(Isaiah 43: 1-4)
Don’t be afraid! This is what your mother says when the power goes out in the worst part of the thunderstorm. Your precious Big Bird night light, the one that stays on all night in the corner, is not working. So you do what any four-year old would do under such circumstances: you scream your head off. Never mind that it’s three in the morning. Mom is at your bedside in an instant, as if she appeared out of thin air. She tries to explain that the power went out, that it’ll come back on eventually; but you’re really not into the details. All you know is your room is dark and it’s loud outside. Some kid in your preschool class told you it’s the sound of God bowling. That doesn’t make you feel any better.
Don’t be afraid! It’s what your Dad says to you from way, way, way down there; way down there treading water in the deep end of the pool; holding his arms up and looking up at you, telling you it’s okay to jump on the diving board. Funny how it didn’t look all that high up from the side of the pool. But when you’re up here – it’s feels like you’re standing on top of the Empire State Building. Years later, when it’s you in the water waiting for your son to jump, you realize how difficult treading water indefinitely really is! But when you’re six years old, you’re not thinking about that. Your see your Dad down there holding up his arms, and you sure love the feeling when those arms are wrapped around you, but you’re not crazy about what it’ll take to get to them.
Don’t be afraid! It’s what all the books say, but what do they know? I mean, were they really written by some guy expecting his first child? Because apparently he thinks you’re going to be the best Dad ever. That you’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it; that your son or daughter could not ask for a better father. You want to believe what he’s saying, what everyone else is saying. But good Lord – this is a baby we’re talking about; a brand new life that you are on the verge of bringing into the world. Well, that your wife is on the verge of bringing into this world. You will have to clothe this baby. Feed this baby. Coach the soccer team for this baby. Buy a car and pay for college for this baby. Are you really ready for that? Is anyone really ready?
Don’t be afraid! This is what the prophet said to the people long ago, and it was welcome news for their captive ears. And not just because, for so long, that same prophet had filled those same ears with words of condemnation and judgment. No, it was welcome news now because all those things had come to pass, and now was time for something new. Ripped from their homeland and hauled off to Babylon, the people were desperate for a new word – a word of redemption, a word that reminded them they were still loved, still cherished by the God who had not abandoned them. Do not fear, God says to them, I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.
Those three words are words we long to here, are they not? Do not Fear. Whether we’re four and the night light goes out, six and on top of the diving board, 34 and expecting the birth of our son. It is good to hear words that reassure and comfort, words that help us take that leap of faith, words that let us know everything is going to be alright.
But those fears eventually go away on their own, do they not? The thunderstorm moves on. The diving board is nothing after that first leap. No one ever totally “gets” parenting, but the joy seems to make up for it.
That’s not the fear our scripture today is talking about, these words of the prophet to God’s people in exile. This fear seems to be less situational and more existential. More, frankly, of what you and I are experiencing these days.
You know, I was prepping for my sermon this week and realized that I have preached quite a bit over the past few years on fear. I went back and looked. By my count I’ve preached on fear at least five or six times since I became your pastor. This would be number seven. Now you need to know that we preachers don’t like to preach on the same thing too much, because we don’t want it to look like we don’t have anything new to say, like we can’t think of anything else. But sometimes preachers preach on the same thing simply because it’s what we all – including the pastor – need to hear. Because it’s that important.
There’s a story of a fisherman out fishing one morning when his boat capsizes. And he’s afraid – not just because of his boat, but because he’s heard that these waters are home to a host of alligators. So even though the shore is a little over a few hundreds yards away, an easy swim, he climbs on top of his overturned craft and waits for help.
After a while he sees an older gentleman walking on shore. The fisherman calls out, Hey you – are there any gators around here? The man answers back, No, they haven’t been here for years!
The fisherman breathes a sigh of relief and says,. Ah that’s great news! I wonder how they got rid of ’em?
To which the man on the shore replies, Well, nobody really did anything. We just let the sharks take care of ’em!
I mean, is that not the kind of fear we seem to be living in these days? If the alligators don’t get us, the sharks will. Perpetual state of anxiety, worry, uncertainty.
You and I live in a world that is not only fear-filled, but has become obsessed with fear; like we don’t know what to do without it, like we need a daily fix of it. And it’s not by chance. Fear-mongering is a thing – where fear is used to coerce people into doing what someone else wants done. One noted Biblical scholar observes, “we have been programmed to live by our fears instead of our hopes.” “Programmed,” he says. This isn’t something that just happens We’re creating it. Manufacturing it. Cultivating it.
And into all of this, the voice of the prophet Isaiah proclaims unequivocally that we are not to do it. In fact, he practically screams it, shouting above the cacophony of competing voices grappling for the Israelites’ ears. Do not fear. The prophet is asking if they – and we – are prepared to die to fear.
But – and this is important – the prophet is asking us to die to a particular kind of fear. The prophet is not telling us to never have fear. That would be not smart. Some kinds of fears serve a very good purpose. Lightning storms during an outdoor picnic with no indoor shelter should elicit fear in us. It is good and right to be fearful of poisonous snakes. Hot stoves. Bungee jumping without a harness.
