"Fear, The Great Motivator"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 14, 2003

Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-18

     As many of us are aware, we human beings have two driving energy fields operating in our lives.  The one is Love and the other is Fear.  Each of our responses has its origin in one of these two parent emotions.  Regardless of how in touch we are with our identities and levels of confidence, when circumstances present themselves in a form that evokes strong fear, we can become  immobilized for a period of time.

     Many years ago while living in Cheverly, I was installing a new television antenna on the chimney of our parsonage.  I was tightly focused on mounting the bracket that would eventually hold the pole.  Unbeknownst to me, our son, Steve, had followed me onto the roof.  He was a toddler at the time and had crawled out the same bathroom window which I had left open.

     When I heard him say "ball", I quickly cast my view in the direction of the sound.  There he was standing inches from the gutter on the front of the house two stories above the ground.  His eyes had spotted a tennis ball that must have become lodged there many years ago. The moment I saw him standing close to the edge of the roof, I became so weak that my legs could not sustain my weight.  Initially, I was unable to speak. My fear imagined him falling and landing on the concrete steps below.     

     I managed to say, "Steve, please come to Daddy. I want to show you something."  He looked at me and was obviously trying to decide which was more important, Daddy or the ball.  However, he started walking toward me as he continued to look over his shoulder at the ball. When he was close enough, I took his hand, and the two of us went back through the window where we met his mother.  Needless to say, Lois delivered a well-deserved terse monologue regarding my carelessness. 

     Most of us have stories about dramatic moments where fear shaped how we order our lives.  Once our Angel Gang spent nearly an hour talking about older relatives who engage in the practice of hiding money throughout their homes or securing good jewelry in the toes of their dress shoes.  Many of them had sustained substantial losses in 1929, a time when numerous banks failed.  Their fear of a repeat performance framed their distrust of financial institutions. 

     A very painful divorce can cause people to be afraid of developing new relationships. Being bitten by a dog as a child can produce enormous fear of even the bark of small pets.  People can have an unfortunate experience while attending a church and decide never again to set foot in another one.          

     As many of us have come to realize, fear can place our lives in a prison from which escape can be very challenging. Some of us can become scarred for life. We can experience anxiety attacks at the thought of driving across the Bay Bridge. There are people who have never flown in an airplane and become emotionally overwhelmed at the mere thought of flying. 

     Right now in America we have the makings of a horror movie.  An extremely virulent strain of the flu virus has outcropped in 24 states.  There have been numerous deaths. Circumstances have become complicated because we find ourselves without enough vaccine that "may" be helpful in reducing the symptoms of this new bug.  People may develop the fear of going into public places just as citizens were when the snipers were on the prowl.

     We could go on and on with examples.  Fear is such an extremely powerful motivator for molding our behavior that we may have difficulty living up to the expectations found in the teaching,

     There is no fear in love.  Perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in their ability to extend love.  (I John 4:18) 

     As we continue our walk during this third Sunday of Advent, we will notice from our lesson that John the Baptist employed the use of fear very effectively in his preaching.  He got results by the way he forcefully delivered a message that predicted the coming wrath of God. While pacing up and down the bank of the Jordan River his words thundered across those who had assembled:  

You snakes!  Who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send?  Do those things that will show that you have turned away from your sinful deeds.  Do not start claiming that your Jewish heritage will save you.  If God wanted to, He could make these stones into Abraham's descendants.           

     People were coming into the desert in droves to hear the utterances of this wild man.  Tax collectors and members of the Roman army stepped forward and asked what they could do to escape the wrath that was coming.  John told them precisely what to do.   

     What is so interesting about John's message is that even though he appeared angry that so many people were responding favorably to his preaching, he understood the central message Jesus would eventually bring into the world. What was that message? As we examine John's words, exactly whose arrival was John announcing?  What kind of person would this new messenger be? 

     John taught, "Someone is coming who is much greater than I am.  I am not good enough to untie his sandals.  The one who comes after me will have a tool with him to thresh out all the grain and gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out."  Then Luke continued his narrative, "In many different ways John preached the Good News to the people and urged them to change their ways." 

     There are two things about John's message that are intriguing.  First, notice that the concept of "The Good News" was being used by John before Jesus entered into ministry. The Good News had to do with people changing their thoughts, attitudes and habits.  John never mentioned anything about the creation of a new Jewish state or a Messiah who would become associated with a political uprising.  John understood that salvation would come by changed minds and hearts.

     Secondly, John's choice for one of his metaphors is very interesting.  He was not proclaiming a division between "the sheep and the goats" that is often presumed by readers of this passage.  He was talking about a threshing process, where the essential elements of people, the grain, would be harvested and stored in a barn, while the outer husks, the chaff, would be thrown away and permanently eliminated. 

     During the Advent and Christmas season, we enjoy the stories we see dramatized on television that deal with people whose minds and hearts have become changed.  We  watch with great interest when others shed their husks and reveal their essential nature.            

     Charles Dickens captured such an event with his words when he described what happened when the mirrors of Christmas past, present and future were held in front of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Every season we watch again the glorious transformation of his miserly ways to the generous, his self-absorption to good will and his condescending attitudes to expressions of sheer ecstasy and delight.

