Rev. Mark Schaefer
Center Brunswick UMC, August 9, 2009
Metropolitan Memorial UMC, August 30, 2009
Numbers 13:25-14:5, 1 John 4:17-20, John 10:7-10

Listen to the audio of this sermon here.

Numbers 13:25-14:5 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.”

1 John 4:17-20 God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”

John 10:7-10 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”


I have a problem with Hallmark. Well, not just Hallmark, really. All the producers of overly sentimental portraits of angels on greeting cards, post cards, and in popular art. The cherubs, of course, are always portrayed as fat babies with wings. The seraphs are usually tall, blonde women—also with wings. There’s just one problem with that: they’re not at all like the cherubim and seraphim that the Bible describes.

The biblical prophet Ezekiel describes the cherubim as “a tetrad of living creatures, each having four faces: of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man. They are said to have the stature and hands of a man, the feet of a calf, and four wings. Two of the wings extended upward, meeting above and sustaining the throne of God; while the other two stretched downward and covered the creatures themselves.” [1]

Seraphs were fiery serpents with six wings, two covering their faces, two covering their feet, two with which they flew. And they sang “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the sanctuary of the Temple before the throne of God.

Given this, it seems to make sense that the first thing angels always say is “Do not be afraid.”

II. Fear Run Amuck

“Do not be afraid.” That’s a good lesson for us as Christians. One, perhaps, that we don’t listen to enough. For there is all too often fear in our religion.

A. Fear in Religion

Every year, our campus ministry community goes down to the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina for a week of service and learning about Cherokee culture and history. We stay at the Cherokee United Methodist Church right on the Tribal Boundary and on that first Sunday morning usually attend services there. After one service there, one of my students remarked, “Wow, I’ve never heard a Bible-thumping sermon about love before.” I talked with the pastor afterwards and said to him, “You know, no one does evangelical Christianity like the Methodists.” To which he replied, “Well, it’s like my dad always used to say, ‘The Baptists will try to scare the hell out of you and the Methodists will try to love the hell out of you.'”

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Image courtesy of

It was on another trip down to Cherokee that I heard something else I thought was really instructive. We attended a sweat-lodge ritual while we were there. The sweat lodge is a ritual of purification and spiritual discipline, as you sit in a small, dark space in which red hot stones are placed in the middle and water is ladled onto them until the heat and humidity become almost unbearable. There are four rounds of prayers that are conducted in the sweat lodge, prayers for healing, prayers for forgiveness, prayers for reconciliation.

Curtis, the man who was leading this particular sweat said something in one of the rounds that has stuck with me until this day. He said, “There are two main emotions in the world. There is love, and there is fear. Out of love come all the good things in the world. Out of fear come all the bad things in the world.”

Two emotions: love and fear. I’d never thought about it that way before. You usually think of love and hate as opposites. Or maybe love and indifference. But love and fear put things into such stark relief.

B. A History of Fear

Fear is certainly something we can understand, isn’t it? Because if ever there were a people who lived in fear, it is us.

First of all, we fear change. We don’t like it when people change our customs or traditions or rituals. Or when we perceive that our world is changing from the familiar world that we remember.

And of course, there is fear of the terrorists.

Before that, fear of the communists.

Before that, fear of the Nazis and the Japanese.

Before that, fear of the communists (the first time around)

Before that, fear of the immigrants.

Not far from where I live is the Washington monument, whose cornerstone was stolen away one night by a group known as the “Know-Nothings” and tossed in the Potomac because it had been donated by the Vatican. You know: Catholics. And we were afraid of the Catholics.

Before the Know-Nothings, there was fear of witches.

Before that was fear of the Indians.

Before that was fear of the land: my cousin tells me that in early sources there is much consternation over these mysterious creatures called skunks.

And then of course in Europe there was fear of the Catholics (which was first fear of the Protestants). Fear of the Hussites. Fear of the Huns. Fear all the way back to the fear of the Parthians that the Romans had.

I am sure that when the first human explorer decided to set foot out of that cave there were a bunch of people terrified by the very idea. Fear has long been a part of our life as a civilization.

And it seems to be getting worse. Because we’ve also learned that fear sells. Our advertising scares you into thinking you have a problem and then comes along with the solution in the knick of time, that they’re happy to sell you. Look at the things we’re encouraged to be afraid of: off-white teeth, bad breath, carbohydrates, hair loss, impotence, growing older, wrinkles, and a whole host of medical conditions that we’d never heard of but that we’d better run out and buy the drugs for.

Fear sells TV ratings. Some years ago, a young woman named Chandra Levy went missing in my neighborhood downtown. She lived right across the street from me. It became a major story because she’d been a Congressional intern and a whole sex scandal involving a Congressman was exposed. But Chandra’s disappearance was still a mystery. One night, while watching TV, a local TV station news promo came on: “A wave of abductions has one local neighborhood living in fear.” Well, that was my neighborhood. So I tuned in. They talked about poor Chandra. But then they mentioned a car-jacking in Shaw. And a car-jacking in Mt. Pleasant. My first thought was: ‘Wait a minute–those aren’t the same neighborhood.’ But then it became even clearer that these crimes weren’t even the same phenomenon. The other two women were back–they’d been carjacked but were safely home now. This was not the same as what had happened to Chandra. But they had managed to scare me enough to watch their newscast. As deceptive as that effort had been.

That TV fear mongering only continues, especially with health concerns: swine flu, bird flu, SARS, flesh eating bacteria, Ebola, swine flu (the first time around, back in the 70’s)

It seems like fear is a staple of our national consciousness. And not just ours, of course, but everyone’s. There is fear of immigrants in Germany and France. Fear of Western hegemony in the Arab world. Fear of instability in Russia. Fear of loss of British Identity in the UK. The Israelis fear the Palestinians. The Palestinians fear the Israelis.

