An Age of High Anxiety
Matthew 2: 1-12
The last night of 2018 happened the way it usually does for our family. We ordered some pizza, played a few games, then watched the ball drop in Times Square before heading to bed. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary occurred, and when midnight arrived, I was glad to get some sleep. But it didn’t last long. Some time in the middle of the night, I woke up to a fierce wind. I could hear it banging against the house, and before I knew it, my heart was racing faster and I began to sweat. Then I started to have all sorts of thoughts. Should I go move the car? What happens if a tree falls down? What happens is we lose our power? By the time morning rolled around, I was exhausted from all the tossing and turning. And of course, none of those fears had been realized. The trees were still standing. The car was fine. The power was on. And I was left to figure out why I had been so afraid. Fear is a paralyzing problem for many of us. It keeps us up at night, messes with our minds and tempts us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. But it is possible to live with courage despite the things that keep us up at night. Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called “Unafraid,” where we’ll look at some of our biggest fears and explore how faith can help us overcome those fears with courage and hope. Would you read with me…
The 1930’s was a frightening time for our country. In between world wars, and fresh off the devastating stock market crash of 1929, America was looking for a new direction. In 1932, voters made their way to the polls and elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as their next President, hoping his new leadership would usher in a time of rebirth and prosperity. During his inauguration speech, President Roosevelt alluded to the country’s ongoing struggles and challenges, refusing to make light of our nation’s realities. And then he dropped this line that would rally Americans then and now: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
That line has become a part of American history, and has a nice ring to it, but unfortunately, it’s just not true. You and I both know there are very good reasons, and some not so good reasons, to be afraid today. I grow tense when reports surface about nuclear warheads in North Korea, or when the siren goes off down the street or my girls wake up sick and I can’t do a thing about it. In those cases, fear can serve as a healthy response. But sometimes our fears seem overwhelming and start to impact our lives in unhealthy ways. King Herod is a great example of what happens when fear gets the best of us. When he heard from the Eastern Magi that a new king was born, Herod lost all sense of perspective. He felt he was losing control of his future, so he started to act in secret and set his heart on crushing the problem before the problem crushed him. And seeing only what he stood in line to lose, he ordered the annihilation of every boy two years and younger. Talk about a fear-based decision. But that’s the strange power of fear when we open the door and let it in. Anxiety and worry begin to seep in and it changes us. Our bodies suffer, our attitudes suffer, our ability to reason suffers, our relationships suffer. And oftentimes the common link is worry.
Anxiety is one of America’s largest health crises today! Despite having better opportunities, more education and more wealth than any generation before us, we are also some of the most frightened, worried and stressed-out people in all of history! Author Daniel Gardner puts it this way: “We are the healthiest, wealthiest and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid.” And the scary thing is that it’s often viewed as normal. We’ve normalized our fears. We’ve learned to manage our fears and medicate our worries and work ourselves in a way that ignores what’s really going on inside…but nobody would honestly say that’s a good life. We’ve become so accustomed to living with fear that we’re not sure there is another way. And even to suggest there’s another way seems silly. But that’s exactly what God wants us to know! God wants us to know that it’s possible to live with courage and hope.
Listen to these words God speaks to Joshua, who had the unenviable position of following Moses and leading God’s people into the Promised Land: Have I not commanded you, be strong and courageous? Do not be terrified or discouraged, for I will be with you wherever you go. I learned that verse at church camp through a song, and every year when Reagan begins a new grade, I sing that song to her. And it lifts both of our spirits. If you scan the Bible long enough, you’ll discover that God loves to remind us to not be afraid. One of the most commonly repeated sayings throughout is “Do not be afraid.” In fact, it’s one of the more popular sayings of Jesus. He says it more than love your neighbor. And love the Lord your God. And even more than “do unto others as they would do unto you.” And beyond that, some folks like to remind us that there are roughly 365 variations of this command, one for every day of the year! God does’t want us to be controlled by our fears. Like the wise men who followed in faith despite every reason to be afraid, God wants us to approach our lives with courage. But how do we that? How we do live with courage in spite of our fears?
