“A Sermon for the Fearful” by Pastor Steve Sommerer

19th Sunday after Pentecost October 11, 2020

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            Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

            The sermon text is from Philippians 4: 

            Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. So far the text.

            Do you get nervous as election day gets nearer?  I sure do.  It’s hard to escape the media’s relentless, and often completely slanted portrait, of which candidate is a political messiah and which a political villain.  Of course, media monsters and slimy politicians know the immense power to be had from sowing fear.  If I know Candidate A represents a sharp turn toward Communism, I’ll work hard against him. If Candidate B is secretly trying to kill old people with the Coronavirus, I’ll be quick to apply for a mail in ballot.  Fear is the indispensable tool of every politician, and finally really a tool of the devil. 

But that shouldn’t bother you and me, after all you and I are Christians. You learned the Catechism, “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.”  You know 1 John says, “Perfect love drives out fear.” You remember Jesus warning, “Do not fear the one who can destroy only the body, but fear [God] who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”  Yet, here I am fearful, if my candidates don’t win, the country will never be the same. I try to remember the Psalmist word: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”  

In 1932 FDR gave his Inaugural Address to a nation mired in the Great Depression.  With breadlines and shanty-towns popping up in all our large cities and unemployment surging past 24%, the president entered office with these memorable words: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  FDR ginned up fear to win a landslide in that election, just like every politician gins up fear.  Nowadays, FDR’s condemnation of fear would earn him ridicule as some kind of macho cowboy, and he’d be sent to sensitivity training.  But his words were correct.  Fear paralyzes.  It causes poor choices.

In practical terms, fear has its usefulness.  I have a friend who got bit by a copperhead trying to pick it up by the tail.  I thought that was pretty dumb.  Fear protected me from that mistake.  But that’s not simply fear it’s commonsense.  Coronavirus is serious.  I don’t go out of my way to acquire it, although it is tempting since my health insurance will cover it in full if I get it before January 1. Still, I’ll just wait till it comes on its own, even if it costs me next year.

            What causes you fear and steals your joy?  Is it the election or finances? The Virus?  Is it more the worries for your family getting sick? I know how some of you ache inside this morning over a very ill brother or a spouse in treatments or hurting family? It’s no fun laying awake at night. Hard to rejoice at that.  And no matter how much we’d like to think about whatever is good, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, the devil keeps bringing us back to the mourner’s bench.  

            We’ve named a few things that can make us anxious and troubled and we could grow the list – family and marital issues, school problems or no school problems, arguments among former friends or family feuds, or a job that saps your joy. 

Before we do that, though, let’s note the spiritual roots of anxiety and fear, after all psychologists often tell us nothing can make me angry or sad or bitter or troubled.  An event is just that, a happening just a happening, only I have the power to let it become for myself what college students might call a trigger. 

A political yard sign or a poorly chosen word by a neighbor doesn’t have to sending you plowing through your neighbor’s yard.  Anxiety or worry, like anger, is a choice you make when you see what’s going on around you and choose how you’re going to react.  You can’t make me joyful or sorrowful.  Your actions are your own.  Old school mom’s didn’t have time for a lot of psychological mumbo jumbo when they were sweating over a load of laundry and their kids were pouting – they needed results, so they’d just say something like:  “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.” Dads might say something like, “I’ll give you something to be sad about.” 

            There’s actually a spiritual root of anxiety and despair, just as there’s a spiritual root to all evil and suffering.  “Out of the heart come all evil thoughts,” Jesus said.  We’re sinners, lost and condemned, living in a lost and dying world.  That sinful flesh feeds on anxiety and fear.  Fear makes us controllable.  It doesn’t want me to “Rejoice in the Lord always; or think about whatever things are pure, lovely and commendable.” 

When things are well, my sinful flesh covets more and more.  When money is tight and things are going badly, my sinful flesh cries out anxiously, “Can God really give me TODAY my daily bread?” When I’m sick or a loved one is suffering, when I’m a lonely senior saint and the house seems to big and quiet, my sinful flesh, sows the seed of worry, “Is God really working all things together for the good of those who love Him, those called according to His purpose?”  When the media blasts more virus terror into our ears, we may wonder if some secret medicine will save our life; instead of trusting, I’m not going to live one minute longer than God has allotted for me.   Has God really, in the words of our Isaiah lesson, “swallowed up death forever”?