The prophet is not telling us to never have fear. The prophet is talking about a very specific fear. Listen again:
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Jacob, Israel – names for the holy nation. In other words, this isn’t an individual thing. This is for everyone.
But now thus says the Lord: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
The Massanetta Middle School conference I’m leading music for this summer is using this verse as their theme scripture. The title of the conference is: Y’all are mine! It’s more than just a cute southern expression; it’s biblically accurate. This “you” is a plural “you.” You all mine, God says.
Do not fear, for I have called you all by name. The prophet is asking all of us to die to the fear of not having a name, of not being called by that name. More broadly, the prophet is asking us to die to the fear of not having a place, of not belonging, of being alone.
We human beings, made in the image of God, we were created to live in community with one another. That’s why we have families, that’s why we flock together in groups like neighborhoods, churches, schools, places of work, social clubs. We need to connect with people in real, tangible ways. And that is why the fear of being alone, the fear of not belonging, is so powerful; built into the deepest recesses of our primal brain. And it is as powerful for the grade-school kid sitting at the lunch table by him or herself, as it is for the high schooler trying to figure out what happens after graduation, as it is for the adult in the midst of a full-blown mid-life crisis, as it is for the senior citizen who can’t drive anymore.
That’s the fear that the prophet tells us to die to, because God has called us by name. Because despite what we feel in our worst moments, we are never ever alone. Let me say that again: we are never ever alone.
And because that’s the case, the question then becomes, as we’ve discussed a few times already in this Lenten sermon series, if we die to this fear, what is it that takes its place? What do we then live to?
Is it courage, we ask? Is courage the opposite of fear? It was, after all, the late great American theologian John Wayne who once quipped, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
It’s a fun quote, and I imagine there’s some truth to it. But I don’t think that’s what the prophet Isaiah is getting at. I think he’s talking about something more than just “saddling up.”
In fact, I wonder if we find what we’re looking for just a few verses later, when the prophet says this:
Do not fear, because you are precious and honored in my sight and I love you.
I have always been drawn to Isaiah chapter 43 verse 4; primarily because, to my knowledge, it is the only place in the entire Bible where God is directly quoted as saying, “I love you.” I mean, the whole Bible speaks to that love. But there is something special about those three words being given voice. I love you, God tells us. Because you are mine. Because you belong.
The late Peter Gomes, an author and Harvard religion professor, once said this:
The opposite of fear is not courage but compassion. We fear what we do not know, but we cannot fear that which we love. For, as (the scriptures tell) us, perfect love casts out all fear. So true compassion leaves no room for it.
What does it look like, people of God, when love leaves no room for fear?
Last week at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, Atlanta pastor Billy Honor was talking about how his congregation sits in an economically disadvantaged part of town. And Billy sees it as his responsibility to get to know the community of which his church is part. So he spends time hanging out at the neighborhood basketball court around the corner, where kids of all ages gather after school. And he gets to know these kids, and they get to know him.
One day, one of the boys in the neighborhood had a birthday. And knowing he came from a family who wouldn’t be able to provide much of a celebration, Billy decides to buy him an ice cream cone. He gets this soft serve ice cream cone from a nearby sundry shop and heads to the basketball court. He sees the boy and calls him over; he hands him the cone and wishes him a happy birthday. And the boy is so excited, so excited for this ice cream cone that he can barely stand still. He’s jumping up and down, and he takes that ice cream cone and puts it to his mouth and gives it a big, big lick with pure joy on his face.
All of which Billy fully expected. He knew he’d love this ice cream cone. He was not at all prepared for what happened next.
This birthday boy takes this lick of the ice cream cone. And then he turns around to all his friends, and says, Guys, guys! Come over here! Come have a lick of my ice cream cone! And Billy watches as birthday boy holds out his cone so this boy can have a lick, and this boy can have a lick, and this boy can have a lick, and this boy can have a lick. And on and on and on it goes until everyone on that basketball court gets a lick of his ice cream cone. And when the cone is over half-gone and more liquid than solid, kinda falling apart in his hands, the boy turns to Billy and excitedly says, Now you have a lick, Pastor Billy! Which of course he does – because after seeing that, why wouldn’t you?
Fifty-eight times in the Bible, God says these three words: Do not fear. Fifty-eight times, God implores the faithful to die to the fear of not belonging, the fear of not being called by name, the fear of not being loved, the fear of being alone. Fifty-eight times, God implores us to replace fear with love, hate with compassion, prejudice with acceptance, judgment with forgiveness, loneliness with belonging.
This is God’s kingdom, sisters and brothers. Where we are called by name. Where we all belong. Where everyone gets an ice cream lick. I’ve said it in many sermons before, and I promise you’ll hear me say it in many sermons to come: Do. Not. Fear.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040503, visited on 2.28.2010.
 Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News? (2007: Harper One), 104.
 Ibid, 107.
 Shared by Rev. Billy Michael Honor in his sermon at the NEXT National Gathering in Baltimore, MD on March 1, 2018.