Often in both the Old and New Testaments, when God or an angel sent by God encountered human beings, the first thing God or His messengers told people was, “Don’t be afraid.”
One reason for saying this is that it’s intimidating to be in the presence of God or of angels who directly reflect the glory of God.
But there are other reasons for these admonitions. In one of his Christmas sermons, Martin Luther recounts how, on Christmas night, an angel visited shepherds.”Fear not,’ said the angel,” Luther noted. Luther then confessed: “I fear death, the judgment of God, the world, hunger, and the like.”
Luther is right, isn’t he? We fear many things.
Parents fear for the safety of their kids when they send them off to school and when they see their teens get behind the wheel of a car.
Grandparents fear that their children and grandchildren will turn from Christ and the Church.
Employees fear being laid off. Consumers fear that inflation will eat up their savings and retirement accounts.
And with things like COVID, monkeypox, and the re-emergence of polio among the non-immunized over the past few years, people have feared for their health, the health of their loved ones, and for their lives.
Fear is the opposite of faith.
Faith trusts in God, in the promises of God, in the finished work of the crucified and risen Jesus assuring us that God will never leave us nor forsake us and that all who trust–who believe, who have faith–in Jesus will be raised from the dead even as Jesus was raised.
To Christians who receive the Holy Spirit at their baptism, God’s Word says: “The Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. If the same Holy Spirit [The Holy Spirit Who enables you to believe in Jesus. If the same Holy Spirit…] lives in you, He will give life to your bodies in the same way.” (Romans 8:11)
Because faith is foreign to our natures, God even gives us faith in Jesus. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” we’re told in Ephesians 2:8.
Faith overcomes fear when, by the power of the Holy Spirit working in God’s Word, we trust that “the one who believes in [Jesus] will live, even though they die…” (John 11:25)
In saying that fear is the opposite of faith, we’re not saying that we should throw caution to the wind! When the devil tempted Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus didn’t do it. Stupid is still stupid, even when you have faith!
God’s Word tells us that our “bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit…You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Jesus, by His death on the cross, has bought us out of our slavery to sin and death. We believe that these bodies, even after they’ve aged and deteriorated, even after death when we’ve been reduced to dust, will rise to live eternally with God. Since God values our physical bodies so much, we also are called to treat them with reverence.
But, friends, we need never fear that God has forgotten us.
Or that we are alone.
Or that our sins are too great for Him to forgive.
Or that our prayers are too insignificant for Him to hear.
Or that Jesus’ resurrection promises are for everyone but us.
Because God acted on Good Friday and Easter Sunday to save us from sin, death, and condemnation, we need not fear anything!
But as long as we live on this earth, the battle between faith and fear will rage within us.
We see this battle in Abram, later renamed by God, Abraham, the ancestral father of God’s people, ancient Israel, in our first lesson for this morning, Genesis 15:1-6.
The book of Hebrews tells us: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)
Abraham had faith in God. He also often caved into fear, afraid that God couldn’t be trusted to keep His promises. Twice to save his own neck, he lied to kings through whose territory he traveled, claiming that his wife was actually his sister, nearly tripping the kings into adultery with Sarah. Afraid that God had forgotten His promise to provide Sarah and him with a son and many descendants, he went along with Sarah’s plan of impregnating Sarah’s slave Hagar.
Fear causes us to underestimate God and to take sinful shortcuts because we don’t trust God to fulfill His promises.
When we join Abram today, God has just done two amazing things for him. First, he helped Abram, in concert with some local potentates, to save the family of his relative Lot after they were kidnapped by several strong armies. God had accomplished this impossible thing, giving Abram a front-row seat on God’s grace. Then, God sent Melchizedek, the king of a place called Salem, now Jerusalem, and also a priest of God, to Abram with bread and wine as signs that He hasn’t forgotten His promises.
After these things, Abram should be fortified in faith.
Instead, God finds Abram wallowing in fear.
God tells Abram: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1)
Listen, friends, the Law is of God. It’s His perfect will for human beings. Among those laws is that we trust in God. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…” God’s Word tells us. Proverbs 3:5)
But, have you noticed that being told things like, “Trust in God” or “You shall have no other gods before Me” doesn’t make us less prone to putting other things ahead of God? At most, hearing God’s Law, even from the mouth of God Himself, makes us conscious of our need for repentance.
But God’s Law, perfect though it is, cannot save us. It can’t make us righteous, acceptable to God, or prop up any self-driven self-improvement program.
So, after God tells Abram to not be afraid, Abram vents his fears: “‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’” (Genesis 15:2-3)
Think about Abram’s words. “Elohim Yahweh,” he’s saying, “you’ve done some interesting things in my life. But when are you going to come through for me? When will you start paying off on that promise of nations of faithful people descending from my wife and me then?”
Now, God would have been justified in giving Abram a big smackdown at this point.
But it’s now that God speaks not the Law to Abram, but words of promise, what we could call Gospel, good news. “This man [Eliezer] will not be your heir,” God tells Abram, “but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” Then God takes Abram outside and God tells Abram, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them….So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5)
Nothing about Abram’s objective situation has changed as of this moment.
He and his wife are still childless.
They still aren’t sure where they’re going to live permanently.
They can’t see the multitudes of nations that were to issue from them.
But, by the power of the Word of God, by the power of God’s good will for fallen, imperfect human beings like Abram, like you and me, faith supplanted fear.
God, you remember, once brought the universe into existence by speaking His Word into lifeless, disordered chaos. God brings faith into the lives of sometimes fearful people as He speaks His Word of promise and love into our chaos.
And so, the last verse of our lesson tells us that after God had preached His Word of promise to Abram: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
Abram’s faith wasn’t Abram’s accomplishment. Faith, faith that saves us from sin and death, that takes hold of the promises of God, comes to us through God’s Word as a free gift.
Standing under God’s Word of promise, hearing it, receiving it, is what gives us a faith that, in spite of our sins, including the sins of fear, dread, and despair, God reckons to us as righteousness.
It’s the kind of faith that Abraham had when He heard God’s Word.
It’s the kind of faith that turned back to God again and again, even after sin and failure.
It’s the kind of faith that today, the Word of God about Jesus Who died and rose for you, gives to you as you receive it.
In the Law, God tells us, “Do not fear.”
In the Gospel, God says, “I have already overcome all that causes you to fear.”
Today, friends, God tells us we need not be afraid. Nothing this world or our sins can do to us can separate those who take refuge in Jesus, God the Son, Who enables us to trust in the Gospel from the God Who loves us.
Just like Abraham, we may not be able to see how God will fulfill His promises to us. Nonetheless, His Word comes to all who confess in Christ again this morning and tells us, “You belong to God, now and forever.” Amen!