Do Not Fear (12/11/16)

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I had an opportunity last April to go to Turkey with a group that would visit historical sites in Istanbul as well as the sites of the 7 churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3. While I wanted to go, I was also concerned. ISIS was growing in size and strength. The cable news networks were filling the airwaves with stories about how many of the ISIS fighters were making their way into Iraq through Istanbul. Naturally, I had questions. I kept asking the trip leader, “Is it safe?” Every time I asked, I got the same response. “Yes, it is.”

After spending some time praying about it, I realized a few things. First, you can’t see the sites of the ancient church staying in Pennsylvania. You have to go to where they’re located. Second, I don’t want to be on my deathbed, reflecting back on my life and saying, “I should have gone to Turkey.” Third, if God was calling me to go, I needed to trust him – no matter what happened.

I had to make a choice. Would I overcome my fear or would my fear overcome me?

People fear different things. Maybe you fear losing your possessions or your health. Perhaps it’s being alone. It’s possible you have a fear of failing at something. Many people are afraid of death. Please take a moment and prayerfully answer this question. What are my fears?

Fear is defined as “that apprehension of evil that normally leads one to flee or to fight.” When faced with these two options, many people choose to take the easy way out and flee from the things that scare them. This brings us to another question – How am I dealing with the things that make me afraid?

Perhaps you’re keeping someone or something at a distance. We all know people whose motto is “If you don’t talk about it, you don’t have to deal with it.” While this might work in the short-term, refusing to deal with problems only makes them worse further down the road. This is true regarding issues of life and death. I once tried to talk with a senior citizen about where she would spend eternity. She was so afraid of death that she couldn’t handle discussing where she might end up after it happened to her.

Refusing to do something is another way of dealing with fear. You can’t fail at something if you never start it.

Maybe you use anger or arrogance to keep people away so they can’t see what’s really inside you. What is supposed to come across as strength and control is only a thinly veiled cover-up for weakness and fear.

Life throws obstacles and sometimes even opportunities at us which scare us. We have to choose how we’ll respond. The same thing happened to people in the Bible.

Our scripture passage was written by the prophet Isaiah. When he began prophesying, the Jews were divided into two nations. Israel was the northern nation and Judah was the southern country. When the sins of those living in Israel became too great, God allowed the Assyrians to overthrow their kingdom in 722 BC.

The southern kingdom of Judah wasn’t much better. They also worshipped pagan gods and did horrible things. God sent prophets to warn them to repent. Isaiah was one of the prophets God sent. He prophesied from roughly 740 BC – 680 BC.

Isaiah continually called the people to return to YHWH, which is God’s name, or they too would be overrun by a foreign army. He told them God knew they wouldn’t listen and, as a result, their nation would be destroyed. However, after this happened, God would do something for them.

Isaiah 35:1-10 says,  The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, he thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

The Israelites didn’t listen to Isaiah and in 587 the kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians. Many of the Jews were killed and those who were educated and skilled were taken to Babylon so they could serve the Babylonian king.

Seventy years later, God began to fulfill this promise in Isaiah 35 by allowing some of those in exile to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the city. But this promise wasn’t completely fulfilled. For the next 500 years, the Jews spent most of their time under the oppressive hand of foreign empires.

God fulfilled more of his promise when “in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Matt. 2:11). Now, not only were they living in the Promised Land, the lame were healed and the blind received their sight. For those who believed in God and that he would fulfill his promises, fear didn’t have to overcome them.

Fleeing isn’t the only option we have when it comes to facing fear. The other option is to be brave and fight. I don’t claim to be any braver than most people, but I chose to face my fears and go to Turkey. While I was there, I got an opportunity to see symbols of our faith that were hundreds or even thousands of years old. The sad part is I almost let my fears keep me from experiencing the things God wanted me to see.

Being brave is the opposite of being fearful. Brave means “ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.” The reason I could be brave and go on the trip is because I wasn’t trusting is myself. I was trusting in something bigger. I was trusting in God. The Israelites could be brave during the exile and afterwards. Yes, they messed up and got themselves into big trouble because they didn’t listen to God. Later they had hope because they trusted God to help get them out of it. They began to trust in something bigger than themselves.

Christians today can apply the words of Isaiah to their lives and “Be strong, do not fear” because “your God” came to save you. Even though Turkey is over 98% Muslim, in certain areas of the country Christians who are brave enough can openly practice their faith, which includes celebrating Christmas. They persevere because they trust in something bigger than themselves.

Trusting in the God who is bigger than we are is the only thing that takes away our fears. As followers of Jesus, are we doing this?

Earlier I asked you to list your fears and then think about how you deal with them. Let’s take it a step further and think about one more question – Do I overcome my fears…or do my fears overcome me?

We do not have to live in fear. We don’t have to dread failure, being alone, losing our possessions, dying or any other fear we may have. The reason is because 2000 years ago, Jesus was born so he could fulfill God’s promise to redeem, strengthen us and give us courage.

So, how do we take heart and overcome our fears? There are four simple things we need to do.

1) Acknowledge our fears. No one ever overcome her or his fears by ignoring them. Hopefully you’ve already acknowledged some of them as you wrestled with the questions in this sermon.

2) Trust in something bigger than ourselves. Trust Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to give us courage.

3) In prayer, give our fears to Jesus. Ask him to help you overcome them.

4) Through the strength of Jesus that is in us, we step out in faith and face our fears. Jesus doesn’t help us overcome them by supernaturally giving us more courage. He helps us overcome them by giving us the strength we need to acknowledge them and work through them.  If Jesus is calling you to go to another country, trust him and get on the plane. Be vulnerable with others by becoming closer to the people Jesus puts in your path. Come to terms with the fact everyone dies but Jesus overcame death. Instead of falling apart when you fail, ask Jesus to show you what you can learn from it.

Jesus doesn’t want us to hide our fears. He wants to help us overcome them. That’s one of the reasons he came to earth.

Trust him and step out in faith. Let go of your fears.