Faith, Not Fear

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Faith, Not Fear” Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 12:32

Ruth is afraid.  Ever since she got that diagnosis, she wakes in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.  Her thoughts race. She wonders how she’ll pay the doctor’s bills.  She knows how much her kids need her now – they may be grown, but, Lord, they depend upon her common sense and encouragement.  She thinks about her husband Bud and wonders how he’ll get by if she doesn’t beat this.  The man can barely fry an egg.  With heart pounding and the acrid taste of fear in her mouth, Ruth tosses and turns.

Brad is afraid that he’ll never pass the bar exam.  He wasn’t at the top of his law school class, but he worked hard and did all right.  He even took one of those courses that prep you for the two-day test.  But when Brad sits down to take the exam, things don’t go so well. While everyone else seems to fly through the six essays, Brad can’t concentrate or organize his thoughts, and the more he thinks about it, the more stressed he feels.  He feels even worse when he begins to think about paying back his law school loans. He has failed twice.  He’ll try once more, but he doesn’t feel confident. 

Jenny is afraid that she’ll spend her life alone.  She is shy.  A middle child with two overbearing siblings, she learned to keep a low profile growing up. Her work as a researcher is solitary, and since the pandemic began, she has been working remotely.  Her college friends are married with families of their own.  She tried one of those dating apps, but found that the people she met didn’t share her values and had little interest in commitment.  It doesn’t help that Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking. Some days, Jenny feels hopeless about the future.

Abraham was afraid.  He was already getting grey in the beard and long in the tooth when God called him away from his ancestral home in Ur of the Chaldeans.  God promised Abraham and Sarah land and children, so they took a big risk and made the long journey.  Along the way, there had been blessing, a land that flowed with milk and honey, flocks, prosperity, and victory.  But what Abraham and Sarah really wanted, a child, remained an unfulfilled hope.

In this day and age when people may opt to not have children for any number of reasons, it may feel difficult to understand the despair and disappointment that Abraham felt.  In the ancient near east, childlessness was a source of social ridicule and shame.  Tradition taught that God alone governs fertility and opens and closes wombs, so a childless couple must be displeasing to the gods.  This view persevered in the rabbinic tradition.  In Jesus’s day, a childless man could not sit on the Sanhedrin, the governing board of the Temple.  According to the Mishnah, the childless man was reckoned as if menuddeh, “cut off” from all communion with God, like one who has deliberately disregarded divine commands. Some texts consider a childless man to be already dead.  From a purely practical point of view, in those days long before a social safety net, children were one’s heritage and safeguard for care and protection in old age. 

Given that cultural context, we can hear the fear and hopelessness in Abraham’s voice.  God tells Abraham to not be afraid.  God promises that Abraham’s reward will be very great.  But the patriarch laments, “O Lord God, what difference does it make what you give me for I continue childless?”  The questions within Abraham’s question are, “Do you love me, God?  Are you with me? Can you bless me when the world seems stacked against me?”

Fear can get the better of us.  When we are afraid, our body responds powerfully.  Threat kicks our hypothalmus, pituitary, and adrenal glands into overdrive. Primary stress hormones, like cortisol, adrenaline, and nonadrenaline flood our systems.  Our heart rate and respiration soar.  We feel the butterflies of panic.  When we experience chronic fear, like illness, vocational woes, social isolation, violence, or crisis, we experience a reduction in our defenses and adaptive energy.  Pretty soon, we are feeling overloaded, burned out, and fatigued.  Our immune system can be compromised.  Our sleep/wake cycle gets disrupted.  We can’t eat—or we eat too much. Our headaches turn into migraines, muscle aches become fibromyalgia, body aches turn into chronic pain, and difficulty breathing can turn into asthma.  Fear can even affect our spiritual life.  Like Abraham, we may feel bitterness or confusion toward God.  Like Abraham, we may struggle to trust God.  We may even find it hard to be hopeful about the future.

