One week ago, as most of you were gathered here in this place for worship, my family and I were disembarking from a cruise ship at the Port of Miami. For eight nights and seven days, we enjoyed the pristine waters of the southern Caribbean Sea, which also meant that for eight nights and seven days my cell phone had no reception. In fact, it was placed on airplane mode the entire time. No email, no voicemail, no text messages, no social media, almost zero contact with the outside world. It was magnificent! And so, of course, last week as my family and I disembarked from the ship, it was with great hesitation that I pressed that small green toggle switch to turn off the airplane mode. Immediately, my phone exploded with those read dots that indicated the hundreds of unread emails, voicemails, text messages, and Facebook notifications that had been accumulating all week long. But as all of those various notifications populated my phone, a news alert began scrolling across the top of my screen – “At least 30 people killed in back-to-back mass shootings.” And all of sudden the reality of the outside world came crashing in.
Now the events of last weekend have once again brought to the foreground the host of cultural and political issues that have come to define the age in which we live – issues like gun rights, immigration, racism, mental illness, security, safety, and the list goes on. But this week in the midst of all the noise, in the midst of all the sound bites and debates, I heard a persistent theme, a thread that connected story after story after story – and that theme or thread was fear. Whether it was talk radio or cable news or Facebook comments, the topic of conversation consistently came back to the topic of fear and anxiety. People shared about the ways they are consciously altering their patterns of behavior in order to avoid placing themselves in a vulnerable, and possibly dangerous situation. People are looking over their shoulders in large crowds and they find themselves increasingly anxious in large public spaces. Just a few days ago, a series of loud noises set off a panic in Times Square. The noise turned out to be the backfiring engine of a motorcycle, but fear had already gripped the hearts and minds of hundreds of people. Now we can debate the rationality of these fears. We can discuss the political and cultural issues that feed into these fears. But what we can’t deny is the reality that fear has the capacity to powerfully shape our lives and the world in which we live. To see that reality all you have to do is turn on your phone!
Now this morning, it is in this cultural context of fear and anxiety that we hear the words of Jesus, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Do not be afraid! You see, throughout his ministry, Jesus recognized that fear has the capacity to powerfully shape our lives and the world around us. Over and over again, when men and women are called by God, they are persistently exhorted to not be afraid.
When Zechariah was told he would father a son in his old age, the word of the Lord came to him and said, “do not be afraid.” When Mary was told she would bear a son despite the fact that she was not married, the word of the Lord came to her and said, “do not be afraid.” When Jesus called his first disciples and commissioned them as fishers of people, the word of the Lord came to them and said, “do not be afraid.” When the disciples came to Jesus to announce that the daughter of the synagogue leader had died, and her family was grieving, the word of the Lord came to that family and said, “do not be afraid.” This is the refrain we hear over and over again from Jesus. Every time a person is called by God and commissioned to fulfill their purpose they are commanded to not be afraid.
The problem is that we hear this refrain repeated so often that it begins to lose its meaning. We take these words from Jesus and we print them on plaques that we hang in our kitchen or we engrave them on a keychain or we paint them on magnet for our refrigerator. My friends, these words from Jesus not simply polite words of comfort. They are not simply sage words of advice. Jesus is issuing a radical repudiation of the power of fear in our lives and in the world. Jesus knows that fear has the capacity to enslave us. Jesus knows that fear is like a straight-jacket that prevents us from reaching out and embracing the abundant life that God has for us. Jesus knows that fear is the one obstacle that must be dealt with before we can step out into the fullness of God’s purpose for our lives. And so, Jesus says, over and over again, “do not be afraid.”
Now I used to think that the opposite of fear was faith. But the more I reflect on the life and ministry of Jesus, the more I have come to think that the opposite of fear is freedom. Jesus wants to set us free from everything that holds us back. Jesus wants to set us free from everything that enslaves us. Jesus wants to set us free from the paralyzing power of fear. And when we experience that spiritual freedom, we are empowered to let go, we are empowered to fully surrender our lives we are empowered to let God have his way.
I have shared with some of you before about my first experience participating in a team building exercise called the Trust Fall. A trust fall is when one of the participants stands on a platform about 4-5 feet in the air, crosses their arms, and falls backwards, while the other participants form a human net with their arms, which then (in theory!) catches the person falling off the platform.
The thing that I still remember about the trust fall is the moment when my feet were no longer being supported by the platform, but I did not yet feel any of the hands of my friends underneath my back. Now I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt some fear in that moment. There was some anxiety. Because there was no getting back on the platform. Either my group of friends caught me, or they weren’t my friends anymore.
I used to think about the experience of the Trust Fall as being primarily about the movement from fear to faith. But the more I reflect on that experience, the more I think it’s really about the movement from fear to freedom. Because it requires total surrender. It requires completely letting go of what was in order to embrace what will be. Once your feet leave the platform, there is no going back.
My friends, this morning, no matter what you’re facing in your life.
No matter what challenges may lie ahead of you.
No matter how uncertain the future may seem.
No matter what fears and anxieties you are wrestling with right now.
May you and I have the courage to Jesus set us free, to let go of what has been and to embrace what will be. Our feet will most assuredly leave the security of the platform, but we fall into the arms of the One who loves us! The arms of the One who saves us! The arms of the One who says to us “do not be afraid.” The arms of the One who embraces us, and will never, ever let us go!