From Fear to Faith
Sermon preached by the Rev Dr Zachary Guiliano
“Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
There are two kinds of fear in Scripture, one a virtue, the other something like a vice. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says the Proverb, “and the knowledge of the holy one is insight” (Prov. 9:10). This is a fear based in knowledge of our Creator, a reverence for his holiness, a desire to please and honour the eternal God. This is a fear for which we pray, particular at Confirmations. We ask that all those who profess their baptismal faith may be filled with the same Spirit of the Lord that rested upon Jesus Christ: “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11:2). Let their delight be in the fear of the Lord, we say. This is a virtuous fear, and therefore not what our Lord Jesus Christ is talking about in our Gospel reading today, when he says, “Fear not.”
He refers to another kind of fear — one that can become vicious and terrible — the fear of created things and temporary situations, all the changes and chances of life. Such fear can be aroused in us most easily by what we think are existential threats. We lose our job, and immediately we think, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? Where shall we live?” (Matt. 6:31).
We open the paper or social media in the morning , and we see that there was a terrorist attack somewhere in his counry. Our heart jumps.
We have an argument with someone we love, and we wonder: Do they hate me? Will they leave me? Will I be alone?
There’s a whole part of your brain that processes fear, particularly when it is instinctual. I’m not talking about what happens when you read a report or have a conversation about the dangers of red meat or bacon or alcohol. I’m sure you know what I mean: You hear that eating too much red meat or bacon, or drinking too much alcohol might increase your chance of developing cancer a little bit, and one part of you says, “Oh, I’m certainly worried about cancer.” But then a whole other part of you is really just thinking about the next time you can bit into a nice, juicy steak or drink a cool martini. Those are rational fears that don’t seem to sink in the right way.
I’m talking here instead about irrational or instinctual fears, ones you don’t need to think about, situations that terrify you immediately.
The part of your brain that deals with such situations is called the amygdala. It sits low in your skull, and is one of the oldest parts of the brain, in terms of its evolution; we share it with most other vertebrate animals, from birds to dogs to snakes. It’s there to help you react to threats, particularly to move away from them quickly or to move forward neutralize them. If you’ve ever seen one of those cat/cucumber videos online, you know what this looks like. When a cat thinks something truly threatening has snuck up on it, it will leap into the air to evade.
The amygdala springs into action: releasing adrenaline, increasing our heart rate, raising our blood pressure, preparing us for fight or flight. That primitive, animal part of the brain can rise up and swallow the higher level executive functions. This is often a good thing when we are faced with something truly threatening in the moment, like a burning building or a threatening person.
But the problem is that the brain can get confused and start fearing the wrong things. When that happens, we start viewing practically everything as a threat: any change, anything new, anything unexpected. We become driven by anxiety. We no longer believe we are living in a good place; we begin to suspect ill will from those who love us. We enter a dark place, burdened by dark thoughts. Here, our Lord’s counsel is so necessary.
Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
For the fearful, these words are like the opening of a door to someone shut up in a dark room. The light spills in gently around the door frame, and a forgotten world of light and freedom lies on the other side.
It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Fear not.
Are you afraid? Of the world, of times that are always changing, of created things or events outside your control? If you are (and it helps to be honest about this rather than lie to ourselves), then chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel is for you. The whole chapter is about fear, as well as many other besetting sins, vices, and negative emotions and attitudes that can creep up on us Christian people: hypocrisy, lying, shame, self-centeredness, sloth; a denying of the good works and power of God; a grasping, greedy heart — all sins that can be bound up with fear.
But this is also a chapter of triumph over all such degradations of the human spirit. It is a chapter about trust in God, and it summons us to move from fear to faith.
Jesus’ words summon us, beckon us, implore us, gently lead us, when he says, “Fear not, little flock.” It is as if he were saying: Open your eyes. The things you fear will not overwhelm you. They are so small when compared to the goodness and power of God.
“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Can anything in all creation stand athwart the will of God? Can anything harm you irrevocably or annihilate you? Can anything outside you — created and temporal — remove you from that fixed and stable ground of being that is God’s love? (Rom. 8:38-39) His is the love that holds all things together, binding them one to another, and creating harmony (Col. 3:14-17). “No one can pluck [you} out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29).
Consider Abraham and Sarah, our great ancestors in faith, enduring examples for us. They exemplify the attitude that defeats fear. Scripture says they were “too old” when God called Abraham to leave his country and his father’s house, and it would have been perfectly normal if they thought their life was over and all the best years were behind them. But the divine voice called out and beckoned them to a new chapter in life. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered God faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, [Abraham] and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, and as countless as the sans on the seashore.
How great was their faith! And what fears it must have conquered! So they became like a mother and father to all the faithful.
What is God calling you to become? Or, more rightly, since we are all bound to another in this good place, let me ask: what is God calling us to become together? A community of fear — one that shrinks back from the slightest disturbance or change? Or shall we be a community of faith, of trust in God our maker, whose power is great, whose faithfulness is eternal, and who is the architect and builder of our future, as well as our past?
It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, Jesus says. So let us receive it, as a “treasure … that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (Luke 12:33). Let us strive to be worthy of it, in loving and serving. And let us trust in God, whose “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).