. “People do not need to be instructed. They need to be reminded.” Tonight we can all be reminded that God really is big enough to take care of us. Tonight we can all be reminded that we really are safe in God’s hands. Tonight we can all be reminded that God has acted through the person of Jesus to restore all things to Himself, and that because of God’s initiative we do not need to fend for ourselves. Finally, in light of these truths, we can all be reminded of our God’s most frequent command to His frightened children. Do not be afraid.

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