SO…WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?
A sermon on Matthew 10:24-39
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
June 21, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
We begin with a portion of a famous speech that describes a dark hour of crisis in the history of our country. And yet, as we approach the summer of 2020, we find ourselves struggling with a host of societal ills like the COVID-19 pandemic, high unemployment, an economic recession, and widespread civil unrest due to centuries of racial inequality. Remarkably, it seems to me that these words have an oddly contemporary ring to them—though they are almost a hundred years old. This is what was said:
Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment. In our national life, values have shrunk to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by a serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of [international] trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone. A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Unscrupulous money [managers] stand indicted in the court of public opinion. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.1
Doesn’t that sound eerily like today? But they are words taken from the Inaugural Address given by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 4, 1933. He was addressing a nation firmly in the grip of the Great Depression. He endeavored to give the people hope—and to give a glimpse of his plan for economic recovery. Elsewhere in the speech, FDR uttered this sentence that has become synonymous with him and with his legacy: “The only thing that we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” From the moment we are born, we are taught to fear the world around us. We hear these words from our parents; “Don’t go running with scissors—you’ll put your eye out.” Or “Don’t go to bed with wet hair—you’ll catch a cold!” We teach our kids to avoid strangers in order that they may be kept safe.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Politicians have long relied on fear to get people to support them. They employ fear of the unknown, fear of the stranger, fear of new ideas, and fear of the future, in order that they may maintain our loyalty and to reinforce the status quo. And the sad thing is how often
1 www.historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057#:~:text=E2%80%9COnly%20Thing%20We%20Have%20to%20Fear%20Is%20Fear (Accessed June 18, 2020)
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we fall for it. We fall for it even when it does not serve our best interests or the best interests of our democracy.
To tell the truth, fear is the driving force behind much of our society, isn’t it? Advertisers prey on our fears and insecurities so that we will buy their products. And nowhere is the dominating presence of fear more keenly felt than in the news media. It seems that the primary job of the news media nowadays is to tell us of all the bad things that are on the horizon. Whether or not those things are likely to actually come to pass is irrelevant. (Bad news must make for good ratings, I guess.) And it is obvious that those who control the media use it to instill fear in us as a way to keep us in line and to further the agenda of those in power.
Our Lord Jesus understood the nature and power of fear. And he recognized that fear can have a crippling effect on those who would be his disciples.
In Matthew 10, Jesus is giving his disciples some final instructions before sending them out into the surrounding countryside to preach the good news and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. He gives them the authority to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to cleanse those who have leprosy, and to drive out demons. He tells them to travel light, not taking any extra clothes or money with them.
Jesus also warns them it that it will not all be smooth sailing. He tells them the he is sending them out like sheep among wolves. And in verse 16, Jesus says, “Therefore be wise as serpents as harmless as doves.”
[Side bar here: I suppose that I had read over that verse dozens of times during my life, but it really did not mean all that much to me back in my younger days. But the older that I have become, the more that I have understood their meaning: “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Though we are to share the love of God with everyone and be conduits of grace to those who do not yet know the goodness of our God, we are not to be doormats for those who would take advantage of us. Everybody knows that Christians are to be nice…and benevolent…and caring…and giving. Jesus said that his disciples are to be smart, and wise and prudent when dealing with others. And that includes those of the household of faith. But he is also telling us that we are to be harmless…without guile…sincere…transparent…and without any hidden motives.
Over the years, I have discovered that there are lots of people in the church who want to be seen as wise and prudent. That’s a good thing, I suppose. The church needs people in leadership who are wise and prudent. But too often, those same people are not very transparent. They have hidden agendas. They want to control…manipulate…they are self-seeking. Jesus says that, among his followers, wisdom and harmlessness are to go hand in hand…]
And then we come to today’s passage in verses 24 through 39. Jesus must have known that his directions to the disciples would cause some misgivings and worries. So he addresses those feelings in these verses.
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He must have sensed some apprehension in the Twelve. That is apparent, because in these verses, Jesus tells them three times not to be afraid. The first time is in verse 26. There he tells them not to be afraid of those who treat them poorly because these are the same people who treat him poorly as well.
[Another side bar here: The rest of verse 26 is striking. It says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret will not become known.” Hmmmmm…Those words from Jesus’ lips ought to strike a note of fear in the hearts of our elected officials in Washington. Wouldn’t you agree?!]
