“perfect love casts out fear"
The Sanctuary Sermon for 5/3/20
The Sanctuary Sermon for 5/3/20
“Perfect Love Casts Out Fear” 1 John 4:18, Matthew 2
“Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.”
Here’s a question for all the baby boomers this morning. Is there one of us who wasn’t told at the dinner table, “You’ll sit there until you clean your plate,” as we stared into the abyss of Brussel sprouts or any other vegetable du jour that we feared to bring to our lips? I was a child of Israel looking at the mana on my plate asking, “What is it?”
Speaking of fear, we’ve been fed a steaming plateful of it these past few months with the Coronavirus pandemic as the plague du jour. The fear of it has been an incessant drumbeat that’s been pounded into our psyche through media coverage, and to be honest, I’ve pulled the plug on it. Mind you, I’ve not buried my head in the sand, just ‘distanced’ myself from its coverage. At some point, we’ve got to resume living our lives, however that shakes out. I did a quick search last week on things people fear the most. Nearly all returns had the fear of flying as the number one thing.
Now, if you’re nervous about flying, there’s an app for that. Seriously. It’s called, “Am I Going Down?” It calculates a plane’s chances of crashing in an effort to put apprehensive passengers at ease. According to the app, if you take a flight every day for the next 11,146 years, you’re unlikely to experience even one life threatening incident. Dennis Miller says about flying, “My fear of flying starts as soon as I buckle myself in and then the guy up front mumbles a few unintelligible words, then before I know it I’m thrust into the back of my seat by acceleration that seems way too fast and the rest of the trip is an endless nightmare of turbulence and near misses. And then the cabbie drops me off at the airport.” Ba-da-bump. Well then. I don’t mind flying in an airliner but put me in a Cessna and I’ll begin to speak with the tongues of angels.
Speaking of which, here’s another segue. Do you know that the words, “Fear not” or some variation of, are the most repeated words in the Bible which by the way, were delivered mostly by angels? Spread the news, I’m sure there’s an angel or two in Manhattan delivering “fear not’s” among the mortals on Bleeker Street these days. Now, pretty angels bore me but there’s something about terrifying angels that attract me, to tell the truth. What’s the first thing angels always say when they appear to humans? Right! “Hey human, be not afraid, I’m just an angel sent from God.”
I’ve always assumed angels were more frightening creatures and less Hallmark cherub. But this week as I looked at the text in Matthew about Herod and the slaughter of innocents, or as I like to think of it, the story of Joseph the Protector, I wondered if when angels say “do not be afraid,” that maybe it isn’t a command or a suggestion or an instruction for self-improvement. Maybe, it’s the angelic version of casting a spell, or like using the Force. Maybe it’s less advice for ‘living your best life now’ and more like, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. And ‘poof’ those they speak to aren’t afraid. “Whew,” they say as they wipe their brow and change their shorts. But does becoming less afraid really happen like that? Can we through a force of will remove our own fear like we remove gluten from our diets? Anyway, these are just a few thoughts that were rattling around my too much time on my hand’s empty head last week. Hells bells, this whole world scares me when I wake up every day.
I just know that when fear fills my own heart and brain and even if someone says, “Hey, don’t be afraid.” I’m not like, “Oh wow thanks, I hadn’t thought about that possibility. But now that you’ve said don’t be afraid, I certainly won’t be scared anymore. That’s #sarcasm.
This is why I became obsessed in the last couple days with the idea that just maybe there’s a power greater than ourselves. Really. Oh, I don’t know, just maybe someone, say, like the Holy Spirit who does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. John says that perfect love casts out fear. So, I choose to believe that these angels, real ones or human who come from God with messages for us, come in the form of love. Love that is so forceful it comes out at us like those cans of compressed air that blow the potato chip crumbs and dog hair out of my computer keyboard so it can actually function the way it’s supposed to.