One of the first steps we have to take if we want to live with courage is to face our fears. The questions isn’t if we’re going to face frightening times, but what we’re going to do when we encounter them. Now, this means we probably have to untangle a common misconception that followers of Jesus should not expect fearful situations. That’s just not true. Everyone faces storms in life. It doesn’t matter if you’re King Herod or the Magi, it doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a devoted disciple of Jesus. Everyone faces storms. And if we pretend the storms don’t exist or try to ignore the storms, we’ll never overcome them. This is why we have counselors, therapists and doctors. They help us face our fears and find a new way forward. I see this in the way the Magi responded to the birth of Jesus. There was so much to frighten them, but in faith, they faced their fears of the unknown, entered the storm of Herod’s backyard and found Christ. What a gift! Now compare that to Herod’s reaction of secrecy and rage. Quite the difference, isn’t there? As author Max Lucado writes in his book Fearless, “It’s not the absence of storms that sets us apart; It’s whom we discover in the storm- an unstirred Christ.”
I’m encouraged when I read Scripture to see that Jesus isn’t nearly as afraid as we are. It seems that some of his best work is done in the darkest times, and that gives me hope. Because when we encounter frightening times in life, we need to know that we’re not alone. A month after our youngest daughter was born, she ended up in this hospital, with an unknown illness. It turned out to be the flu, but we didn’t know that for the better part of a day. And let me tell you, that was one of the scariest moments of my life. We had prayed hard for that little baby, and to see her suffering at a month old was almost more than I could bear. But we were not alone. Every step of the way we were joined by a pediatrician who patiently explained every test and and tube and possibility. And it was helpful. I don’t think we could’ve navigated those days by ourselves, and Carmyn’s doctor wouldn’t have let us. In Isaiah, God tells his people, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” God does not abandon us to our fears, nor does He tells they won’t come. But when those times arrive, God’s promise is that He will be with us. Before the storms come, God is already there. In the midst of the storm, God will be there. And when it’s all said and done, God will not have moved. That’s His promise to us, and we can take that to the bank.
If we need any more proof, we only have to look at the events of Holy Week, when Jesus faced his own fears. Make no mistake- this took all the courage in the world. And Jesus wasn’t exempt from trials and tribulations just because he is the Son of God. As he stepped foot in Jerusalem, Jesus understood what was ahead. Enemies would hurl insults. Friends would leave him. Disciples would betray him. He would be beaten, spat upon and his naked body left to die on a cross for all the world to see. And then his body would be tossed into a grave. Talk about some frightening events. But Jesus understood something that we need to remember: God was in control. When we face our fears, it can feel like a perceived loss of control. This is why King Herod acted the way he did. He felt as if everything was slipping away! But the truth is that Herod was never in control. And as much as we’d like to believe otherwise, we’re also not in control. That role belongs to God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end- and it always will. So Jesus, knowing full well that God, and not his circumstances, was in control, faced his fears by getting down on his knees and surrendering everything to God in prayer. And that might be the most important lesson for today.
We can’t control our circumstances, but we can choose to surrender them to the One who can. Our greatest tool against fear isn’t to try harder, work longer hours or drink them away- it’s prayer. Cast all your burdens on Jesus, because he cares. Through the discipline of prayer, we reconnect with the God of the Universe, the One tells the storms to be silent, the One who provides a new way home for the Magi, and the One who keeps the newborn Christ out of Herod’s grasp. But even more important is this: When we prayer, we put ourselves at the feet of One who cares about and- more than we’ll ever know, and loves us with a love that is stronger than anything this world could ever throw our direction. That’s why we can approach our fears with courage, because fear melts in the presence of God’s divine love. 1 John reminds us that perfect love casts out all fear. Big ones and little ones. And nothing can take that away.
I can tell you that I’m not expert at handling fear. If my New Year’s Eve panic attack tells you anything, it’s that I can be as scared as the next person. But prayer gives me a confidence in One who cannot be shaken. Nobody has taught me this more than our friends at Connect Church Recovery. Day by day these courageous people face their fears past, present and future, and most of the time they do it through prayer. And when they don’t have the words to pray, they use a prayer, called The Serenity Prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It goes like this:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.
That’s how we approach our lives with courage instead of fear. Amen.