Fear God? No, Jesus Frees Us from Fear

Fear God? No, Jesus Frees Us from Fear August 5, 2016


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A sermon based on Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid.”

Those are the words that Jesus speaks to begin our Gospel reading for this Sunday. And as I read those words, I feel like Jesus is speaking directly to us.

“Do not be afraid,” he says. And I want to reply, “But Jesus, there’s so much to fear. Aren’t you paying attention? Aren’t you watching the news? Reading the paper? My Facebook newsfeed is constantly telling me to live in fear.”

The truth is that many of us are afraid. Fear seems to be running our lives. Some are afraid of Donald Trump. Others are afraid of Hillary Clinton. We’re all told that ISIS is out to get us, that Iran has nukes, and North Korea recently made another threat against the US. Terror attacks in Europe and the Middle East have us on edge. Closer to home, some of us are afraid of guns while others are afraid of having guns taken away, meanwhile we all fear that the next mass shooting could happen at any time.

Here in Oregon we’re told that we should fear the big one, the massive earthquake off the coast that will drastically change the geographical landscape of the west coast. And on a personal level, each one of us knows that as hard as we fight for health and wealth and job security, there are no guarantees to life.

And Jesus has the audacity to say, “Do not be afraid”? Sometimes I wonder if he’s even paying attention.

But here’s the thing. When Jesus told his followers, “Do not be afraid,” it was because he knew the power of fear. He knew that his followers were afraid. Indeed, Jesus, himself, was afraid.

What were they afraid of? Well, during this time Israel was part of the Roman Empire. Rome controlled Israel, stole the land from the people, and enforced unbearable taxes upon the Jews. And if any Jew was thought to be a threat to Rome, Rome would terrorize and torture them with crucifixion.

So Jesus and his disciples knew fear. In fact, our passage where Jesus says to not be afraid comes from what scholars call Jesus’s “Farewell Discourse.” Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to confront the powers of evil. He knew that when he went to Jerusalem, he would likely be killed by the Roman cross. He knew that his disciples would be scared, and so he prepared them for their fear. In the midst of the coming violence, torture, and evil, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

But how do we not be afraid? For us, as well as for Jesus and his disciples, fear is an ever present reality that’s tries to control us. Demanding that we live by fear of the other. How can we live a life that isn’t based on fear?

Jesus’ answer is to trust in something bigger than our fear. For Jesus, that something bigger was God, whom he called Father. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said, because “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” he immediately talks about God. Why?

It’s because fear often infects our theology. For many people, God is something to be feared. To me, this is the Santa Clause version of God. Santa may be jolly, but he’s actually pretty creepy and scary. In this version, God is constantly looking over our shoulders, making sure that we behave. God has a sheet of paper, and tallies up our behavior, marking if we’ve been naughty or nice. And if we’ve been naughty more times than nice, then God threatens us with eternal hell.

So be afraid. Be very afraid.

But Jesus came to free us from the fear of God. “Do not be afraid” because God is not motivated by making us afraid. Rather, God is motivated by pleasure. It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

To reinforce this teaching, Jesus tells a story about a master and his slaves. These terms are strange to us because we know longer use them. But in the first century, a household was run by a master, who was the oldest male in the house. The master was called the paterfamilias. Pater means father, so the paterfamilias was the father of the family. Everyone was subordinate in relation to the father, who as the master, held all the power and authority. And if anyone got out of line, it was the master’s duty to use his power, violently if necessary, to enforce his willful order.

There was a hierarchy of the master, the sons, the mother, daughters, and slaves. If the master decided to do the unthinkable and break the hierarchy by acting like a slave, he would bring great shame upon himself and his family. Masters often cared for the slaves, but a master would never think about breaking the hierarchy by becoming a slave himself, or by acting like a slave.[1]

Now, here’s where Jesus’ story comes in. He tells his followers to model themselves after slaves whose master has left for a wedding banquet. They don’t know when their master will come home, but Jesus says they are to be prepared for his return.

So far, the story makes sense. The master holds the power in the relationship and the slaves are to serve by preparing for their master’s return. As soon as the master enters the door, the slaves would pamper their master, rubbing his feet, preparing his bath, and feeding him.

