ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH June 21, 2015
Do Not Be Afraid
Fear is one of our most basic emotions. From the time, we are infants we have instincts, which help us respond to fear when we sense danger or feel unsafe. Fear is something that protects us. It can warn us to be careful. As we know, fear can range from mild to intense depending on the situation and the individual. Fear can be brief or it can last longer. We all have fears of some type. We may grow out of our fears, like our worries about monsters under the bed. Or, we may adopt new fears as we get older; such as fears of height or perhaps even of dying. For many, our fears are a part of who we are and we can control them, avoid them, or face them if needed; however, there are people that suffer from extreme fears, known as phobias. These fears can be debilitating and life changing. Many people who suffer phobias have social phobias or social anxiety disorder, where they fear being publically humiliated or embarrassed in social settings. People that suffer with this disorder find it difficult to speak in front of audiences. Others suffer single phobias which are fears of certain things or situations, such as the fear of animals, fear of the environment (rain, earthquakes etc.), fear of blood/injury, fear of certain situations (claustrophobia, fear of traveling on bridges etc.) and fear of death. Individuals who suffer from phobias, often try to avoid their fears at all costs, while others seek treatments to help them try to cope with their severe anxieties.
For most of the population who do not suffer from incapacitating fears, we may try to face them. We often hear people say they are trying to confront their fears, such as their fear of heights or of flying. Many are not comfortable with speaking in public but they drum up the courage to talk to a group or make an announcement in an attempt to conquer their fear. For a while on T.V. there was even a show called Fear Factor, which had the contestants performing stunts and tasks that revolved around common fears, from tackling heights, to dealing with and even eating insects. The whole premise of the show was to face your fears and outlast the other contestants. In this show, the contestants were encouraged to dig deep and try to discover their inner resolve to get through the tasks. They tried to find a sudden burst of courage within themselves to help them succeed. Societal pressures also have many trying to face their fears so as not to appear weak. This seems to be most apparent with boys, who may push themselves in fear of rejection or disapproval. We often hear the phrase “suck it up” thrown about in an attempt to get people to face their fears. For some reason it is seen as a weakness to try and seek help or encouragement from others when trying to face fears.
However, Jesus tells us that it is perfectly okay to look for aid when we are afraid. The story of Jesus calming the waters is not about confronting fear alone, nor is it about finding lost courage from deep within. Jesus and his disciples are travelling across the water when a great windstorm arises. The strong winds create large waves that start to beat against the hull of the boat. The small vessel is thrown around in the crashing waves and starts to take on water. The disciples are on the deck getting drenched and holding on tight to whatever they can. They are worried and panicking. In fear for their lives, they go to the stern of the boat and wake Jesus from his sleep. They cry out to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” It is only after Jesus gets up and rebukes the wind and the sea, and everything becomes calm that the disciples relax and start to wonder who Jesus really is. From this story, we see that the disciples never pull themselves together. They do not try to find their own inner courage or try to face their fears on their own. In a panic that the boat will capsize, or that they will be thrown over into the raging waters, the disciples run to the back of the boat and call out to Jesus for help. There is nothing heroic in their actions. There is no evidence of the disciples trying to find courage from deep within themselves. This is a story of everyday people who faced fear but couldn’t get through it alone. This is a story about turning to God, particularly when we are afraid or fear a situation.
This story also tells us that it is normal to have fears, and emphasizes that there are indeed things to fear in this world. When a child wakes up in the middle of the night and is crying and upset over a nightmare or something that has scared them, parents often lie down with their child to comfort them. If the child was worried about a monster in the closet or under the bed, the parent may even get up, turn on the lights, and show their worried child that there is nothing there. While they lie close to their child comforting them, the parent may say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” This is a natural reaction for loving parents, trying to help ease the anxieties and fears of their young child. The phrase, “There’s nothing to be afraid of” is said out of love, it is said as encouragement and in comfort, but is it true? Is there really nothing to be afraid of?
