Do not fear

3rd after Trinity (Proper 3), 25 June 2023, St James

Jeremiah 20: 7–13; Matthew 10: 24–39

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

On the recommendation of a friend, I’ve been dipping into a film series called ‘The Chosen.’

It’s a creative retelling of the life of Jesus, through the eyes of the people who encountered him, and in particular, ‘The Chosen,’ that is, the disciples who followed Jesus—both men and women. Although a huge amount of author’s licence is taken, as with inspired imagination he puts flesh on the bare bones of the gospel accounts, it certainly feels authentic and credible.

What rings particularly true is the depiction of what life was like in 1st century Palestine under the oppressive occupying forces of Rome. There are armoured soldiers patrolling the streets; there are punitive taxes; there is random violence. It’s a hostile, divided world.

And thinking of where we are in the gospel today, as Jesus prepares his disciples for mission, what also rang true was the equivalent episode in which we feel the disciples’ palpable fear and reluctance to put their heads above the parapet in response to Jesus’ instruction to go out in twos to further his ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God, healing and exorcising. They know that they will face hostility, perhaps mockery and rejection, or even violence and it fills them with fear.

Jesus knows that too and he doesn’t mince his words as he prepares them for these possibilities. But at the same time, he has words of reassurance for them.

Three times in the reading we heard this morning, Jesus tells them not to be afraid.

It’s said that the words ‘Do not fear’ appear in the bible enough times for us to hear them at least once a day throughout the year. It’s a familiar refrain to be heard when God is about to act. Whenever angels appear with life-changing news, or when God is about to redirect the course of someone’s life, the first words we hear are ‘Do not fear.’

Fear is a perfectly valid response to situations of danger, and to the prospect of embarking on the unknown. But for someone to just say, ‘Don’t be afraid’ it’s as much use as someone telling you to pull yourself together when you’re feeling down and depressed.

But in the Bible the words ‘Do not fear’ are usually followed by words of assurance: ‘Do not fear, because you’re not facing this alone.’ God says, ‘I am with you.’

So Jesus is frank with his disciples as he sends them out on his mission, there will be people who are hostile towards them, just as they are hostile towards himself.

But don’t be afraid, Jesus says, because there is nothing covered up that will not be uncovered: in other words, be assured, God’s purposes will prevail and will be revealed.

There may well be physical danger, and Jesus knows that he will face this himself in the fullness of time. But have no fear, he says, of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. God has control of all things and takes care of the future.

God recognises and knows what we are living through and even a sparrow cannot fall to the ground out of God’s sight. God has control of the present too, such that even the hairs of your head are numbered; the promises of a faithful watchful God are a hope which doesn’t disappoint, so do not be afraid.

I’m pretty sure that Matthew recorded these words of Jesus, not just as a once only historical moment when the apostles were first sent out. He was also writing for his church community which was certainly facing persecution as they tried to spread the good news of Jesus. And beyond that, his words ring true for every subsequent generation down to our present age.

Those who faithfully follow Jesus will eventually experience that burning fire in their bones which the prophet Jeremiah speaks of. It’s the God-given compulsion to bear witness to the values of truth, justice and compassion which are of God’s kingdom within a culture which largely sits lightly to them. Like Jeremiah, we may find that to speak out risks being met with apathy, rejection, or derision, sometimes even from those closest to you. But to keep silent is not an option either, for God’s purposes will prevail and God will keep stoking that fire in your bones until you can resist it no longer.

God lights that fire within us for all kinds of purposes. Sometimes it’s something big, perhaps a call to leadership within the church or to making a public stand in the face of injustice, conflict, or environmental destruction.

Or it may be quite small and personal such as making a phone call or a visit to a person in some kind of need or offering and receiving forgiveness for a hurt.

None of these things may come easily or naturally to us and even though we feel that compulsion to carry them out, we’re often fearful of what kind of reception we will get. Jesus acknowledges that and says in effect ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway—I am with you.’

It may not be obvious, but I am speaking from experience here. Thirty years or so ago, I would never in my wildest imagination have thought that I could lead worship or stand in the pulpit and preach. My knees would wobble uncontrollably if I so much as had to read the lesson in church. Neither am I going to pretend that I find public speaking easy now.

What I can do is testify to the fact that since I wasn’t able to escape God’s prompting—the burning fire shut up in my bones—I held on to God’s promise that God is with me and God’s watchful, faithful eye is upon me as it is upon even the sparrows, and I am what I am and I do what I do today, despite the fear.

Inspired by Jesus, those first disciples shared the fire that burned in his bones to proclaim the kingdom of God, and they responded to his call. That he was so irresistible in this is what is dramatized so well in the film series, The Chosen, which I mentioned earlier.

Thank God that they did respond, for it’s only through their bold witness and that of subsequent believers in the face of all kinds of difficulties that we are here today. In responding to Jesus’ call to participate in God’s life and work, they found security and life in the love and presence of God. Those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.

Our world may seem very different in many ways to 1st century Palestine, but it’s no less hostile and divided and crying out for transformation in the ways of justice and peace. God continues to call each one of us in countless different ways to participate in the life and work of God’s kingdom.

When we answer that call, we will be blessed with those words: Do not fear, God’s eyes are upon you, and you are safe in the love and presence of God.