Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Do We Have to Fear?

What Do We Have To Fear?
Psalm 27[1]
  Fear is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of the human experience.  There are some things that are simply frightening, and it is only human for us to respond to them with fear.  But it’s one thing for us to feel fear; it’s another thing for us to live in fear.  Too often, we turn fear into something that occupies our whole lives.  Part of the problem with fear is what it does to us when we give it that much power.  We cling to whatever it is we fear losing—we hold on for dear life!  In the process of trying to control what we cannot control, and trying to cling to what we cannot hold, our fear can bring out the worst in us.[2]
  I think our lesson from Psalm 27 for today addresses the problem of fear and how to find ways of feeling it without letting it dominate our lives.  The Psalm itself contains a curious back-and-forth between expressions of confident faith and the fear we all feel at times.  It would appear that the Psalmist  is struggling in some kind of situation that naturally provokes fear.  He feels as if his enemies are trying to “devour his flesh” (Ps. 27:2), describing his struggle as if he were under siege in battle (Ps. 27:3).  In fact, the situation is so intense that the Psalmist even cries out in fear that God might turn away from him, cast him aside, and forsake him (Ps. 27:9).  Whatever the specific problem is, it’s clear that the person who is composing this prayer is afraid.
  And yet, right in the middle of his expressions of fear, the Psalmist also declares his confident faith that God’s presence is like a light that keeps him safe.  So he seeks God’s presence in the place where the people of Israel of his day believed God could be found: in the Temple.[3]  He does so in the hope and faith that “he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble” (Ps. 27:5).  It is God’s presence that calms his fears.  As he says at the beginning, “the Lord is my light and my salvation,” and “the Lord is the stronghold of my life.” Since he trusts that God constantly surrounds him with the light of his presence, the Psalmist concludes, “whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1).
  It’s interesting that the Psalmist seems to go back and forth between intense feelings of fear and confident declarations of his trust in God.  And yet, I would say that’s fairly true to life.[4]  When we deal with a situation in which we are afraid, I think it’s normal for us to waver between fear and faith.  There are times when our fears get the best of us.  And then there are times when our faith wins out.  I guess the real question is, how do we stay confident in the safety of God’s presence when we’re facing that kind of struggle?  I think the Psalmist may have found an answer: at one point he calls out to God to hear him and be gracious to him (Ps. 27:7).  And he seems to find an answer in his own heart.  Like the still, small voice Elijah heard, the Psalmist “hears” his own heart telling him to seek God’s face (Ps. 27:8).  And he eagerly responds: “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” 
  I think the point of this is that when we can pray in such a way as to be aware that we are constantly surrounded by the presence of God, we find a sense of safety that can calm our fears, no matter what the circumstances may be.  Now, I don’t mean to say that this is easy.  The kind of prayer the Psalmist is alluding to is a discipline that takes time and practice to master. He calls it “seeking God’s face.”[5]  You can’t do that without putting your whole heart and soul into it.  This kind of praying is something that must be developed.  It takes a kind of spiritual “training” for our prayers to reach this level.  But, though it may take time and practice, this kind of praying is something that can be learned.[6]
  At the end of his wrestling match with fear, the Psalmist makes one of the great declarations of faith in the Bible.  He says, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).  Not in some far-off heavenly existence, but here and now.  The Psalmist’s faith is such that he trusts that God will make whatever happens to him turn out for good.  Again, this is a kind of faith that takes some “training”: here it’s called “waiting for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).  I don’t think that means we have to wait for it to be our turn for God to be good to us!  Rather, “waiting” in the Hebrew Bible is a kind of faith.  We should probably translate it: “hold onto your faith in the Lord, no matter how long it takes”![7]  It may take some practice to develop our faith to that level, but when we do, we can face our fears with the confidence that God is always surrounding us with the light of his presence.[8]
  Fear is a natural part of being human.  Unfortunately, however, we have a way of letting our fear get the best of us.  But fear doesn’t have to control us.  As we learn to find the light of God’s presence always surrounding us and protecting us, always bringing good out of anything that may come our way, we can feel our fears, but live from our faith.  Then we can find a kind of safety that nothing can shake--at least not for long.  Then we can say with the Psalmist, “What do we have to fear?”

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/26/14 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 102: “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety. That makes him malicious toward others.”
[3] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 334.
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 132: “Trust is active and real precisely when one is aware of one’s vulnerability, of one’s ultimate helplessness before the threats of life.”
[5] Cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 335, where he discusses the importance of “seeking God’s face” in the Hebrew Bible.  Cf. also Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 20: “To pray is to listen to [God’s] voice of love.”
[6] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 135-48, where he discusses various ways to develop this kind of praying;  cf. also Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, for a comprehensive overview of the methods by which we can cultivate the discipline of prayer in our lives.
[7] Cf. the Net Bible: “Rely on the Lord.  Be strong and confident! Rely on the Lord!”  Cf. also the Contemporary English Version: “Trust in the Lord! Be brave and strong and trust in the Lord.”  Cf. also The Message: “Stay with God!  Take heart.  Don’t quit.  I’ll say it again: Stay with God.”
[8] Cf.. Kraus, Psalm 1-59, 337, where he says that this expression of faith reflects one who “has anchored his life entirely in Yahweh. For that reason no hostile power can overwhelm him and separate him from the God of salvation.”  He also likens this to St. Paul’s expression of faith in Romans 8:33-39.

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