Now, in this parable, who do you think is the “God” character? The master or father seems to be the obvious choice. And I think that’s what Jesus meant for us to think. After all, Jesus called God his father. But Jesus makes a huge distinction between God the father and the fathers who were the masters of ancient Roman households. Notice how Jesus tells the story: The master finally comes home. The slaves have been preparing for his return. But when the God character comes home, he flips cultural expectations upside down. Jesus says that when the master returns, he will have his slaves “sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

Jesus radically transforms our understanding of God the father. He says that God is not like a father or master that you have to fear. God is more like a master who does what no master would ever do. God is like a master who renounces his power and sense of honor in order to become one with those who are powerless and who are often shamed by society. Jesus changes the metaphor. God, who is like a master becomes God who is like a slave.

Christian tradition says that Jesus either represents God or even is God in some way. In one of his teachings, Jesus said that he came “not to be served but to serve.”

God is like Jesus, one who comes not to inspire fear over and against his enemies, but one who becomes like a slave, one who comes to serve. Why does this matter? Because throughout human history, people tend to become like the gods they worship. If we worship gods of power and might, we develop the mentality that power, violence, and might make right. If we worship money or material possessions, then we become greedy. If deep down we worship a god we have to fear, then fear runs our lives.

That’s why Jesus teaches us to not be afraid of God. But if we don’t have to fear God, then what about our fellow human beings? I mean, as I mentioned earlier, my Facebook feed is constantly telling me who or what to fear. And before Jesus was killed on the cross, hung up there by his fellow human beings, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he would not have to drink from the cup of suffering and pain that Rome was about to pour upon his body. Certainly he was afraid. And what about his disciples? Did you know that 11 of the 12 disciples were murdered, just like Jesus? And the twelfth disciple was exiled, basically imprisoned, to an island. They all knew fear.

And Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.” Bad things are going to happen, but don’t be afraid. Why? Because throughout human history, when we are afraid we have found someone to blame for our fears. We point the finger at “them,” and seek security by excluding or killing our enemies, all in the name of peace.

But this method doesn’t lead to lasting peace. It’s not the peace of Christ. And so Jesus gave them something bigger than their fear, bigger than fear of their enemies, and even bigger than their fear death. He gave them hope in a better world. Just as important, he gave them a strategy to live into that hope. Because you see, the message “Do not be afraid” is great, but it’s a negative command. We need to replace negative commands with something positive and more hopeful. If we aren’t afraid, what should we be instead?

Jesus didn’t give them an alternative emotion to fear; rather, he gave them an action plan. Instead of blaming someone else, he told them to sell all their possessions and give the proceeds away to people in need. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s kind of a buzz kill. I mean, I have a lot of stuff. Am I really supposed to sell everything and give it to those in need?

I struggle with these kinds of passages. But I think it’s always worth asking ourselves this question – Do we possess our stuff, or does our stuff possess us? Because what Jesus wants is for us to have a good relationship with our fellow human beings. He wants us to live in relationships of love and justice with one another. If we are so consumed with our stuff that our main focus is to get more and more, usually at the detriment of our neighbors, then we have a problem. If that’s the case, then Jesus is probably right – we need to sell our stuff and give the proceeds to those in need. That’s not a punishment for having stuff. Rather, it redirects our focus to the things that matter.

Jesus says that it’s God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. His invitation to sell our possessions and give to those in need is an invitation for us to imitate the Father, who is constantly giving. Indeed, it’s God’s greatest pleasure to freely give us the kingdom.

The kingdom is a way of life that leads not so much to owning more stuff like the advocates of the prosperity Gospel would have us believe, but to relationships of love, compassion, and justice with our fellow human beings. Sometimes our stuff gets in the way of those relationships. If so, then Jesus invites us to do something good with our things – sell them and give to those in need.

But this isn’t just about our stuff. Because we can sell everything we own and still be jerks. No, Jesus wants us to trust that the most important things in life aren’t our possessions. Those things come and go and often distract us from what truly matters. Rather, the most important thing in life is what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” It’s a way of life that leads to relationships of love with all people. It’s an invitation to see God not as a strict or abusive master, but as one who comes to serve.

So, may we come to know the God who serves. May we understand that life isn’t about how much stuff we possess but about relationships of love. And may we know that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Amen.

[1] Information from “The Impact of Household Slaves on the Jewish Family in Roman Palestine” by Catherine Hezser. Accessed on academia.edu on 8/4/2016 here.

Image: Copyright: bswei / 123RF Stock Photo

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