If I were World Emperor, the first thing I would do would be to ban comment sections on the internet. I’d ban them because they’re completely corrosive to our civil order and because just reading through them can rob you of any faith you ever had in the human race.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
March 8, 2020—Lent II
Part 2 of the series, “A Journey Through the Wilderness
Genesis 12:1–4a; John 3:1–17

But in addition, there is something cowardly about anonymous comment sections. It encourages all manner of hateful and deplorable speech by people who know they can remain safely hidden and free of consequence. If people believe something, they should have the courage of their convictions to attach their name to it. But people are afraid to attach their names to opinions they know are loathsome to others.

But people are often afraid to attach their names to opinions that are merely unpopular. There are folks who are reluctant to stand out from the crowd, to draw attention to themselves as opposing popular consensus. There’s a fear of ostracism that can take hold of us even if we’re not white supremacists spouting off our discredited racial theories online.


There’s something of that fear going on in this morning’s Gospel lesson, though it’s often missed.

Jesus and Nicodemus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, African American Painter, 1899

In the lesson from John’s gospel we have Jesus being visited by a man named Nicodemus who starts off by saying,  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

That’s pretty good. That’s a fairly strong assertion and a bold claim.

Jesus responds, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” After which Nicodemus responds, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

From here begins a conversation on being born of water and spirit. And Jesus goes on to deliver a discourse on the importance of spiritual birth and on other matters esoteric, concluding with a statement that God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten son—words that most of us know well.

But my purpose today is not to focus on the conversation so much as the context of the conversation. See, we are told at the outset that Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” This suggests that Nicodemus was a follower of Jesus but afraid to be found out as one. He was what is called a “crypto-Christian”—a hidden, secret Christian.

There are number of scholars who believe that the Gospel of John was written just for such crypto-Christians, for those Christians who were afraid of going public for fear of the social consequences. Indeed, by the time the Fourth Gospel was written in the mid-to-late 90’s of the first century, the divisions between the synagogue and the church had been completed: Jewish believers in Jesus were being thrown of their synagogues, cut off from their family, friends, and community all for the sake of confessing Jesus as their Messiah. Where Jewish and Christian had not been seen as a contradiction in terms when Paul was writing or when the Gospel of Mark had been written, now, here in John’s time, the two are seen as terms and identities in conflict.

And so, it is seen as at least a partial goal of the Gospel of John (whose stated purpose is “that you may believe”) [1] to reach out to these crypto-Christians like Nicodemus and encourage them to make a public confession of faith.


Now, Nicodemus doesn’t do so, because he is afraid. Afraid of what will happen to him should his faith be made public. He is described as “a leader of the Jews” which suggests he holds a position of respect and authority in the religious leadership. But here he is, coming to Jesus by night and confessing that he knows that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God.”

And yet he comes by night, unwilling to publicly make known his faith. Because of his fear.

A.   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.

Currently, we are in the throes of pandemic fear. Fear of contagion. Of course, this is not the first contagion we’ve been afraid of. Before this there was swine flu, SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola, and so on and so on.

Before we were afraid of viruses, we were afraid of immigrants and Muslims.

Before that we had 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 (again)

Fear of the immigrants. (again) (that one keeps showing up)

Not far from where I used to live is the Washington monument, a foundation stone for which 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 the health concerns we mentioned earlier.

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.

B. The Consequences of Fear

But there are consequences for us if we allow fear to dominate us.

There is a story in the book of Numbers that is instructive. 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.


But as with all our wilderness experiences, when we are in the wilderness, we are not alone; God walks with us and gives us the hope and the grace we need to make it through.

A. Faith: Abram’s example

One of the most celebrated counter-examples of fear in our religious tradition is the example of Abraham. Here he is, in his seventies, having lived his entire life in Mesopotamia, having amassed a considerable amount of wealth, servants, and possessions. Stable and secure in ways that we would no doubt envy.

And God says to him,

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And the very next line reads: “So Abram went.” What’s remarkable about this is that it is rare among the long history of Biblical prophets that a called prophet should not talk back to God. Moses says he’s not a great public speaker. Isaiah says he’s a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. Jeremiah says he’s too young. They all beg off. But not Abram. He just leaves.

That is an astounding act of faith. We often think of Abraham demonstrating his faith when called to sacrifice his son Isaac later on but rarely consider just what a faithful act this act is. He doesn’t know anything about the land he’s going to, where it is, what it’ll be like—only that God has promised to point it out when he gets there.

For most of us, settled in our lives, at an advanced age, knowing that life has been pretty good to us where we are, the idea of leaving it all for some unknown land on a vague promise to be the ancestor of a nation would be terrifying. But Abram responds not in fear, but in faith. And set out.

One of the most powerful weapons against fear is this kind of faith. Now, I don’t mean to say that if we’re faithful we won’t be afraid, or that people who are afraid don’t have faith—that’s not it at all. We will always have fear. There will always be things that frighten us, and reasonably so. This is not an invitation to be reckless.

But what it means is that the faithful person is not bound by fear. The faithful person does not let fear dictate their actions, but faith does.

B. Love: Casting Out All Fear

Years ago, I led a spring break work-service trip to the Cherokee Nation in Cherokee, North Carolina. 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.

Image courtesy Wordle

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 puts things into such stark relief.

Because it helps us to understand the teaching from the First Letter of John that reminds us that:

“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. (1 John 4:16–18)

When we love, we make ourselves open and vulnerable. When we are perfect in love, we are able to respond in faith, that fearless, leave-everything-you-have-and-go-to-a-new-land kind of faith. When we are willing to love and be loved, we find ourselves more fearless, more emboldened, more faithful.

And lest we fear that we don’t have enough love to accomplish this, we are reminded that the God who walks beside us in the wilderness has more than enough love to spare:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”


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.

“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.

Indeed, we have seen that embracing love can indeed overcome our fear. Later in John’s gospel, after Jesus is crucified we read:

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. (John 19:38–39 NRSV)

As one commentator notes, “The willingness to bury Jesus is a willingness to give public expression to faith.” [2] Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows of fear into the light of faith. When we’re in the wilderness of fear, we might limit ourselves to moving by night, but in the light of love and hope, we move boldly by day.

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 old hymn:

“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.”


Genesis 12:1–4a • Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

John 3:1–17 • Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”


[1] “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31 NRSV)

[2] New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 835

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