I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recited these verses from John’s gospel at a funeral service. Along with the 23rd Psalm, it’s easily one of the most requested passages of scripture in the Bible.
I say that not only to point out its popularity, but to recognize an inherent danger: The more familiar the words, the greater the tendency to miss the meaning. Take the Apostles’ Creed, for example. Unless you’re intentional, the words will just roll off your tongue, as if you’re on autopilot. Or the Pledge of Allegiance. You can say it without thinking.
You see the problem. So, as we hear these old familiar words of scripture once more, I want you to listen as if you’ve never heard them before. As the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial puts it, I’d like to invite you to “taste them again for the very first time.” The passage begins,
“Don’t let your heart be troubled.
Believe in God. Believe also in me.
In my Father’s house are many homes.
If it weren’t so, I would have told you.
I am going to prepare a place for you.
If I go and prepare a place for you,
I will come again, and will receive you to myself;
that where I am, you may be there also.” (John 14:1-3)
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As I mentioned in the sermon last week, chapters 13-17 of John’s gospel constitute a lengthy farewell. For Jesus, the clock was ticking. He didn’t have much time left. And there was so much to tell the disciples before he was taken away: Love one another (ch. 13). Stay connected (ch. 15). God will be with you. (ch. 16) And, in this chapter, don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid. It may have been the most important word they needed to hear, because there was plenty to be afraid of: The Roman soldiers, the temple guards, the fickle nature of the crowd. Less than a week before, the people had waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into the holy city. In another day or so, they would demand that he be crucified.
Don’t be afraid. It may be the most important word we need to hear, as well, because the world we live in is a pretty scary place to be. I’m told there are new viruses being discovered we’ve never seen before and have no idea how to combat. We live under the threat of a flu pandemic that, if it ever came to fruition, could wipe out a huge portion of the population worldwide. The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate.
Of course, these are the big ticket items that grab the headlines. The fears that often keep us awake at night get in under the radar and seem trivial by comparison … like the little boy who was afraid of the dark. One night, his mother asked him to go out to the barn and bring in a mop bucket. He protested. “Mom,” he said, “it’s pitch black out there.” “Oh, honey,” she said, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you. He’ll help you, if you ask.” Reluctantly, the little boy ventured out into the dark night. When he got to the barn door, he pushed it open just a tad and whispered, “Jesus, if you’re in there, would you hand me the mop bucket?”
Seriously, the fears that cause us the greatest angst seem insignificant to talk about, but, I assure you, they’re real and often debilitating. Left unchecked, they can paralyze us and keeps us from living the abundant life God has promised in Jesus Christ. And so, I’d like to ask you to take a few moments, in the privacy of your own heart, to name your fears. What are you afraid of?
A lot of people are afraid of failure. They avoid making serious commitments because they’re afraid of failing. They’re refuse to take risks and become too vulnerable. They’re afraid if they were to throw caution to the wind they might fall on their face and become the laughing stock of the community. So, they play it safe. Oh, they dream about starting a business or writing a novel or traveling around the world, but they never venture far from their comfort zone. Are you afraid of failure? Some people are.
Other people are afraid of losing control, and that’s related to the fear of change. I got a taste of this back in 1997, when my wife, Donna, died. She’d always taken care of the house, arranged the furniture, hung pictures on the walls. And it always looked so pretty and inviting. I took it for granted. But, after she was gone, I felt this strong impulse to keep everything in tact. I was afraid to move things around. It was if the whole house would fall apart if I did. So, I kept everything where it was. If I used something, I was careful to put it back exactly where it belonged. It was one way of maintaining stability in the midst of the storm of grief I was experiencing. Some people, like me at the time, have an inordinate fear of losing control.
Others are afraid of rejection and its close cousin, criticism. They tend to be overly adaptive to the expectations of others. Instead of being themselves, warts and all, they mask their thoughts and feelings out of fear of what others might say or think.
John Powers hit the nail on the head several years ago when he wrote a little book entitled, Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Really Am? We all know the answer to that question, don’t we? Because you might not like me, if I did.
I’m convinced the fear of rejection starts in early childhood, as children learn to please their parents, both to get what they want and to avoid criticism and scorn. They learn to smile, even when they’re not happy. They learn to make appropriate remarks, even when their heart’s not in it. All along, they’re bombarded with all sorts of conditional messages. They hear things like: “If you’re a good little boy …” “Because you did what I asked you to do …” “It makes me so happy when you …”
Well, in one way, it’s all part of the process of parenting. If you don’t reinforce good behavior and discourage bad behavior, you’re going to end up with some pretty bratty kids. But you have to be careful, because, taken to the extreme, positive reinforcement like this can lead children to feel insecure and afraid that, if they’re not careful, they’ll lose the approval of their parents, and, at least in the formative years of life, that would be devastating.