Perhaps when we are speaking about monsters under the bed, there really isn’t something to be afraid of, but in life this simple phrase just isn’t true. In reality, as we all know, there are lots of things to fear. Perhaps we shouldn’t spend time lingering on all the possibilities or negative things in life, but it is natural for us to fear or be anxious about possibilities and upcoming events in our lives. A couple of weeks ago I was supply teaching when there was the tornado warnings on. It was all the talk in the staffroom during the first lunch break. You could feel the tension and the anxiety as people spoke about the possibility of a severe storm coming through the area. Just before the recess bell rang, the principal spoke over the public address system informing the staff and students that due to a severe weather warning it would be an indoor recess. The principal didn’t go into great detail but mentioned that if need be the students on the upper floor may have to move down to the ground floor. After the announcement rumors started to buzz throughout the school of a tornado, and as a result many students became very upset and worried about what might happen. In this case, their fears were warranted, although thankfully all we got was a lot of heavy rain. Still, everyday people live in fear, fear of pain, of illness, of surgeries, of loss, of death, of rejection, and of isolation. Others fear losing a job, worry about their finances, possible failures, and even fear of the unknown. Some of these things may seem trivial, while others more legitimate, but ultimately there are many things in our lives to fear.
As we grow in faith, we recognise that fear is real, but we also learn that fear doesn’t have to hold power over us. After the disciples woke Jesus from his sleep, he rose from the cushion and rebuked the wind and the sea, saying “Peace! Be still!” Just like that, the wind ceased and the water became calm. Jesus had the power to calm the environment around him with only a few words. Jesus then asks his disciples two seemingly simple questions, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” In the translation, we read, the disciples reaction is one of great awe, and they speak amongst themselves asking who this man with great powers could be. From this passage, we see that even the disciples, despite following him, listening to him, and watching him perform miracles were still growing in their faith in Jesus. Yet, they too came to recognize that although they had fears about the wind and water, Jesus was with them and he had quieted their anxieties and fears. Fear doesn’t have the last word, because God is mightier than anything we fear. Therefore, with faith and trust we can face our fears knowing that God is with us.
This message of hope and comfort comes to us throughout the Bible. There are many examples of the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” in the Scriptures. We hear it from the angels as they speak to the shepherds in the hills over Bethlehem the night that Jesus was born in the manger. Imagine the fear, the awe, the craziness of it all. One minute they are standing or sitting in the calm of the hills listening to the sounds of the wilderness and watching over their flocks, speaking quietly to each other as they pass the time. Maybe they were even standing there staring up into the night sky at this bright star, when suddenly a multitude of angels descends from the heavens, speaking to them. How shockingly frightening that must have been to them, I’m sure many were ready to get up and bolt from that place leaving their flocks behind. Then they hear the words “Do not be afraid.” Comforting words that say, it’s all right, don’t worry.
We hear these words again when the angel speaks to the women at the empty tomb on Easter morning. After a long couple of days, and dealing with all the emotions of loss, confusion, sadness, and possibly even anger, we find three women getting up early to go to the tomb of Jesus. Then as they arrive, they find the large stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. As they enter into the empty tomb they find an angel who speaks to them and tells them, “Do not be afraid.” We can sense the fear and panic welling up from inside of the women as they came near the open tomb, yet again we find amongst this chaos a comforting voice.
The story of Jesus calming the storm reminds us that we do not need to fear the unknown; we do not need to fear situations that may be out of our control. There are fearsome things in our world and in our lives. There are fierce waves that crash upon our vessels. There are driving winds that toss us about and make it difficult to stand; however, we do not need to fear these stormy aspects of our lives, because we do not have to face them on our own. God is with us to calm the storm; we are not alone in the boat. It is through our faith in Christ that we can face our fears and not let them have dominion over us. We just need to seek and trust Jesus, because he will get us through the storm. The words of the angels are applicable to us, just as they were to the women and the shepherds, because with Jesus in our boat we do not need to be afraid.