I love how God responded to Abraham.  God didn’t chastise Abraham for his ingratitude.  God didn’t withdraw God’s love in an act of punishment.  God didn’t treat the patriarch like a spoiled child and take away all his blessings.  Instead, God took Abraham outside, into the deep dark of the night before the advent of electric lights.  God called Abraham’s attention to the night sky, the milky way stretched across the heavens like a tent, a dazzling, visual symphony of stars and planets dancing across the darkness. “Take a look at this Abraham,” God promised, “This is what your progeny will one day be like.”

I suspect that Abraham felt very small beneath the night sky. To think that God, who had created that great cosmic lightshow from God’s very self, should care for Abraham!  To imagine that God, who spins the whirling planets, should stand with him in the darkness and promise him a future!  Surely, if the great God of the universe could do all this, then maybe Abraham could trust that God keeps God’s promises.  As faith and trust swelled within the patriarch’s heart, he began to fear less.  His heart slowed, his breath became even, the butterflies of panic in his gut flew away. There beneath the arc of the heavens, Abraham felt peace.

It didn’t happen overnight.  It took fourteen more years.  There were some rocky moments and crises of faith along the way.  But in God’s time, Abraham and Sarah conceived.  They were old as dirt and good as dead when their son was born.  They named him Isaac, which means God laughs, and Abraham and Sarah laughed, rejoicing in the faithfulness of God.

We all contend with fear.  Like Ruth, we have sleepless nights plagued by big and little fears.  Like Brad, we may fear that our dreams just won’t come true.  Like Jenny, we may fear the social isolation and disconnection that are characteristic of our world today.  What are you afraid of?

Abraham reminds us that faith is the remedy for fear.  Jesus knew that.  Indeed, that’s why Jesus encouraged his disciples with the words, “Fear not little flock, for it is your heavenly Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We might write those words off as an empty promise if they weren’t spoken by Jesus, who rose above fear to face head-on the agony of the cross and reveal to us the limitless love that God holds for us.  God, who spins the whirling planets, God, who raised Jesus from the grave, God is more than a match for our fears.  Let that truth swell your heart and bring you peace.  Have faith. Fear less.

Ruth decided that she wasn’t going to allow her fear to get the better of her.  She likes to tell folks that when you can’t sleep, don’t count sheep.  Talk to the shepherd.  She still feels overwhelmed from time to time, but those late-night times of prayer remind her that God is powerful, even when she is not.

When Brad realized that his fear was jeopardizing his vocational future, he went to his pastor about it.  The pastor referred Brad to a counselor who has helped Brad add a few tools to his belt to help wrangle that overwhelming fear, like meditation, breathing exercises, and visualization.  Brad and his pastor prayed together, and Brad has been added to the church’s prayer chain.  He knows that when he next takes the exam, he’ll be better equipped, and he’ll have some caring folks praying for him, too.

One of Jenny’s married friends invited her to come to church.  Jenny is still shy, but in the shared acts of worship, service, and learning, she has found that she is not alone.  There are other folks who have the same values.  They like her for who she is and make her feel welcomed.  In their kindness and love, Jenny can feel God’s love for her.  When Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking, Jenny says that Jesus never had kids, but he left quite a legacy.

May our faith cast out fear.

Resources:

Judith Reesa Baskin. “Infertile Wife in Rabbinic Judaism” in Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/infertile-wife-in-rabbinic-judaism

MJP Atchison. “Children: A divine inheritance” in Religion News Service, June 18, 1996. https://religionnews.com/1996/06/18/commentary-children-a-divine-inheritance/

Jaime Rosenberg. The Effects of Chronic Fear on a Person’s Health. In AJMC, Nov. 11, 2017. https://www.ajmc.com/view/the-effects-of-chronic-fear-on-a-persons-health

Joe Pierre. “How Does Fear Influence Risk Assessment and Decision-Making?” In Psychology Today, July 15, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psych-unseen/202007/how-does-fear-influence-risk-assessment-and-decision-making

Sara M. Koenig. “Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6” in Preaching This Week, August 11, 2013. https://workingpreacher.com

Callie Plunkett-Brewton. “Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6” in Preaching This Week, August 11, 2019. https://workingpreacher.com


Genesis 15:1-6

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.


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