     In the beginning fear gripped Ebenezer Scrooge.  He saw who he had been, who he is and how his life would end.  Then he realized it was not too late.  He could change his personal history, and by doing so he could dramatically affect the lives of others.  Fear had awakened him, but it was his choice to love that produced the results that followed. 

     The husks were discarded revealing the essential kernel of wheat Ebenezer Scrooge had been all his life.  What associates and "friends" of Scrooge had been responding to were his husks, not the spirit which had been asleep within him. Fear has the power to keep our spirits under wraps, wraps that prevent our light from escaping.

     We have to remember that "God so loved the world that He gave us His Son." God understands humanity thoroughly.  God knows our confusion over what values to keep and which ones to discard.  God knows how we define ourselves with objects, relationships, wealth and poverty, issues of justice and injustice, right and wrong. 

     Jesus came into our midst with the same agenda as the spirits of Christmas past, present and future.  Dickens correctly interpreted the message of old.  Jesus did not come to deliver a message of doom or even one that would inspire fear or invite despair.  He came to teach us about our true identity, the being God created a little lower than the angels. His message became like a blueprint we could follow in building a life that would have substance, purpose and meaning. That is the Good News.

     Many years ago I had taken the Metro to Northern Virginia to attend a meeting.  When I exited the train at Virginia Square, there was no one on the platform but a woman who was having an anxiety attack.  She was hyperventilating in utter panic.    

     When I went over to her, she began to back up.  I said, "Can I help you?"  She was silent and was obviously very frightened of me.  When I tried to get closer, she continued to back up.  I kept my distance as I continued speaking to her in soft tones.  She would not move beyond her level of distress.  I just relaxed and looked at her until she produced some response that I could understand.  I was not going to leave her.

     Finally, she placed her hand on her chest and said, "Russian. No English." Those words explained a lot.  I did not know what she thought about Americans, but obviously for a long time we were considered the mortal enemies of her people.  Guessing that she was lost, I walked over to the map on the wall.  She approached me very cautiously and handed me a piece of paper.  On it was written, "Metro Center."  As soon as I read it out loud she exclaimed, "Metro Center!  Metro Center!"  The recognition of those sounds caused her to relax.

     I showed her where she was on the map. I held up 8 fingers to illustrate that she had gone 8 stops too far.  I motioned for her to follow me.  When we got on the other side of the tracks, I non-verbally communicated that she had to count the stops. Then I pointed to the sign, "Virginia Square" and said, "Metro Center."  She made the connection.  The orange line train was approaching.  As she boarded the train I held up 8 fingers. She smiled and held up 8 fingers as the doors on her car closed.  Her drama had ended. 

     Sometimes life is like that. All kinds of experiences can cause us to feel as though we, too, are standing on a Metro platform in a strange land.  There are no symbols we recognize and we feel alone.  We can be overwhelmed with fear that we are lost, and we have no one who can give us directions that will lead us back to familiar surroundings.        

     I believe this is why Jesus came into the world. He grew up to understand that we needed a different kind of leader from the ones we traditionally follow -- those who will do things for us. Initially we could not speak his language of spirit, but he pointed to various lamp posts that might cast light on our path, e.g., kindness, forgiveness, generosity, hope, letting go of our need to control, letting go of worry, letting go of all the "what ifs" imbedded in our hesitancy to take risks, and letting go of the stuff we carry --  allowing us to trust God totally for the outcome of our lives. 

     God so loved all of us that God gave us a road map giving us directions on how to get home from here, and God placed that map inside of a baby. It was this understanding that provided the stamina, faith and trust for Joseph and Mary as they faced one obstacle after another.  They had to let go of everything they feared.  When they did, a miracle happened. 

     Fear is a powerful motivator, but when we have love in our minds and hearts, this equally powerful energy field becomes as a light in our darkness. The dark night of the soul will surrender to the dawn of a new day.  Has your understanding of Jesus brought that light into your hearts and minds?  Are you using it to understand how your lives are unfolding? When we learn to surrender our fears, the sun rises and a new day for us has just been born.


    Thank you, God, for these moments when we can come together in the beauty of our sanctuary celebrating Jesus' coming into our world.  There was a time when humanity felt so lost in darkness.  For thousands of years, we thought that the nation with the most wealth, power and military might was the winner.  When Jesus came into history, rather than glorify any nation or political point of view, he gave us a clear window through which we could look at you.

    Help each of us to learn that what Jesus taught was a way of life, a unique and highly specific way of thinking and a way of being as we try to live in community with each other.  Yes, we celebrate with tinsel, decorated trees, wreaths, open houses and the opening of gifts.  We ask that as we do these things we also learn how to make his message and his truth  become visible in our lives. 

    Celebrations are easy as they come and go, but we only have one opportunity to teach our children.  We only have one opportunity to make a difference with the days you have given us.  We have one opportunity to surrender the childish "me first" attitudes so that your spirit might more fully radiate through us.  In many respects the world in which we live is very similar to the one Jesus entered.  He sends us now to finish the task that he started.  May your kingdom come to more people because we have lived his message "to love one another."  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .