Sunday, August 11, 2013

The "Killway"

For six years, we lived a quarter of a mile from a stretch of US 24 listed as one of America's ten deadliest highways. We drove on it every day. Haven't driven on too many of the others on the list.

You Can Choose Your Fear

[This was shared during both worship services with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, and their guests, this morning.]

Luke 12:32-40
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us to resist the call of one way of life, the way of fear. And He invites us to follow another way of life, the way of faith.

The call of every Christian, as Martin Luther puts it in The Small Catechism, is to “fear, love, and trust God above all things.” I love the way Luther puts that because implicit in this statement about the first commandment--”You shall have no other gods before Me”--is an acknowledgement that we all have fears.

But the call of those who have been graced by the forgiveness and love of the God made plainly knowable to the world in Jesus Christ is to fear God above anything else.

Those saved by grace through faith in Christ live each day, despite the uncertainties of this life and of this world, in the certainty that, as Romans 8 says, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We take shelter in God’s love, knowing  that, in the words of 1 John 4:18, God’s perfect love casts out our fear. (Consider that for a moment. It’s as if you and I were boats taking on water representing all of our fears. But the more we pump in the love of God He gives through Jesus Christ alone, the more that fear is displaced and removed from us. God won’t let anyone who allows grace to invade their lives to be sunk by fear, or sin, or death.)

1 John goes on to say that, “fear has to do with punishment.” Yet the Christian who trusts in Christ can live with the serenity of knowing that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

As we entrust our lives to Christ, the things of this world cause us less and less fear. When you know that through repentance in Christ’s Name and His power to forgive your wrongs, your sins no longer condemn you, freedom from fear belongs to you!

Listen: The person who believes in the God Who died and rose to set us free from sin and death is empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to choose their fear.

They can choose not to fear poverty.

They can choose not to fear getting older or having heart attacks or cancer.

They can choose not to fear the low opinions of others.

They can choose not to fear critical family members.

They can choose not to fear the power of their sin to send them to hell, while choosing not to fear the lie that God is incapable of protecting them from the temptation to sin.

They can choose not to fear those who dismiss as weakness or superstition their belief in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ or in the holy Word of God that gives witness to Jesus.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, they can choose, instead, to fear God.

And, by daily repentance and renewal, they ask that through God’s grace, they would fear only God and resist the call to fear anything or anyone else.

The Psalms and Proverbs affirm that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear of God is the first step in the life of faith. When you fear God, nothing else is as fearful.

When we have the fear of God, we acknowledge that God is God, not us.

We know that God is the world’s creator and ultimate judge.

And we know that it’s only God Who can save us from the death and judgment we deserve.

The person with true fear of God gladly and gratefully receives the grace God offers through Jesus Christ, trusting that no matter how many fears may dog us...

God loves us,

God forgives us,

God stands by us,

God has our backs,

God has erased the power of sin over our lives,

God has given us eternity with Him!

Sandwiched between a discussion of what may be our greatest fear in life--the fear of not having enough money--and the need for us to be ready for His return when He will judge the living and the dead, Jesus starts our Gospel lesson saying: “Do not fear, little flock”--flock refers to you and me, the sheep under the care of Jesus Christ, the good shepherd--”Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Years ago, a group led by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury asked Walt Disney to run for mayor of Los Angeles. "Why would I want to be mayor of Los Angeles," Disney asked the group, "when I'm already king of the world?" In the opening words of this lesson, Jesus is telling us how silly it is for Christians, the sheep of His flock, to fear anything in the world when God has already given citizenship in His eternal kingdom to all who believe in Christ.

Now, some people, even some Christians, misunderstand Jesus’ point here.

Jesus doesn’t tell us to rest easy in knowing that through Him, God the Father gives us the kingdom, so that we don't have to care anything about what goes on in this world, just waiting until the Lord calls us home.

Jesus tells us to have no fear of the world so that by fearing only God, we’ll have the courage to do what’s important in this life.

When we only fear the God we know in Jesus, we’re set free to love our neighbors, share the good news of new life for all who believe in Jesus, fight for justice, and help the poor.

The Christian who lives in the certainty of tomorrow can live today with  boldness.

That’s why I so love our Sunday School class, Bible study groups, and women’s group Bible studies. In these groups, Saint Matthew members gather to study how the liberating good news of Jesus sets them free to be God’s people right here, right now, without fear!

Jesus goes on: “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Jesus isn’t here telling us to take vows of poverty.

