Lent: A Time To Become Unafraid

Sermon delivered on Lent 2C, Sunday, March 13, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; St. Luke 13.31-35.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

In today’s lessons we are reminded in various ways that there are lots of things in life that make us afraid. In fact, the most repeated command in all Scripture is to not be afraid. So how can the season of Lent help us in our fight not to be afraid? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We all can relate to Abraham in our OT lesson this morning. He had just finished risking a dangerous fight with the local kings in his region to rescue his nephew Lot, powerful kings who had a reputation for wreaking vengeance on their enemies, and Abraham had become one by defeating and humiliating them. Then he had done the most inexplicable thing. He refused to take any spoils of war, choosing instead to give a tenth of the spoils to the local priest, Melchizedek, and to restore Lot and his family. You can read about that in Gen 14. This is hardly the way of the world and surely Abraham had to wonder how that would all turn out. And now here is God, coming to Abraham, apparently in a very powerful night vision, making him even more afraid. 

And like Abraham, there are lots of things in our world that continue to make us afraid. There are wars in Africa that are slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocents, wars that rarely get reported in our country. There is war in Europe that does get a lot of press, not all of it accurate, a war that has the potential to explode into another world war, only this time the belligerents have the capacity to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons. There is the very real threat of a cyberattack on our country’s most critical infrastructures, attacks that could cripple our nation if successful. We are enduring rampant inflation driven by exploding fuel costs. Then of course there are the usual tiresome voices denouncing all for which America stands and striving to fundamentally change our values. As we become an increasingly godless nation these voices become more strident and the rancor and strife they create becomes more intense. Abraham would surely have understood.

Then of course there are the personal fears and demons we all carry around. We worry about our health, about our kids or parents, about our bank accounts and career choices. We worry about finding a mate if we are single or about our marriages if we are married. Many of us worry (needlessly) about our standing before God. And of course in the back of our minds we worry about and fear death. Oh, most of us do a fine job repressing and deflecting and denying this reality. We delude ourselves by thinking that we’re not bad people so that God really isn’t all that concerned about our sins and foolishness and folly. That’s reserved for the really bad folks. You know, anyone but us. They are the ones who need to be concerned. But death is universal. It comes to every one of us, even the best of us, because all have sinned and death is its chief wage. Here too, Abraham would surely have understood. There is a lot in our world and lives that make us afraid.

Yet here is God, telling Abraham not to be afraid because God is his shield. Trust me, God tells Abraham and us, nothing will happen to you because I am your shield. I’ll prove it by giving you the offspring and land I promised. Notice what is happening here. First, God promised to give Abraham offspring before Abraham believed God. God’s promise wasn’t contingent on Abraham’s faith. God promised this to his fearful servant out of sheer grace and love for Abraham. Only after the promise was made did Abraham believe God, making Abraham right with God and showing us how to do likewise. And this is critically important because it is in our alienation from God that all our sicknesses and fears are rooted. Think about it. Before our first ancestors sinned against God in paradise, they enjoyed perfect communion with God. God walked with his beloved image-bearers daily in the garden and as a result, Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect health and happiness. Who among us would not enjoy perfect health and happiness living in the direct presence of our Creator and God? Only after human rebellion and sin ruptured our relationship with God and caused us to be alienated from God—Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden, God didn’t hide from them—did we become anxious and afraid and lonely and isolated. Our rebellion has cost us dearly. 

But God did not give up on us. He did not destroy humans and his good creation. No, God called Abraham to be God’s vehicle to restore his good creation and creatures gone bad to their right minds and right order. And it wasn’t until God became human as Abraham’s descendant, Jesus, that God’s plan was fully realized. So here in our OT lesson, we see the power of God at work to rescue humanity and creation from Sin’s ruin. All Abraham had to do was to trust God’s promise. That was what that strange ceremony was all about. Abraham had nothing to fear because God’s word is true and God’s power is completely efficacious—it always produces the desired results. 

Sounds good, right? Trust God. Have faith in God’s promises. But here’s the problem. That is easier said than done! Abraham needed continual reassurance and so do we, precisely because we live in a sin-sick and God-cursed world, and we lack the power and perspective of God! So how do we learn to strengthen our trust in God? The short answer is that we learn to see the power of God at work in our lives and his world so that we have a basis for trust. Nowhere does Scripture ask us to have a blind faith. Faith by definition cannot be proved. But faith needs a basis for the related trust that is part and parcel of it. So how do we learn to see the power of God at work in our lives?

First, we have to know what that power looks like and what it promises. In other words, we have to keep our eyes on the prize. God reminded Abraham that his promise to be Abraham’s shield was trustworthy. Otherwise, how could Abraham eventually have countless descendants? Abraham of course was skeptical because he laughed at the promise when God approached him about it the second time later in this story (Gen 17). But God is God, the God who spoke this vast cosmos into existence and who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Nothing is too hard for God. Nothing. Giving Abraham offspring when his loins and Sarah’s were as good as dead was one way for God to show this to his trusting but skeptical servant. 

