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Sermon – April 24, 2011 – Do Not Be Afraid

Sermon for April 24, 2011                                              The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Do Not Be Afraid
Jeremiah 31:  1-6 ,  Acts 10:  34-43,  Matthew 28:  1-10

Modern science sometimes explains stress like this:  that way back in human history, when we were out with our spears hoping to catch an elk unawares, and instead ran into a saber-tooth tiger, Mother Nature had in her wisdom equipped us with a fight-or-flight response.  Our pulse would quicken and our breathing would get going and our muscles would have all the blood and oxygen they’d need for a desperate fight or for running away.  Our brains would shut down, to some extent, to allow instinctive self-preservation a clear field, and all the tension generated in us by whatever fright triggered our reaction would get spent fighting or fleeing.  If we survived, all that stress would have been expended in securing our survival, and we’d blow out a big sigh of relief and steel our nerves for more hunting.  A few millennia on we don’t carry spears into the wilderness amid the prey and predators, but we still have the fight-or-flight thing wired into us, like a vestigial organ.  It doesn’t serve the purpose it once did, for almost anyone, almost ever.  Instead it gets triggered by the myriad aggravations and anxieties of modern life, and electronic media, which can bombard you with threatening-sounding information twenty-four hours a day, keep your fight-or-flight response engaged in standby position for stretches of time it wasn’t designed to deploy.  That’s stress.  You’re bracing yourselves all the time for trouble, and unless you’re working that off in steady physical exercise of some kind, you may need to take medicine to counteract all those physical reactions which aren’t doing you any good.
We know all this.  This is not news.  Many of us now take a prescription or exercise to control our instinctive fight-or-flight response to the rigors of everyday.  We all live with dangers that there is no immediate way to engage and no effective way to escape, and so having our minds go numb while our muscles tense up isn’t doing us any good.  All we get are knots in our necks and backs and overworked circulatory systems.
Another cure for the problem is to meditate.  You can learn to adopt a state of mind which works in a feedback-loop with slower, deeper, more relaxed breathing, and a more peaceful consciousness.  If you’re good enough at that, it is as good for you as jogging or taking the mood stabilizing pill.  That’s as scientific as the rest of it, and it has to do with the complicated connections between our bodies and our minds and our emotions.
See, I started with science and medicine because there’s general acceptance in our culture of the validity of science and of the practical usefulness of medicine, and I worked into meditation, which is a variety of prayer, which gets us to spiritual matters.  Spiritual matters there’s less agreement on, in terms of which faith to practice or what things about God to believe, but a lot of people more or less agree that there’s something to us besides our physical natures, and something to the world besides chemical reactions and the laws of physics.  The benefits of meditation to physical health seem to support those notions.
Twenty centuries ago humankind gave more credit to the validity and usefulness of religion than is universally agreed now.  The question wasn’t whether there was an unseen world inhabited by spiritual energy which interacted with our known world.  Everybody knew there was.  The question was, how did it work?  Nobody doubted that there was a god or gods.  The questions were about the character of the divine, and how people were regarded by the divine.
We remember Easter because the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth believed they witnessed Jesus alive after his execution.  Their experience was of an empty tomb and a risen Lord.  Their risen Lord wasn’t an apparition, or a projection, or anything compelling but insubstantial.  The New Testament has Jesus speaking on Easter day, eating on Easter day, being held onto on Easter day.  Despite the kind of appearing-and-vanishing behaviors we associate with visible spirits, Jesus was in some way as present to them after his resurrection as before.  They couldn’t believe it.  At first they didn’t recognize him, and then something made them recognize him.  They were unnerved, they were incredulous, they were frightened.  But after all that and despite all that they saw and believed, and they believed enough to give the rest of their lives to insisting upon it.   Eventually they were told that if they kept insisting that Jesus had risen from the dead they’d be put to death.  They couldn’t deny it; they all had to be martyred.