Nor is He telling us to be spendthrifts.

But He is telling us to travel lightly, to not be encumbered by our money or possessions. There’s nothing wrong with wealth and I believe that God has gifted some people with a greater ability to make money than others. They may not be smarter than anyone else; they just have a Midas touch. But no matter how great a Midas touch we may have, Jesus is saying, whatever wealth has come your way in life, use it for God’s purposes, even the parts you use on your own family's needs for housing, shelter, education, and so on. If we’re more afraid of poverty or the loss of wealth than we’re afraid of God, we will never be loosed from sin and never enjoy the life of grace that Jesus came to bring to us.

And we may never have the freedom to fully follow God's will for our lives. My mentor and seminary professor, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to tell us to never have so many things that we couldn't be ready to move out of the parsonage in three days' time. It's good advice I haven't been able to keep.

In these same words in our lesson, Jesus is also telling us to invest in the right things. Luther once wrote, “I have held many things in my hands and have lost them all. But whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

The only things that will live beyond this world are the God Who made it, died and rose for it, and still keeps it going and the people who belong to Him. Freed of fear, Christians can invest our lives--our time, our money, our brains, our mouths, our emotions, our commitments--in God and in the people God took on flesh to save.

This past week, Becky W. received a check written for $145 to the Hocking Hills Inspire Homeless Shelter. The person who wrote the check, impressed that our congregation recently raised $855 for the shelter, wanted to “round up” the funds we raised to $1000. (I told Becky I was tempted to add more money to the total so that maybe someone else would want to round it up to $2000!) This person's gift is an investment in the cause of God and in the lives of people God loves, and God loves everybody!

Then Jesus says: "Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching.”

In first century Judea, where Jesus lived, weddings could last a week or more. Nobody really knew how long the festivities might go. If a master went to a wedding, his servants could be tempted to see his absence as an excuse for not being attentive to the master's will. They might not even be ready for his return.

Be ready, Jesus is telling us. He, the Master Who is also our Savior, will come again, as we say in the creeds “to judge the living and the dead.”

The only people who will be ready for Jesus’ return are those who are “watching,” the ones who have turned their attention, their allegiance, and their lives to Jesus Christ.

They're the ones who rely on the Savior Who doesn’t demand good works or religious sacrifices or perfection from anyone. That's because He knows we can’t be perfect and that there’s nothing we can do for the eternal God of the universe that He can’t do for Himself. The people who “watch” for Jesus are those who are attentive to His Word and trust in Him, and so, have become His intimate friends. They read and study His Word, partake of Holy Communion, and trust Him with their prayers, making them ready to follow wherever He leads.

In John 10, Jesus calls Himself the gatekeeper and those who follow Him sheep and says: “He calls His own sheep by name...the sheep follow Him because they know His voice.” When you know Jesus and His voice in your life, you needn’t fear. That’s why what you’re doing here this morning, gathering around Jesus’ Word in the fellowship of other Christians is more than just a habit. Imbibing of Jesus' Word and worshiping Him brings tunes your mind, heart, and will to the voice of Jesus, making you ready for anything, even His return. I’m glad that we’re here together today.

The fact is that we all have fears. But we needn’t be controlled by the way of fear. We can be set free from our fears of the world, the devil, and all his empty promises when, through repentance and the forgiveness God bears for us in Christ, we reclaim again every day the promise of the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism: to be our God. We surrender our fears, along with our sins and our lives to Jesus Christ and follow instead, the way of wisdom, the way of faith in Jesus. We fear God above all things and fear is banished from our lives. God sets us free to be and do all that He calls us to be and do. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It’s also the way--Jesus is the way--to freedom from fear and freedom to live.

What fears are preventing you from living with the kind of joy, and hope, and abandon that God wants you to have? In prayer, give those fears day by day to Jesus Christ. Let faith in Jesus overtake the fears of this life. Ask Him to help you to dare to invest your life, your ambitions, your time, and your money in eternal things. Then, with His Holy Spirit’s power, resolve to live from your faith and not from your fears. Dare to live as someone who knows that Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you, that even beyond the gates of death, He will be yours and You will be His. Have no fear! Follow Jesus! Amen!

[I am indebted to theologian Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, editor of The Lutheran Forum and a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, for a portion of her thought-provoking lecture, delivered this past week at the Lutheran CORE theological conference in Pittsburgh. It prompted the exploration of "the fear of the Lord" that appears in this sermon.]