            There may indeed be health issues that are part of this conversation, but spiritually speaking, the root of anxiety is a faith problem, not a physical one.  The anxiety is a symptom of the underlying cause.  If we can’t rest in Jesus and rejoice in Him, it’s because our god isn’t the true God.  We really are looking to ourselves to take care of ourselves.  Paul said of our sinful nature, “In my sinful flesh there is no good thing” and in Romans 8 “The sinful mind is an enemy of God.” And rather than running to God, my flesh worries how I’ll ever solve my and the world’s problems.

            At this point, however, hopelessness, anxiety, and despair besides being unproductive are also unnecessary.  The reason that we may find hope and contentment and peace is a familiar reason – just a hard one to remember when the storm clouds of life gather over us.  God mounted a DDay Invasion of our broken world to conquer that enemy of our sinful flesh.  God stormed the beaches to rout the devil and stomp out the worst the world has to offer. He did it by sending His sinless Son to a lowly Bethlehem manger. 

            Jesus, who was truly God and yet truly man born of the Virgin, carried in His body the fullest weight of the world’s grief and pain. He carried my and your sorrows and more. Yet, at the cross these didn’t win the day.  He conquered for us death and despair, suffering and sinfulness by suffering its final end – death.  He rose from the dead, rose from the ashes of all that would bind us, to offer us true and living hope. 

If our problem is a faith problem that keeps us from always and only looking to Jesus, Paul has the answer in 2 Timothy 2:  “If we died with Him, we will also live with Him;  If we endure, we will also reign with Him.  If we are faithless, He will remain faithful, for He cannot disown Himself.”

            When you are weak in faith and riddled with anxiety and despair, God’s love and strength towers over you and enfolds you in the unbreakable arms of His Heaven-sent Savior.  When Paul cried out in despair, God’s answer rang out:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Causing Paul to rejoice even in sufferings:  “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak then I am strong” in the Lord.

            The Christian life is cross-shaped.  Jesus said we must “take up our crosses and follow Him.”  Even for Christians trouble and turmoil are the daily cross that you will carry, but for you who are in Christ, you know that God carried this cross to the bitter end and buried it in His empty tomb.  Don’t overcome with the power of positive thinking.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I’m assuring you that in Christ you are already “more than conquerors through Him who loved you”;  that, in Christ, 2 Corinthians says, “These light and momentary troubles are achieving for you an everlasting glory that far outweighs them.”

            We don’t overcome anxiety and turmoil by making lemonade from life’s lemon.  God overcame and gives you the victory through Christ’s blood-bought redemption. Jesus said, “I have told you these things that in Me you may have peace.  In this world, you will have trouble, but take heart I have overcome the world.”

            The strong arm of God’s grace has descended into this world to raise you from fear’s clutch.  “Do not be anxious about anything.”  Jesus Christ is alive, and He’s not weak and helpless to face your problems today.  Pray with the Psalmist:  “I waited patiently for the Lord;  he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and the mire;  He set my feet on a Rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” 

            A couple weeks ago Philippians 1 read, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”  Since God is still the Almighty God who holds you, there can finally be no bad outcome. If we live, God will care for and keep us.  If we die, in Jesus heaven is our home.  And lest you forget it, He poured it right over your head: “As many of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  He feeds you with the medicine of immortality – the body and blood of Jesus in His Holy meal.  He issues you a hotline to heaven by which you call upon His name, “Not being anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition making our requests to God.”

            Like as not, tomorrow you’ll cave into fear and worry. We’ll forget Paul’s word, “Do not be anxious.”  Remember that you are not God.  You take too much on yourself.  He knows better than you how to save you – and how to get you through today.  Jesus is alive and at God’s right hand, ruling all things for your eternal salvation.  So think about that: “Whatever is true, honorable, just, whatever is pure, lovely, commendable, if any thing is excellent or praiseworthy, think about those things…  You can do all things through Christ who gives you the strength.”  Amen.

            And now may the peace of God which surpasses human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.