Acts 4: 5-12; Psalm 23;1 John 3: 16-24; John 10: 11-18
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want. He maketh me to lay down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names’ sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
I want to talk about fear today. I want to talk about fear because fear is something that intimately touches every single one of us here today. We are all scared of something, at some time. What am I afraid of? How much time do we have? Here’s a short list of my personal fears, but be assured there is much more I am afraid of than listed here. I am the father of a child with special needs. I worry about his future when my wife and I are gone. I worry about all of my children and their future. I worry about this church. I worry about the conflict and warmongering in the world today. I am fearful about the state of our environment, and our ability to sustain life on this planet for generations to come. That’s just he beginning of the list, friends – there are so many other fears I have, but I will stop there, except to say this – fear is no stranger to me.
As a child, I remember being described as “anxious” by a psychologist to my mother. Early child memories include me crying in the grocery store when I lost my mother, afraid that she had abandoned me there to fend for my own self. Another early childhood memory involved a leaking water hose on the side of our house that steadily dripped water. No matter how hard I tried to turn the faucet off, it still would leak. So afraid was I that the water droplets coming out of the hose would unleash a flood of water not seen since the days of Noah and the Ark – I would cover the end of the dripping hose with gravel, in the hopes of staving off the inevitable flood that was sure to come. It never occurred to me to ask my parents if they could just fix the leak.
This anxiety and fear would later manifest itself in my adolescence, when I would receive the diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, as it is commonly referred to. That was in 1992, before being diagnosed OCD was considered cool. Now everybody’s OCD – but back in ’92, OCD was new territory.
The Bible is of course full of stories about imperfect, messed up people, who face their fears with courage, not relying on their own strength, but upon the strength of God. One book in the bible – the book of psalms – contains writings written by different authors, who wrote out their fears, describing harrowing, scary, and dangerous situations. Some of the psalms were written by people fleeing for their lives, who did not know whether they would live or die, and they candidly express that fear to God.
We don’t know the context of psalm 23, meaning what was going on when it was written, but it is believed to have been written by King David, who arguably experienced more dark and desolate moments in his life than times of prosperity and success.
But what the author says about fear in this psalm is absolute and true for all of us: “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Every Christian right now is either in the midst of that valley of the shadow of death, coming out of that valley, or getting ready to walk into it. That’s true for all of us. Not one of us is exempt. Know that if you are in the valley of the shadow of death, you are not particularly special. Lots of other people are there, too. Know also that if you are in this valley right now – don’t express self pity about it – “why me?” “why do I have to go through this awful experience?” Because you’re not the only one. Now that might sound like a real downer to you this morning, but the fact that we are either in the valley of the shadow of death, coming out of it, or getting ready to enter back into it – that is not a downer for me. It’s truth, and I receive that truth with gratitude because if you want to find God – go into the valley – that is where God is. It is in that valley of the shadow of death where you will find resurrection, it is where you will find new life.
Last week former first lady Barbara Bush declined any further medical measures to keep her alive. She did so because of her faith in God – which was strong. She was ready to walk into the valley with her God trusting that God is mighty and strong to save. Also last week aboard Southwest Airlines flight 1380, twenty minutes after takeoff, an engine on the wing exploded, and debris from that explosion broke open a plane window. Fortunately, the pilot of that aircraft was former Navy fighter pilot Tammi Jo Shults, who in spite of unimaginable terror on that flight, landed it safely. Tammi didn’t ask to go into the valley that day, but she didn’t have a choice. So she went, with courage, and in that valley of death, she was a miracle.
God walks through the valley of the shadow of death by our side. That’s what the psalm says, and it is true – “thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” So yes, we go into these awful, scary places again and again and again. But God is with us each and every time. We get to be strong and courageous, because we have a God who we get to give all our fear, all our anxiety, and all of our pain to. We don’t need to worry about our lives, or our deaths – God will provide. God will receive your fear.
This runs completely against our culture, by the way. In our culture we are encouraged to trust ourselves, to work hard to secure our own lives and future. That’s not what the psalm says. The psalm says that God has your future. Any attempt to create stability and security in your life will be met with failure, unless you surrender that need for stability and security to God. And when God receives it, God will transform it.
That valley which God brings you through will become your friend. That scary, fearful place you don’t want to go will become your greatest teacher.
When fear comes knocking at your door, as it always will, answer the door with courage, and you will find there’s nothing at the door. AMEN.