August 03, 2010

What Are You Afraid Of?

by Debra Dean Murphy
Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Luke 12:32-40

The gospel writer, Luke, has a habit of prefacing good news with the exhortation “Do not be afraid.” This seems a bit odd since we’re more likely to think that it’s the delivery of bad news which requires a little no-fear pep talk. But over and over Luke’s pronouncements about God’s generous ways of working in the world—about the good news of the kingdom—are preceded by the words “Do not be afraid”:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.”

In this week’s reading from Luke 12, it’s Jesus, not an angel, who says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Why tell your hearers not to be afraid when the news is so happy?

Perhaps it’s because Luke (and Jesus) know that this good news is also disturbing news, unsettling of the status quo, and—fallen creatures that we are—we often prefer our old, familiar, dead-end ways. When Jesus says “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (immediately after telling us not to fear), he pinpoints the source of much of our anxiety: our possessions give us comfort, a sense of security, whether they are objects we’ve acquired or personal accomplishments that define our self-worth. To give up such stuff is a fearful thing indeed.

But the kingdom that God is pleased to give us isn’t about hoarding treasure for ourselves or for our loved ones or for our future (“Sell your 401K, and give alms”). It’s a way of life and living characterized by giving ourselves away for others, over and over again. “Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out,” Jesus says.

The book of Isaiah opens with dire warnings for those unwilling to do this, those caught up in empty ritual—“solemn assemblies with iniquity”—whose “hands are full of blood.” Here we can perhaps make something of a connection between fear and violence. Luke’s repetitive, rhetorical preface to the gospel’s good news—“Do not be afraid”—reminds us that fear, unchecked, can lead to the worst forms of oppression, intimidation, and brutality.

The prophet Isaiah tells the people that such evil is at work “even though you make many prayers.” On behalf of Yahweh he gives the necessary instructions: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

But the people of Judah and Jerusalem surely didn’t think they were evil. They offered what they thought was proper worship. They kept the appointed festivals. They were dutiful, disciplined, attentive to protocol and propriety. We so readily see their hollow devotion and their disobedience. But can we recognize our own?

The grace that God offers—evident in Isaiah and in Luke—is that judgment is always tempered with mercy. We need not fear because the One who speaks to his “little flock” is the Shepherd who guides and feeds, who leads and supplies, giving us all that we need to bear witness to his kingdom. He tells us to “be dressed for action and have [our] lamps lit.” Yet he himself is the light for our path and the source of all our striving.

The words this week that startle and unsettle need to be taken seriously—Isaiah wasn’t kidding around and neither was Jesus. The good news of God’s way of working in the world is also disturbing news. But the words need not undo us. Do not be afraid. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Thanks be to God.


Michael Munk said...

I would also add that the little phrase "Do not be afraid" holds great freight in God's story with his people. At significant points in the story of Scripture, it is the phrase we find whenever God approaches to make or restate covenant (Abraham, Moses, Israel, David) partnerships with his people and other times when his promise keeping is being brought to fruition (i.e., to both Zechariah and Mary in Luke 1). I think of it as God's covenantal calling card. "Do not be afraid, for though I ask you to give up all your self-made securities and to follow me I will be with you to the end. I promise."

Janice Love said...

Thanks, Debra. "Do not be afraid." is actually the most frequent command in the Bible - which says a lot about us and about how well God knows us!

Debra Dean Murphy said...

Thanks, Mike and Janice - you're right to point out that Luke doesn't have a monopoly on "Do not be afraid." It's good to be reminded that the command (and its accompanying promise) are central to our story from beginning to end.

Barry Harvey said...

What y'all say is true, to be sure, but we also see numerous admonitions in the New Testament (including from Jesus) that we are to fear God. How do you deal with the apparent contradiction?

Debra Dean Murphy said...


Different understandings of fear, I think, would be the short answer. But I wouldn't want to minimize your point. Definitely too much of a "nice" God mentality out there.