Summit Presbyterian Church June 22, 2008
Delivered by Jim Eby FEARS AND PHOBIAS Matthew 10:24-33
What are we to do when passages in the Bible contradict each other? Some are quick to throw away the passage that doesn't fit their personal theology. Others are quick to throw out the Bible, because they want a guidebook for life that is consistent from cover to cover. What shall we do when our Bible seems to contradict itself?
The Old Testament is filled with passages that describe God as one who expects all creation to fear him. The Book of Proverbs, in the early verses says: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge..." (1:7)
Psalm 103 is one of my favorites. And in three places it speaks of fear: "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him...", and "as a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him", and finally "But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments."[i]
Psalm 111, in the tenth verse makes the declaration: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..."
Verse after verse in the Old Testament talks about fear. They even seem to think it's a good idea. Fear of the Lord seems to be a major theme of our Old Testament witness.
But Jesus, in this passage we read from Matthew seems to take the opposing point of view, doesn't he? Three times, he tells his disciples not to fear. "So have no fear of them... And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul... Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."[ii]
Now, which are we going to believe and obey? The Old Testament which says we'd better be fearful -- or Jesus, who says three times, "Fear not -- don't be afraid"?
Well, we're to believe and obey both of them.
As members of the protestant tradition, one of our responsibilities, when we find ideas or passages that seem to conflict with one another, is to dig into them a little deeper in our attempt to understand them. That may mean we have to come to some new understanding of them, the way Presbyterian Church has with Paul's words in which he says he would not put women in leadership positions in the church in Asia Minor.
And the way we do that is to follow the instructions of the church as they are recorded in the Second Helvetic Confession, written at the beginning of the time we call the Reformation, in 1566.[iii] There we find our ancestors saying that you interpret scripture responsibly when you do all the following:
1. -- interpret scripture by other scripture -- that's primary
2. -- take into account the language in which they were written
3. -- consider the people and the places to whom and to which the words were addressed
4. --check out the passage against other passages that agree and disagree, which
may be clearer and more numerous.
Then, those four criteria are held together with the cords of the rule of faith and love and the final test question is put: "Does this interpretation contribute to the glory of God and our salvation?"
Okay, now let's go back to our question: "Are we to be fearful, as the Old testament tells us to be, or are we to be fearless, as Jesus commands?"
When we use our rules for interpretation, and turn to the language in which the passage was written, we find that our Old Testament was written in which language? Hebrew. And when you look up the word "fear" in a concordance, you'll find ten different Hebrew words that mean fear. Fear that means to be afraid. Fear that means to have reverence. Fear that means to be terrified. Fear that means to be cautious. And the word that is used most often in our Old Testament, is the kind of fear that means to respect, to revere, to stand in awe. The kind of fear that causes someone to be both obedient and thankful because that one recognizes the word of the Lord and Master, the one who give us life and gives us grace.
Now, our New Testament is written in which language? Greek. How many words do you suppose there are in the concordance for the Greek New Testament word that we translate "fear" in English? Basically, just one -- and in English, we know it as the word phobia. So all the meanings of the ten words in the Old Testament, all the differences between terror and awe and fright and caution are erased, as it were, and are combined in one Greek word -- phobia. And unfortunately, in our English language, to have a phobia is to be frightened to the point of being terrified, almost to the point of not being able to move. We use it in the word claustrophobia -- being afraid of becoming trapped in a small area, like a closet or an elevator. Some one who suffers from claustrophobia is almost paralyzed when they're in a small place. They have trouble thinking clearly; they have trouble acting in a logical way; they're almost frozen in their fear.
All of us have phobias, of one size or another. Young children sometimes fear the dark. Adolescents fear zits and loss of popularity. Older adults fear the loss of health, a diminution of worth and a lessening of acceptance by others. Those in their middle years fear a loss of income, being fired from a job, not getting the next raise or promotion. And there are the nagging little fears; when the kids stay out past the time when they said they'd be home, or when the unexpected breakdown of the washing machine or refrigerator throws the monthly budget out of whack. And there are the bigger ones: the fact of crime and violence in our communities, the wars and rumors of wars. There is much of which to be afraid these days. All of us have phobias, fears that can paralyze us from taking any action.
There was a French psychologist, who gave an unusual illustration in one of his lectures. He placed a four-inch plank across the floor of the room and asked people to walk across it. People did, willingly. Then he had workmen place it on two well anchored pillars, twenty feet in the air, with a sturdy ladder to reach it, and asked people to climb the ladder and walk across the same plank. No one wanted to respond to his invitation.
Why the difference? It was the same plank. The muscles were the same. The mind was the same. The will was the same. It was phobia that made the difference. When the plank was on the floor, there was no mental strain. But when folks were on their own, twenty feet up in the air, they were paralyzed with uncertainty.
Life is something like that. When we have something solid under our feet we walk the narrow way without fear. It is when there seems to be nothing underneath that we get panicky, phobic. When our minds have nothing to feed upon except our own state of mind, we lose our balance. But when we know that we are supported by a solid foundation of divine truth, outside ourselves, we gather confidence and courage. Our restless minds are forever fearful until they find that reality that is God. It is faith that drives out fear. And faith comes when we know that life has divine foundations that are secure.
That's what Jesus was talking about with the disciples then. That's what Jesus would teach you and me today in his three declarations.
Jesus' first command for his disciples was: "Don't be afraid of what people may say."
The second was similar. "Don't be afraid of physical death." Henry van Dyke made an astute observation when he remarked, "Some people are so afraid to die, that they never begin to live." You and I are created to proclaim the Lordship of Christ over all of life, regardless of the cost. There was a church Tom Boyd served in Tennessee where there as an eccentric and flamboyant elder who impressed Tom with her intense commitment to the faith. She did not have a pietistic bone in her body, but her devotion was nonetheless clear and articulate. One evening at a dinner party in her home, they were animatedly discussing some theological idea. In the midst of the give and take, the woman's teen age daughter, probably frustrated with all the high-blown discussion of religion, asked, "Mother, you talk about religion all the time. Why are you so religious anyway?" This query brought a loud hush to the dining table. Her mother paused dramatically, pushed her chair back from the table, stood and responded, "Every morning before you are awake, I rise and walk into the living room. I lift my arms and ask, 'Who's in charge here?' The answer always comes back: 'Not you!' That's why I am religious. Because I am not in charge!"
The final command Jesus gives shouldn't need any explanation. "Don't' be afraid that you are valueless in God's sight." Jesus was born, and lived and preached and healed and suffered and died and was raised from the dead so that you and I might know the "breadth and length and height and depth" of God's love even though that love is beyond our complete comprehension. The one who created you has redeemed you and sustains you.
Those who know the reality, those who dare to hope that it is true, are the ones who can hear Jesus say, "Don't be phobic -- Don't be afraid."
Be awe filled. "Fear the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul."
And then be faithful.
God, you know all that keeps us from following Jesus as you intend us to. Remove any fear that keeps us from glorifying and serving you as you would have us serve. Replace it with awe and reverence so all our moments and days may be filled with the joy of glorifying you and enjoying you forever. In the name of our risen Lord we ask it. Amen. (1755)
[i]. Verses 11, 13, 17
[ii]. Verses 26, 28, 31
[iii]. The instructions there read: "We hold that interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of like and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agree with the rule of faith and love and contributes much to the glory of God and man 's salvation." (5.010)