What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.Matthew 10:27-31
Do you know what the most repeated command in all of Scripture is? Do not be afraid. Imagine that. The command that God gives us most often is not to worship God, or to love God, or to love our neighbor. The most repeated command is, do not be afraid. Fear not, we are told over and over again, from Genesis to Revelation, and everywhere in between.
So it’s no surprise to hear this from Jesus in today’s gospel reading. Have no fear of those who might wish you harm, Jesus says to us today. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, Jesus goes on to say. Even the hairs of our heads are all counted by our Father in heaven, he tells us. So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows, he concludes.
Fear in Our World
Fear is a powerful force in our world. One of the most powerful of all, when you think about it. It is an important emotion – it can be very helpful, at times, even save our lives. It is an emotion that is created by God to keep us from harm, and to motivate us and to energize us when our lives are in danger. Fear in the face of danger can save our lives, to be sure, or the lives of those we love. We have all heard stories of people who have done incredible things to save their families, or even to save strangers. And these incredible acts are usually fueled by a very healthy and powerful fear.
So fear in itself is not bad. But there is another kind of fear – a chronic fear that doesn’t go away when danger goes away. We might give it another name, like anxiety or worry. This kind of fear is often fueled by the media, because it drives up their ratings. And by advertisers, because it drives up sales. And by some politicians, on both sides of the aisle, because it drives up votes. This is a different, and less healthy, fear. It doesn’t save our life; in fact, it can prevent us from truly living. And when we are filled with this fear, we often end up living very differently from how Jesus lived. This type of fear can lead us to exclude and even hate people who are not like us. It can prevent us from helping those who are in genuine need. It can keep us from doing what God is calling us to do.
I personally think that is one of the challenges of this pandemic. It is producing a chronic fear, or anxiety, in us all. This is now the 15th Sunday of this pandemic. That is a long time to live with a situation that can’t help but make us all a little anxious, a little fearful. And that is why I think this particular gospel reading is well-timed; because it offers us a word from Jesus reminding us that we need not be afraid.
Today’s Gospel Reading
Three times in today’s gospel reading Jesus tells us this, and he proceeds to give us three reasons why, three reasons why we don’t have to be afraid.
First, Jesus tells us not to be afraid because God’s purposes will all be made known. “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered,” Jesus says, “and nothing secret that will not become known.” One day, in other words, God will come to sort all of this out, and to restore the reign of heaven in a perfect way. And when that happens, nothing that is covered up now will continue to be covered up. All will be known.
I suppose that some might find this statement less than comforting, but to those who are trying to follow Jesus, this is very comforting, indeed. There will come a day when all will be known. All evil and injustice will be made known, all secrets, all those things that are done to tear down God – they will all be made known one day.
And not only that, but God’s plan for our life will be made known. All of this will make sense someday. Now, scripture tells us, we walk by faith, not by sight. We don’t see the whole picture now. Only God does. But there will come a day when all of it will be revealed. It will all make sense one day. That is God’s promise. And that is a reason not to be afraid.
Next, Jesus tells us not to be afraid because the most important part of who we are cannot be harmed by anything in this world. Do not fear those who kill the body, Jesus says, but cannot kill the soul. Our soul is truly the most important part of us, the part of us that connects us to God, and to eternity, and nothing in this world can harm it. Our future is secure, because it is in God’s hands. But not just our future. Our present, too. God does not just care about our soul, but our bodies, too.
So the third reason Jesus tells us not to be afraid is because God cares about what is happening in our lives right now. Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father in heaven. And we are of far more value than many sparrows. In fact, even the hairs of our head are all counted. That is how much God cares about each and every one of us.
That is why Jesus tells us, in a similar passage three chapters earlier, not to worry about our life, what we will eat or what we will drink, or about our body. Look at the birds of the air, he says; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t we of more value than they, we who have been created in God’s own image? So don’t worry about the present, either. Do not be afraid. The same God who knows how many stars are in the sky, and how many pebbles of sand are on the beach, also knows how many hairs on your head. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and loves us more than we can love ourselves. And God is in control of today, tomorrow, and eternity. So there is nothing that we need fear.
Well, almost nothing. Because Jesus goes on in this reading to remind us that there is one thing we should fear. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul;” he says, “rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” And, of course, there is only one who can destroy both soul and body, and that is the one who created our souls and bodies: God. We should fear God, Jesus tells us here. And when he does, he is repeating something that we read often in scripture.
So, what does this mean? Here is the way I look at it: Fearing God simply means that we are taking God seriously, that we really believe that God created the universe, and each of us, and that God is in charge of all this. And we can’t really believe this without fearing God. It is the only reasonable response, when you think about it. But, here’s the point: If we fear the one who created the universe, and each of us, and the one who is also in charge of all of this, than what else is there to fear? That is the wonderful irony of fearing God: It eliminates every other fear. And, I don’t know about you, but this is something that I need to hear right now, when I look around our world today.
There is a famous sermon on this gospel passage, preached by a very famous pastor who lived and preached during the fall of Rome. St. Augustine’s congregation was living through a time even more tumultuous than our own. Rome was crumbling, and the barbarians were literally at the gate. And the citizens of Rome had every reason to be afraid, arguably even more than we do today. But St. Augustine challenged his congregation, in a sermon on this same passage, not to be afraid of what was happening in the world.Instead, he said, they should fear God. “Let us fear,” Augustine said to his congregation that day, “so that we may not fear.” (You can find his sermon here.)
“Let us fear prudently,” he went on to say, “that we may not fear vainly.” Let us be smart about our fear, in other words, and make sure that we are fearing the right thing, which is the creator of our body and soul, who is in control of this world. That is where wisdom lies, in the fear of the Lord.
When we fear the Lord, we place ourselves on the ancient path – that leads to faithfulness, and to courage, and to trust, and to hope, and so to a peace that this world cannot give. This peace which surpasses all understanding begins with a proper fear of the Lord. And when we fear the Lord, we have no reason to be afraid. Rome may crumbling. The world around us may be falling apart. But we have nothing to fear. God is in control. The God who loves us, and who loves this world.
Over and over again in God’s word we are told not to be afraid. In fact, one person counted 366 times, one for every day of the year. That may or not be the exact count, but there are certainly hundreds of times in God’s word, over and over again throughout scripture, when we are told not to be afraid.
Fear God, and trust in God’s love for us, and there is nothing else to be afraid of – not today, not tomorrow, not ever. For nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love. And, in the end, nothing else matters. Thanks be to God. Amen