And the thing is, if these angels, real and human have the power in love to change something in us, then why is fear the thing that needs changing? I mean why don’t they come and start off by saying, “Be not a jerk” or “Be not an idiot”? Why “Be not afraid”?
I wonder if it’s because angels are totally hip to the fact that fear is the one thing that would for sure get in the way of hearing what God has to say to us. That fear is the one thing that has to be dispelled in order for us humans to not completely freak out while being told daily that the sky is falling, when life gets hard or when our path changes. Or when like, our fiancé gets divinely impregnated by the Holy Spirit, just as an example. These angelic messengers need those they speak to—to actually listen, and do the next right thing, and the one thing that would surely keep this from happening is fear, so they cast it out.
Early on in Matthew’s gospel he tells us the story of two men. There’s Herod, who is a ruler on a throne of power, and Joseph who is a peasant in an unconventional marriage.
One man is powerful, and one man is not.
And yet the text only describes one of these men as being afraid. And it wasn’t the peasant.
King Herod made the magi tell him where this baby was because he was frightened. Frightened of a baby. Threatened by a prophecy and a newborn. And this fear, this fear that his position in life is so tenuous that it must be fortified by sacrificing whoever it takes – which is not a theory by the way, this Herod guy literally killed two of his own sons because he felt threatened by them. Fear that what he had could be taken away, or fear of not getting what he wanted turned him into a murderous monster. So much so that when he can’t quite locate the right baby, the one that is so threatening to him, he just sends for all the children 2 and under in and around Bethlehem to be killed. Take that in. This is what fear does. Just as an aside I thought all week long as I watched it play out – What is more threatening to the vulnerable than politicians with fragile ego’s and lots of power?
This is what fear does. Fear disguises itself in so many ways: as greed, hate, isolation, addiction…the list is endless. But in the end fear is at the root of all of it. And while you and I might not be murderous tyrants, none of us are free from the effects of fear in our lives. It keeps us isolated and small and it steals away possibility.
But in Joseph we see a different kind of man than Herod. Joseph was not afraid.
An angel came from God and spoke love, was love, embodied love, sought to protect love – like a divine can of compressed air, and this cast out Joseph’s fear so that he could function the way he was intended to. And here’s one clue – one way that we can know that Joseph was not afraid: he didn’t bat an eye when the angel said that his baby and wife weren’t safe so he should take his family to Egypt.
You know, the place where his ancestors were once enslaved.
With fear cast out, Joseph was able to believe it possible that God’s redemptive work can happen anywhere – even Egypt. With fear cast out, Joseph no longer had to see everything through the lens of what it was in the past. With fear cast out, he was able to beat a king, protect his wife and child, and preserve that which is good in the face of tyranny.
Herod’s fear caused death and Joseph’s fearlessness protected life. Of course, the irony is that Herod feared this baby for all the wrong reasons. The Christ child didn’t knock Herod off his pathetic little throne. History took care of that.
No. As this child grew, he knew he had his own throne. Jesus of Nazareth did not overthrow Rome, he laughed at Rome. He saw Rome for what it was: temporary. Fleeting. Harsh and demanding and tyrannical, yes, but temporary.
And this child, protected by the songs of angels and the heart of his mother and the fearlessness of his father, came to free the people. Free us from the shackles of sin and fear. Gospel people are free people and free people are dangerous people. Free people can’t be easily controlled. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people see Rome for what it is.
And you know what?
There are angels hovering round us, good people of God. Perhaps sitting next to you, maybe six feet away, I don’t know. Sharing communion and breaking bread with you, making noise as the children twirl and sing passing the peace with you. There are messengers of love all around. And again, and forever, they say: do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. For in the heart of God there is enough love to cast out fear. It is from this heart we come and to this heart we return, and it beats around us and is shown in the shimmering love of God that absolutely covers this world. There is enough love to speak life over death. There is enough love to cast out our fear. And it is everywhere.
Herod’s and pandemics of the world, take note.
This is the Word of the Lord for today.