The second time our Lord tells his disciples not to fear is in verse 28. There Jesus tells them, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…” The threat of death may be the most powerful form of fear in our world. Kings and dictators have regularly used this form of fear and intimidation from the earliest times of recorded history right on down today. Jesus does not deny that it is a real concern for his disciples. Nor does he deny that rulers have the power of life-and-death over their subjects. But Jesus says such threats of violence should not become the determining factors in their lives. Instead, they should keep their attention focused on God, because it is God alone who has the power of life-and-death over both body and soul…
The third time our Lord talks about fear is in verse 31. After explaining to the disciples that God infinitely cares for each one of them—even to the point of counting the very hairs on their heads and that God values even every single sparrow, he tells them, “So do not be afraid, for you are of more value than many sparrows.” It is God’s infinite love and mercy that guides the disciples in their mission—love and mercy that is the basis of his dealings with them…
As if what Jesus has been telling his disciples was not startling enough, he caps it off by discussing family relationships. He says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s own foes will be members of one’s own household.” Strange words coming from someone who taught his disciples a few chapters earlier, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God…”
You all know that, for most of my roughly 40 years in ministry, I have worked in the music ministry of local churches. As a part of my ministry, I have had the opportunity to work with children’s choirs, youth choirs, youth praise bands and youth praise teams. And in some churches, I have had the additional responsibility of the entire church’s youth program as well. In talking with the parents of the kids with whom I have worked over the years, I have had some great conversations about their hopes and dreams for their kids. Sometimes they have told me that they hope their kids are able to excel in their activities and in their studies to become doctors, or lawyers, or engineers, or scientists or any number of other things. But in all the conversations that I had over the years, no parent ever told me
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that their fondest desire for their child was for their son or daughter to experience the call of God in a way that would result in their becoming a full-time missionary overseas. Never. Once.
It seems to me that a lot of times, the parents of the kids involved in church wanted them to have just enough of Jesus to keep them out of trouble. They wanted enough Christian teaching to keep their kids out of jail or off of drugs or to prevent them from becoming pregnant. However they did not want their kids to have so much Jesus that it would really transform them. They did not want the kind of dedication to the Lord that could only be satisfied by their kids making the decision to serve God in some kind of vocational ministry. A few kids did over the years…but in most cases, I am pretty sure that it was not a decision that was enthusiastically embraced at their home…
This is the kind of thing that Jesus is talking about in the final verses of today’s text. Jesus says the call to discipleship renders all other claims upon one’s life secondary. One’s identity and one’s allegiance cannot be tied up in any other person or group other than Jesus. Even the claims of family—which are often the most precious and intimate of relationships to be found on this earth—must take a back seat to the commitment of one’s life to Christ. Jesus will brook no competition…He has to first in our lives, regardless of the potential fallout…
As the sermon comes to a close, I want to read a poem from a 17th Century hymn writer named Paul Gerhardt. Gerhardt is widely regarded as one of Germany’s greatest hymn writers. He is known to have written 132 hymns, the most well-known of which is one we often sing during Lent, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Many of his hymns came to the attention of English-speaking churches through their translations by John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist church.
The poem “Give to the Winds Thy Fears” is a hymn that Gerhardt wrote in the wake of what is known as “The Thirty Years War.” This was a devastating war in which armies, famine and the disease known as the Black Death ravaged Europe. Historians tell us that over 8 million people died in that conflict—fully 20% percent of the population of central Europe. Gerhardt was only 11 years old when he watched his hometown burned to the ground by an invading army of Swedish soldiers. It was only the first of many tragedies that would befall him…
To tell the truth, Paul Gerhardt could have given Job a run for his money when it came to the trials and troubles that he faced. All but one of his six children died in infancy and his wife died at a young age after a long illness. And not long after she died, Gerhardt was terminated from his church appointment through no fault of his own, even though he was a popular preacher and pastor in the city. After losing his job, he was forced to wander around homeless for two years amid the rubble of war-torn Germany before he was able to find another position. And yet, in the midst of all his loss and suffering, his faith did not waver. He continued to rely on God for hope. And that is why this hymn is as appropriate as ever. Because in every age, there is forever the need to place our trust in God and to give our fears to the wind:
Give to the winds thy fears; hope and be undismayed.
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God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears, God shall lift up thy head.
Through waves and clouds and storms, God gently clears the way;
Wait thou God’s time; so shall this night soon end in joyous day.
Leave it to God’s sovereign sway to choose and to command;
So shalt thou, wondering, own that way, how wise and strong His hand.
Let us in life, in death, Thy steadfast truth declare,
And publish with our latest breath Thy love and guardian care.2
Would that it were true that all of us had that kind of faith each and every day…and in each and every circumstance…So…what are YOU afraid of?
To God alone be the glory! Amen