Sermon March 2

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

March 2, 2014

“Love Casts Out Fear”

I John 4:13-21

Today I want to talk with you about fear. Fear is one of the most paralyzing problems in life. Fear is no stranger to any of us. If we took a poll of people’s fears we would have a formidable list. Several years ago when Psychology Today asked their readers what their fears were, the number one response was the fear of the death of a loved one. The number two fear was serious sickness, and number three was a tie between nuclear war and a financial setback.

We can feel fear’s destructive, debilitating effects in many ways. All through life we struggle with it. The young person is afraid they won’t fit in or that they’ll look stupid. When we enter the job market, we’re afraid we might not get the job we want or that we might not earn enough. We worry about how and when we will meet the right person to marry and are afraid our marriage could turn out a disaster. We fear for our children and our parents. We look forward to retirement but fear it all the same. We fear growing older and we are afraid to die. And there’s a lot of things we fear, maybe most things, that never come to pass. Mark Twain once said that he had faced many troubles in his life, few of which had happened.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about fear. Psalm 27 frames the question for us – “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Tom Wright, the British theologian, wrote: “Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think – ‘Be good?’ ‘Be holy, for I am holy?’ Or negatively, ‘Don’t sin?’ Don’t be immoral?’ No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Don’t be afraid. Fear not.”

Someone else counted up the number of times this admonition from the Lord, fear not or don’t be afraid, appears in the Bible. It’s repeated 366 times. That’s one for every day of the year and an extra for leap year. Most of the admonitions are followed by a firm assurance of the Lord’s presence or a stirring reminder of some aspect of God’s nature – like his faithfulness, goodness, loving kindness, or his intervening power in time of need.

“Fear not” is a message of assurance. It is a reminder that God is on your side, that God is in control of what is going on. If it were just me saying to you – “Fear not,” you could quite legitimately say – “Yeah, but what do you know?” or “Who do you think you are?” And you would be right. I have no power to banish someone’s fears. We need something more than just an appeal to positive thinking.

That’s where I find John’s statement so helpful. He writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” John sets up fear and love as opposites. They cannot co-exist together.

The word John uses for fear means to be frightened; it has the sense of alarm, fright, terror. And John connects this fear to judgment; the dread of punishment. But John says – “Perfect love casts out fear.” That might make us more anxious. We wonder – How in the world are we going to muster up a perfect love to be free from fear? Who can achieve that? But it is God who accomplishes it for us. The word for perfect means that which accomplishes its purpose. Perfect love, that is, the kind of love revealed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, displaces fear. The conquest of fear is accomplished by a love relationship with Jesus Christ. As the love of Jesus Christ becomes more and more at home in our lives, the result is that fear is displaced.

When we talk about fear we have to acknowledge that there is both a healthy fear and an unhealthy fear. There is a right kind of fear, a reverential awe in the presence of God. Proverbs 1:7 says – “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” This is not the fear of dread and fright, but of respect and wonder. And we have to recognize that there are legitimate things to fear. To be afraid of real danger is a healthy thing. In “Moby Dick”, Herman Melville has the ship’s mate declare with a passion – “I’ll have no man in my boat who doesn’t fear a whale.”

However it is fear of the unhealthy type that cripples and distorts our lives. This is the fear that John addresses. John speaks of a fear of punishment. The idea of judgment, final judgment, is a scary thought. We know all about our shortcomings and our failures. And we know that we can’t fool God. If we are not convinced of God’s love for us then fear and dread is all that is left to us. We will never be free of fear until we experience the grace of God that covers all our sins. As Paul wrote – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

Jesus told a parable where a landowner was going on a journey and leaves his three servants in charge while he’s gone. To one he gives five talents, to another two talents, and to another one talent. When he returns he calls the servants to give account of what they have done. The ones with five talents and two talents each made a 100% return on the master’s investment. But then comes the one talent guy. He says – “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

The servant made a critical judgment of the master about reaping where he hadn’t sown and gathering where he had not scattered seed. In reality, just the opposite was true. The master had sown generously with his investment in the three servants and then had graciously given his servants the authority to develop that investment in their own way. The fear of the servant was something inside of him that was projected onto the master. His fear clouded and distorted his perception of God.

John has already proclaimed that God is love. The embodiment of God’s love, the fullness of God’s love, is in Jesus Christ. And Jesus is the perfect love which casts out fear. In the creed we say that Jesus Christ is the one who will judge the living and the dead. That belief is not intended to frighten us. Indeed, it is the source of our greatest comfort. The one who will judge our lives is the one who knows us best and loves us most. It is Jesus Christ who will have the last word on our lives. Our comfort is in the fact that we know the judge. He is our advocate; he is our friend. And he has already pledged his love to us. With Jesus Christ interceding for us there is no one who can condemn us. “Perfect love casts out fear.”

The fears that reside within us can be hard to cope with. In the inner world of our thoughts, emotions, memories and imagination, fears have fertile soil in which to grow. In the musical, “The Sound of Music”, Maria teaches the children how to overcome their fear in the midst of a violent thunderstorm. She tells them to remember their favorite things, things like “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper pots and warm woolen mittens.” When she does this, she loses her fear and sorrow. When we interpret events through the world’s eyes we are operating in the realm of shadow. We fear what we can’t understand; we doubt what we can’t see. What God wants to do is to give us a new way of looking around us, to see events in the light of God’s love and salvation.

When Jesus was with his disciples in a small boat during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, they began to fear for their lives. Jesus calms the wind and the waves and then he asks his disciples – “Why are you afraid?” The answer to the disciples’ fear was the presence of Jesus.

I remember when my daughter was a young child there were times when she was afraid to go upstairs to her bedroom because the lights were turned off and it was dark. It didn’t do any good to explain that there’s nothing there in the dark that can hurt her, because our imagination can be more powerful than our reason. And so I would walk up the stairs with her to her room. And sometimes I would purposely not turn on the lights as we went, just to see what she would do. But by my side she would go without hesitation to her room. Even if the lights were off, she was not afraid. That’s because it wasn’t really the light she needed, it was me.

Jesus wanted his disciples to know that he would not leave them helpless in the restless sea of life. Sometimes the Lord rides out the storm with us and other times he calms the restless sea around us. But most of all he promises to calm the storm within us.

John writes – “Perfect love casts out fear.” The answer to our fears is the God of love. In Jesus Christ we experience the perfect love of God that casts out all fear. Fear paralyzes me; God’s love releases me. Fear makes me think only of myself; God’s love opens up my horizons. Fear focuses on my limitations; God’s love enables me to see God’s limitless power. Without God, fear is all powerful; in God’s presence all fear is banished. Jesus said – “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

At the conclusion of our service, as we sing the congregational response, I want to invite you to make that short verse your prayer for this week.
Surely it is God who saves me;
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense,
And he will be my Savior.

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