For us, the prize is new creation, God’s new heavens and earth, where we will get to live forever in God’s direct presence with all of the benefits Adam and Eve enjoyed in the garden and more. Death will be abolished as will evil and suffering and sorrow and all the things that make us afraid and anxious. Sheer beauty. Sheer life. We will be restored to the fully human beings God created us to be and given the sacred and holy privilege of running God’s world to the glory of God the Father. This prize is worth more than all our lesser prizes and idols combined. It is worthy of our supreme loyalty and striving, or to use St. Paul’s language, it is worthy of our citizenship in heaven whose values we are called to model here on earth, and it is made possible only by the saving Death of Jesus Christ. Forget this prize and we lose our way. That’s why Scripture repeatedly urges us to remember the power of God. For ancient Israel, that meant remembering the Exodus. For us, it means remembering Christ’s Death and Resurrection and the new creation to which the Resurrection points. When we remember the power of God at work in Scripture, it makes it easier for us to recognize the power of God at work in our daily lives, even if that work is nowhere near as spectacular. If we believe God really did speak this universe into existence and raise Christ from the dead, why would it be hard for God to be intimately and actively involved in our lives? Christ died to reconcile us to God and break Sin’s power over us so that we could be citizens of God’s new world as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson. Why then would God abandon us to schlep around in our daily lives without his help? God knows we need him. If he became human to die for us while we were still his enemies, why would he abandon us now that we are reconciled to him?

To be sure, this act of faith is not always straightforward. We believe that Christ died to break Sin’s power over us yet we continue to sin. Why is that? We all know people who have loved the Lord but who died untimely or awful deaths. How was God a shield to them? We see wars and injustice swirl around us. If God is in control, why does God allow this? It appears that increasingly the patients are running the asylum in this county, i.e., more and more people try to convince us that wrong is right and right is wrong, and it makes us afraid. But that does not negate the promise, no matter how dark things look! We are called to live with the apparent disconnect, unanswered questions, and ambiguities. If we could have told Christ’s disciples that first Good Friday that things were gonna turn out all right, they would have looked at us in disbelief. They knew better. Dead people didn’t rise up from the grave. That’s why we must also persevere as we remember. The outworking of God’s redemptive plan requires a marathoner’s thinking and perspective, not a sprinter’s.

That is why it is critical for our faith to remember God’s power when things look bad, and we are called to remember together. As the psalmist reminds us, we need to keep coming into God’s presence as his people and worship him, especially in the midst of our fears, so that God can heal our fears, and where we can find people who know how to live out their faith well and who are willing to mentor us as St. Paul reminds us. God knows we need the human touch and worshiping together and enjoying fellowship together in the Risen Lord’s Presence are critical ways God uses to support and strengthen and inspire us when we are afraid. Let us therefore resolve to use these gifts, these means of grace, to strengthen our faith in trust. After all, as Christ reminds us in our gospel lesson, we worship a God who loves us and wants to mother us in the best possible sense. This reality is also an integral part of the prize on which we must keep our eyes. Great mothers protect, defend, instruct, and love their children, giving them freedom to grow and learn despite their foibles and rebellion. How much more does God our Father love and support and protect us? For you see, whatever happens to us in this world, for good or for ill, is only temporary, only partial. That is why we must keep focused on the truly good and eternal things, the things of God.

And this is where our Lenten disciplines come into play because they are designed to help us do just that. Lent is a season that helps us recall what life is really all about. It helps us focus on God’s beauty and love and power and forgiveness, reminding us the true joy involved in being reconciled to God so that we can truly be God’s image-bearing creatures. It points us to our deepest longings and desires as humans and God’s image-bearers, to be loved and to love, to pursue mercy and goodness and beauty and truth. Lent exposes the shallowness and falsehood of our disordered longings and desires to be selfish and ruthless and cruel, with all the accompanying fear and anxiety. It reminds us our lust for power, sex, money, security, status, and hedonistic pleasure is all a sham and will eventually lead to our eternal destruction as St. Paul warns us in our epistle lesson. None of these things can give life or provide real security because Death is universal and makes these disordered desires a sham and delusion. Lent reminds us what is real and what has real worth. It gives us the opportunity to examine ourselves in the light of God’s judgment and mercy and to develop the holy habits that will help us to remember the power and love of God through prayer, repentance, self-reflection, worship, Bible reading and study, and regular participation in the Holy Eucharist where we feed on the Bread of Life, the very bread that gives us life forever, Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.

There is indeed much to make us afraid in this world, but we have the power to overcome our fears, a power that is not our own, the power of God who loves us more than we dare love ourselves. Let us therefore not throw these pearls to the swine, my beloved. During this season of Lent, let us renew our commitment to Christ who has the power to take away our fears now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.