Another of our common fears is the fear of being alone. It’s based on the denial of what’s psychologists call absolute aloneness – the reality that, no matter how close you may be to another person, your experience of life is individual, separate and unique. In other words, no one knows what it’s like to be you, except you; and this means, while others can be sympathetic and understanding, you’re on your own.
That’s more than some people are able to deal with. So, to avoid this overwhelming feeling of absolute aloneness, they become excessively dependent on others and unconsciously fill the emptiness of their lives with noise and clutter.
I used to have a friend whose house was to die for, as they say. It looked like a picture out of Better Homes and Gardens – all tasteful and decorative. It’s just that, as you felt your way around, there were no empty spaces. There were so many pieces of furniture and plants and pictures and odd and ends, you hardly had room to walk. Every little nook and cranny was taken. Plus, the television set was always blaring in the background. How could you ever feel alone in a place like that? There was no room to think.
Of course, the most common of all fears is simply fear of the unknown. I don’t know of anyone who capitalized on this fear in a more positive way than Doris Day, who sang,
“When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother,
‘What will I be? Will I be pretty, will I be rich?’
Here’s what she said to me:
‘Que, sera, sera; whatever will be, will be;
the future’s not ours to see;
que sera, sera … what will be, will be.”
It was a great little song and immensely popular in its day. When you think about it, it sounds almost Presbyterian, doesn’t it? What will be, will be. Isn’t this the essence of what we call predestination?
Not knowing what the future holds can be exhilarating and exciting. But it can also be scary. Who knows what tomorrow has in store for us?
When our oldest son, John, was little he used to ask us before going to bed, “What’s in tomorrow?” For him, it was sheer expectation and delight. His world was bigger than life, and whatever the next day brought was sure to be exciting and fun. But, for those who fear the unknown, that’s not the case. The future can seem dark and foreboding.
The point of naming all these fears – and these are only the tip of the iceberg – is that, in the face of it all, Jesus says, “Don’t let your heart be troubled.”
“Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.”
But he doesn’t just mouth the words, he shows us the way:
• In the face of a fierce storm out on the sea, he remained calm. Instead of going into a panic, he said to the wind and waves, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39) And, just like that, the storm was over.
• When he was told that Herod was out to kill him, he never batted an eye. Instead he told the messengers, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I complete my mission” (Luke 13:32)
• And, as he hung on the cross and bore the weight of our sins, he accepted death with dignity. When the final moments came, he looked up to God and said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)
Jesus modeled for us a life without fear. He showed us how to live freely and joyfully in harmony with God and all creation. He said,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father, except through me.” (John 14:6)
Walking in his footsteps, we need not be afraid. And, if that weren’t enough, he promised to be with us at every step along the way. He said,
“If you love me, keep my commandments.
I will pray to the Father, and he will give you another Counselor,
that he may be with you forever,—
the Spirit of truth, whom the world can’t receive;
for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him.
You know him, for he lives with you, and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you.
Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more;
but you will see me.
Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:15-19)
As Presbyterians, we’re guilty of not putting enough emphasis on the power and work of the Holy Spirit. We’re like the Confirmation Class that was line up in front of the congregation to recite the Apostles’ Creed. Each child was to say one phrase. The first child said, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The second child said, “And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord …” Everything went well until they got to the phrase, “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” All of a sudden, there was silence. The pastor looked up to see what was wrong. One of the children explained,
“The little boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here today!”
We don’t put enough emphasis on the Holy Spirit, and that’s too bad, because the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the presence of God within us and among us to give us the confidence and strength to deal with life, come what may.
Paul said it best when he wrote to the Galatians, “…It is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.” (Galatians 2:20) He said, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
The Holy Spirit – God with us – enables us to find peace in the midst of chaos; power, when our own strength fails; and purpose, when the world around us seems to be going in every conceivable direction. Knowing the strength of God’s presence, we need never be afraid again.
This is what Jesus promised his disciples so long ago. It’s what he promises us, even today:
“I have said these things to you, while still living with you.
But the…Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,
he will teach you all things,
and will remind you of all that I said to you.
Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you;
not as the world gives, give I to you.
Don’t let your heart be troubled,
neither let it be fearful.” (John 14:25-27)
No one understood this better than Luther Bridgers. Rev. Bridgers was a missionary evangelist in the South in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. When he was just a young man, his house caught fire and burned to the ground. It not only destroyed all of his earthly belongings, it claimed the life of his wife and three little boys. In the face of such a devastating loss, Luther Bridges wrote,
“There’s within my heart a melody
Jesus whispers sweet and low,
in all of life’s ebb and flow.
“Though sometimes He leads through waters deep,
Trials fall across the way,
Though sometimes the path seems rough and steep,
See His footprints all the way.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,
Sweetest Name I know,
Fills my every longing,
Keeps me singing as I go.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2007, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.