And it seems to me that Curtis was right–the very worst of human history is because people succumbed to fear. Could the Germans have supported the Third Reich if they had not been motivated by fear? Was not the entire Soviet system under Stalin built on fear? Did not Saddam rule through fear? Has not even the Church herself succumbed to fear in the Inquisitions and Crusades? Are we human beings not simply fearful creatures, afraid of the dark?

III. The Consequences of Fear

But there are consequences to a life lived in fear. Grave ones.

The story that we read today from Numbers is an interesting one. After the Exodus and the receipt of the Law, the Israelites send spies into Canaan to search out the land. All of them return saying how dangerous the land is, how strong the people are in it. How impossible it will be for the Israelites to go in. Everyone except Joshua and Caleb. They insist that the land is a good land, a broad land, flowing with milk and honey. But the people of Israel are afraid. They do not want to go into the land. And so, they are made to wander in the desert for 40 years. At the end, the only two who survive from that generation to go into the land are Joshua and Caleb.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the story in Numbers, but the lesson that seems to stand out the clearest is this:

So long as our lives are dominated by fear, we will never be able to enter into the Promised Land.

Because the Promised Land to which God calls us is a land of faith not fear. A land of love. We cannot go in if we are afraid. We will not be open to the possibilities of the Good land if we live our lives in terror. We will wander in the desert for a long time.

IV. Abundant living

As Christians, this understanding should be at the very core of our Christian faith. What Christ has come to bring us is a life free of fear, a life full of love.

Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly…” Jesus is not talking about the Christian get rich schemes that some preachers will try and sell you on. Jesus is talking about living life in abundance–with arms wide open, not closed off in fear.

Jesus proclaimed a message that was not one of fear, but of love and hope. One that gave hope to those who dwelled in fear. Those who feared the uncertainties and injustices of the world were given hope when they understood that not even death had the final say. Love did. Hope did. Fear was conquered.

For we know that the Gospel overcomes fear. How do we know this? Because the Gospel was proclaimed in spite of the fact that the women fled from the empty tomb in fear. According to Mark, these are the only witnesses to the resurrection. These are the only ones to whom the message has been proclaimed. And yet, we know that it is through the women that the message of the Resurrection is proclaimed. Had they not shared what they had encountered we would not be here celebrating this day.

We know that in spite of the fearfulness of the women at the tomb and the disciples at the cross, the message of Christ’s resurrection transformed the world. God can bring faith our of our weakness and failure and even our fear. In spite of our weaknesses and our fear of proclaiming the Gospel, God is powerful enough to work miracles among us and heal us. Indeed Christianity is at its best when it stands up to fear. As Bonhöffer, Niemöller, and Martin Luther King showed us.

We will not always respond in courage. Whether we are like Peter, denying Christ three times, or like the disciples, fleeing from the crucifixion, or like the women fleeing the empty tomb, we will often be overwhelmed by our fear. And yet, God is not deterred by our fear. God raises his Son from the dead in spite of Peter’s denial, in spite of the disciples’ abandonment, and in spite of the reaction of the women at the tomb. God confronts our fear and accomplishes his purposes right through it.


We live our lives between two poles of love and fear. In the brokenness of the world we see fear and all that it brings: anger, hatred, violence, oppression, injustice.

But there is a reason that the Gospel story begins with angels saying “Do not be afraid”

Because the gospel is meant to break the bondage we have to this world, to let us know we are freed from sin, freed from guilt, freed from fear.

Freed to love one another extravagantly. Freed from all the things that have kept us from one another and from God. Freed to enter the Promised Land.

We live in a world of great change. We always have. We live in a world of uncertainty. We always have (whether we realized it or not). We live in a world in which we are not in control. We always have. And that scares us. Our inability to be in control scares us. The uncertainty of the world scares us. Our mortality scares us.

God’s love overcomes our fear of relationship, with God and each other. God’s mercy overcomes our fear of injustice. God’s light overcomes our fear of darkness. And God’s grace overcomes our fear of death by confirming for us the promise of the Resurrection. Through Christ, the grave has lost all its power.

So we might wonder why we’re holding on to all the fear that we do. What does it get us in the end? Might we not better say along with the Psalmist “The Lord is for me, I will not be afraid. What can a human being do to me?” (Psalm 118:6, Heb 13:6)

And while there is a long history of fear, there is also a long history of love. God created the world out of the generosity of love. God entered into covenant with the people out of love. Christ came into the world out of love, gave up his life for us in love. The Spirit came upon the church in love. The great witnesses of the Church throughout the centuries acted out of love.

Paul himself reminds us, that the Gospel, the Good News means we do not have to fear any more:

Rom. 8:38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“Perfect love casts out fear” says the first letter of John. God’s love, grace, and power plow right through our fear. There is no amount of fear that can overpower God’s purposes.

And so, we can face a changing world not with fear, but with hope. We can deal with uncertainty not by retreating into a closed circle, but by opening up our arms wide and embracing the possibilities. We can meet challenges with fear and retreat into the desert, or we can march boldly forward into the Promised Land. And as we do, we can sing the words of the hymn we sing today:

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed, for I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.”


0 thoughts on “Fear

  1. Nice post. I feel like I’ve been learning about this a lot lately, especially regarding fear of the future and fear of what might be in store.

    “What you intended for evil, the Lord intended for good.” Seems to be the verse that has been on loop through my brain though.

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