"Where Faith and Fear Collide"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 16, 2006
Genesis 22:1-8; Mark 16:1-8
Each of us has encountered moments when our fear and faith collide. We may find ourselves within circumstances that remind us of being between a rock and a hard place and our fear propels us forward with an enormous amount of anxiety. What causes this is our lack of control during moments of high drama and uncertainty. We find it extremely challenging to prevent our minds or our physiology from responding with fear even though we may remember many reassuring words from the Master that we can defeat this aspect of life.
Numerous times in the Gospels the words “Do not be afraid” appear. The angel Gabriel used these words while reassuring Zechariah when he was told that his wife Elizabeth would become pregnant. (Luke 1:13) Gabriel also spoke these words to Mary. (Luke 1:30) Jesus reassured the disciples just before he climbed into their fishing boat. They had been terrified seeing him approaching them on the water. (John 6:20) Jesus used similar words when a storm threatened to sink the boat in which he had been sleeping (Matt. 8:26)
Each of us has known the collision of faith and fear. One moment Peter was prepared to die for Jesus and several hours later he swore that he had never met the man. How can we confront fear, understand it for what it is and deal with it effectively?
The members of the Tuesday morning Bible study recently examined the Genesis lesson for this morning. This story features the high drama between Abraham, his son Isaac and God. As father and son were preparing to offer a sacrifice to God, Isaac noticed a problem. He said, “I see that you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham responded, “God will provide one.”
As you will recall from the story, Abraham had bound his son and laid him on the pile of wood the two had brought. He drew his knife and was prepared to sacrifice Isaac as God had requested. Before Abraham could kill his son, he saw a ram that had been caught in the thicket. According to the story, God then told Abraham not to harm his son and to use the ram for the sacrifice.
No doubt that same theme was dominant in the mind of Jesus when he was in the garden of Gethsemane for the last time sweating drops of blood, a rare physical condition that can occur when people experience extreme levels of anxiety. Clearly, Jesus did not want to die. Yet, Jesus’ trust in God was sufficient enough for him to know that God would provide.
Now fast forward the story to the time when Jesus was standing before Pilate. Pilate determined that Jesus was innocent. He went outside and said to the crowd, “I cannot find any reason to condemn this man. According to a custom you have, I have always set free a prisoner for you during the Passover. Do you want me to set free for you the king of the Jews?”
Could it be, that for a moment, Jesus thought, “Is this my ram in the thicket? My life may be spared. Surely last Sunday’s crowds that filled the streets will be here. Many of them have heard my message and have been witnesses to many of God’s miracles.” However, when he heard the crowd shouting for Barabbas, Jesus knew that there would be no Divine intervention that would spare his life. Even for Jesus, faith and fear still battled for supremacy.
What happens to us when we realize that God is not going to come through for us as we had hoped? Our miracle drug has lost its effectiveness and the medical community has nothing more it can do but to make us comfortable. Maybe our three year old has a virulent cancerous tumor on the spine that is inoperable. Perhaps our valedictorian daughter was in a car with four other teens, all of which had been doing too much celebrating after graduation. Suddenly the lives of five beautiful students came to an end when their car left the road at a high rate of speed.
There are occasions when we encounter people who have left the church and their faith because they feel that God turned away from them. They prayed and prayed. They got their friends to pray and the worst possible outcome happened anyway. Their faith in a just, loving, sane God became shattered. God did not love them in the way they expected or needed. What then? What then?
Listen again to the four words we considered earlier but now hear them in a different context. “Do not be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here – he has risen.” This is the ultimate ram in the thicket for each of us. When life does not work the way we had planned, never forget that God will always have the final word about you. As Abraham said to Isaac, “God will provide.” With no answer visible for Jesus to discern in the garden, he had to choose between fear and the ultimate trustworthiness of God, just as we do.
No one can convince us that Jesus was not terrified while being nailed to the cross. Every sinew in his body was crying out in pain. Many times he had said, “Do not be afraid” but now it was his turn to practice what he had preached. Think of it: His closest friends had abandoned him. One of his inner-circle had betrayed him. Peter who was the boldest and the most courageous had fled with the rest. Perhaps Jesus even felt abandoned by God. Through his physical frailty, he muttered the words of Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me. I cry desperately for help, but still it does not come.”
Even when God’s presence appears to be absent from the scenes of our personal drama, remember what Jesus spoke to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my followers would fight to prevent me from being handed over to the authorities. No, my kingdom is not here.” (John 18:36) And do you know what? Neither is ours. Once we incarnate, our temporary physical forms begin to age the moment we are born. Almost anything can happen to us while we are here.
The glorious truth is that no matter what we think, no matter what we believe, God has clearly reserved the right to have the final word about each of us. What God created cannot be changed by what we think about the various aspects of creation, most of which we have yet to discover. God does not love some of us by offering eternal life while withholding it from others who do not know or have not yet learned how to conform to the numerous definitions of God’s will for us.
Years ago I performed a marriage ceremony for a classmate of my twin sisters. The husband had no belief in God. He was a captain in our county’s police department. John called me one afternoon from Prince George’s hospital and needed to see me. He had suffered a fairly severe heart attack. When I arrived, he told me of a recent experience.
He was lying on a gurney in a hallway awaiting transport to the operating room. He noticed an attractive nurse walking toward him and he began to flirt with her as John always did with the ladies. In fact, his words to her were no doubt very disrespectful. She screamed. John said, “Take it easy!” Her screams, however, persisted bringing people from everywhere. One of them was pushing a crash cart, a scene that could only mean one thing.
John looked around during the resulting confusion and in the process discovered his body lying still and not breathing on the gurney while he was sitting up. He watched as one of the staff physicians reached through him with the paddles of a defibrillator. John said, “Dick, when that doctor delivered the shock, I became rigid, spun around and I can remember seeing the dots on the ceiling’s acoustical tile as I laid back into my body. Dick, I have to know. What did I experience three days ago?” I said, “John, welcome to my world.” We talked for hours.
When we come into contact with the next level of reality, all previous experiences, assumptions and presumptions are corrected instantly. As the Apostle Paul told his readers, “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror.” (I Corinth. 13:12)
Overnight John became intensely fascinated in spiritual matters. He accumulated a sizeable library featuring volumes on metaphysics, spirituality, faith, prayer and afterlife. He had a curiosity and an insatiable appetite to learn everything he could about the God, who for most of his life, he had neglected getting to know.
The glorious truth today is found in Jesus’ words, “In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would not have told you that I am going now to prepare a place for you that where I am, you may be also.” (John 14:2) Jesus’ understanding of our eternal existence does not get any clearer than this. When we live with such an understanding every day, our need to bow down to fearful thought patterns fades as our confidence grows.
The next time your faith and fear collide, rather than growing bitter and angry that God did not respond as you would have liked, try following Jesus who will lead you to discover what he did. God always provides. There is no greater message for us than this one. Happy Easter!
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, we know how easy it is to disburse the darkness of Jesus hanging on a cross. We celebrate with bright colors, choral anthems and words of remembrance of your son’s death and resurrection. We gather as family and friends to share a meal. We hide eggs for our children and watch their joy in finding them. The intensity of the truth we celebrate today has come and will go. We return to the realities of a world filled with images and illusions where today’s glimpse into our infinite nature fades far too quickly. O God, inspire us to consider how our understanding can change how we make choices, how we think and how we treat each other. Help us to remember that, as you revealed your love through an empty tomb, Jesus invited us to become windows through which others see how experiencing that love has changed our lives. Amen.