Easter had frightened them, at first, but longer term it removed from them the fear even of death.  That fear is what I want to address this morning.  In Matthew’s gospel any time a heavenly being shows up in this world and has something to say, the first thing the heavenly being says to people is “Do not be afraid.”  “Do not be afraid”– God knows who we are, we are creatures wired with this hyperventilating, muscle-tensing, alert but unreflective response to what scares us, and God can’t get through to us when we are like that.  Do not be afraid, God has to say first, because God has more to say.
It’s like what you say to a member of the family when circumstances force you to call at an odd hour, or to be in touch out of the blue with someone who has no expectation of hearing from you.  Right away you let them know nothing’s wrong, because otherwise the odd character of your call will have their minds racing about what the problem might be, and you don’t want to alarm them and you want them to be able to hear you.
A lot of the message– a lot of that longer message which the New Testament authors got out of the experience of Jesus–is about not being afraid.  In the Christmas story we always encounter that greeting of “Do not be afraid” as an incidental phrase to prepare people to hear the important news, and that’s how it strikes us as first in the Easter story, but this Easter I want to emphasize the important news God is giving us that it makes sense for us not to be afraid. “Don’t be afraid” may, from the perspective of Easter, make as much sense as saying “Don’t try to wear gloves on your feet” or “Don’t keep your perishables in the oven and try to cook in the refrigerator.”  Don’t do what doesn’t make sense.  One of the big messages of Easter may be that there is nothing of which to be afraid.
Or, to put it a better way, maybe we should fear the things Jesus tells us to fear and be fearless about the things Jesus says will be okay.  Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid of those who can kill the body but not the soul, but to fear yielding to temptation to wrong and jeopardizing one’s soul that way.
That is as counterintuitive as many things about Christianity, and that raises the question, how could our ancestors in the faith have come up with a religion which teaches us to lose our lives in order to gain them, teaches us that withholding forgiveness may be a worse sin than having the need to be forgiven, teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those who abuse us?  How did we end up with a faith which insists that our security comes not from selfishness but generosity, and that we will overcome evils not with our anger and hate but with our love and kindness?
Does any of that make sense?  It does if Jesus of Nazareth rises from the grave.  Easter presented many puzzles to its witnesses, but it validated the way Jesus told people to live and the way Jesus himself had lived.  The God about whom Jesus always was talking and to whom Jesus always was talking turned out not to be some hoped-for distant deity, but the reliable deliverer they’d been taught about as children.
Matthew’s version of the Easter story is dramatic.  A stone rolled away isn’t enough for him, he has to have an earthquake.  Resurrection isn’t enough for him, he has to have guards at the grave who are so frightened by God’s angel descending upon them that they become like dead men.  But maybe that’s not just embellishment, emphasis, and effort to flesh out the wonder of God’s intervention.  Maybe the helpless, unarmed, tortured and killed Jesus alive and speaking by the power of God is meant to contrast with the representatives of his murderers, the strong, tough, armored and armed men swooning into something like death.  God is in charge, and the force in which the world believes is weak, and peasant women who are in mourning are powerful.  They can be fearless.
Who can be that unafraid in our world?  Not us, not all the time.  But because of Easter we can at least tell ourselves that we should be unafraid.  Afraid you don’t measure up, that you’ll never be the person you should be?  Do not fear.  God loves you.  Afraid you’ll never know the fulfillment your heart suspects ought to be the destiny of a human being?  Do not fear: there’s more to life than meets the eye.  Afraid of change?  Do not be.
Afraid of pain?  Who can avoid that, the fear or the pain?  But Easter goes beyond that, and tells us God brings us beyond that.  Afraid that God asks too much of you?  So perhaps were the first witnesses, sent to be messengers with incredible news, but God didn’t ask too much of them.  Their witness did its work, by the grace of God, and so will yours, so will ours.  From our perspective there always are worries and threats and hints of hopelessness, but Easter’s message is do not be afraid, and more than that:  do not be afraid, and go on being disciples, for resurrection is not just about overturning death, but  living always in the care and company of a living Lord.

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