Monday, December 18, 2017

Do Not Be Afraid (Don't Choose Fear) - Advent 3

John 1:6-8; 21-28
Advent 3

The religious leaders of the temple
seem a little worried by this odd man in the
woods talking about repentance and forgiveness.
So they send some of their own, probably lower
ranking people, out to question John.
Some might say to harass him.

They pull him aside in the middle of what he’s doing
in front of everyone and they ask him things like:
“who are you? Show us your ID,
who told you you could do this?
do you have a permit ?”

Problem was John was using the words of the church,
but he was not of the church or in the church,
and he was obviously appealing to masses of people.
These are things that make people in authority nervous.

And he was saying things  like Make Straight the Way of the Lord.
 It probably felt like he was challenging them.
And maybe he was. Just his existence was a challenge to them.

Not even one chapter into the book
and it’s obvious that long-haired
counter-cultural hippy heroes of our story
are on a collision course with the authorities.

And  in the environment that he was in, and with what he was doing,
and knowing  the powers that be at that time.
that usually meant death.
John had surely seen this before with others.

So I wonder if John the Baptist was afraid.
We don’t see any sign of it in the story here,
but it stands to reason that he would be.
He was human and humans have fear.

We try tend to think that humans that do brave
and courageous things as being super-heroes,
having no second guesses, no doubts, no apprehension,
Like they have blinders on to danger and consequences.
especially our biblical heroes.
We imagine these people as “special people”
like they have been given a special gift to ignore danger.

And when we do that, then we tell ourselves
that we could never do what they do,
we should leave the work of God to those
who are super- human.

But I think that, like most people, John the Baptist
was afraid at times.
Maybe in the middle of the night,
he would lie awake and imagine what would happen
if the authorities thought his message went too far,
if he pushed the wrong buttons.
He probably wondered at times if he was
doing the right thing, or would another message
or method have been better,

We’ve heard about fear from other courageous
Malala Yousefzai
people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela or
Malala You-saf-zai, the Pakistani girl
who was shot by the Taliban
for continuing her education.
She said she was afraid all the time knowing that it was against the law
for girls to be educated and seeing  what the religious leaders would do
to families who educated their children.
She said at 11, she was wondering if she should sleep with a
knife under her pillow.
But she said that she did not choose fear.

When we hear the phrase in the scriptures
and from Jesus “Do not be afraid”
it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t feel fear.
That is impossible. We all have fear.
It doesn’t mean that the gospel will somehow make us
super human and we won’t have doubts,
or that if we are afraid we lack faith.

What “do not be afraid” means is that
we should not choose fear,
we should not give into our fear,
we should not lead with our fear,
or let fear make our decisions for us.

Fear makes us do things that we otherwise wouldn’t do.
It makes us close ourselves off to others,
it makes us stingy, it makes it hard for us to learn new things,
it makes us uncreative, it makes us violent.
Fear makes us act contrary to
how the gospel of Jesus calls us to act.

Scientists call the part of our brain that
reacts to fear the reptile brain.
When we give into our fear, we’re give into automatic reactions
that are focused on self-preservation.
Our reactions are to lash out,
dominate or be dominated, to just focus on survival.
Fight or flight.

Some would say that we in this country have chosen fear,
especially since 9-11.
We want only to preserve what we have.
So we jump at everything and everyone,
we fear immigrants and refugees, protestors, police,
Terrorism, home invaders, thieves, sexual predators,
people o f color, white people,
Russia, North Korea, China, the Middle East, Mexico
we can’t decide who our enemy is, so everyone is our enemy.
We worry about bombs and wars,
so we make more bombs and wars,
we worry about the economy, stock market crashes, we worry about jobs,
so we only go for sure bets that worked decades ago.
and infringements on our freedom, loss of our way of life,
so we make more rules that infringe on our freedoms.

Some of those fears may be legitimate
and real and some of them are not.
But they seem to be consuming our lives.
We are not the stereotypical brave and bold Americans,
we are a nation of people who are afraid of everything.

And when we allow fear to guide us
to make our decisions for us,
then we end up losing our capacity to do
anything more than survive,
we lose our ability to serve our mission
to come together on decisions,
to work for what’s best for everyone,
everything is done with suspicion,
with an objective to dominate instead of cooperate.
We become our own worst enemy.
  
We can see this in churches,
As congregations continue to get smaller,
Many churches have given into their fears,
they worry about losing one member,
about losing money, so they focus
on their own self-preservation,
They cease to be able to act to take risks and chances,
they fear any kind of change,
and they start to blame anything that is different,
or challenges the norm.
Their only mission is their own survival.
And because they’re acting with fear, more people leave.
Fearful leaders become their own worst enemy.

This  pattern is the same for individuals, groups, and whole nations

And there are forces in this world that would love for us
to be in fear all the time, and would love for us to react in fear.
It keeps us from unity, from compassion, generosity and understanding.
It makes us easy to control and manage.
We end up destroying ourselves.

And the way that we counteract this fear,
is to focus on our larger mission.
To focus on something that is larger than our own survival
and our own self.

So John may well have been feeling fear,
and anxiety when the religious authorities came to question him.
He could have taken that as a cue to stop what he was doing,
or take a safer route, to change his message,
or to just focus on a select group of disciples.
He could have been suspicious of everyone and protected
himself at all costs, at the loss of what he was supposed to do.

Or he could have lashed out with violence
and inspired the large group of people he was with to do the same.
But he didn’t do any of those things, he didn’t choose fear for himself,
He chose his mission.

We see this in the answer to the Priests and Levites question
He said, “I am not the Messiah”.
His mission wasn’t about him, it was about getting ready for another,
He was not focused on himself, on his self-preservation
or on giving himself honor or recognition.
He pointed to another, something bigger than himself,
something that he was humbled before.
Someone who he was not worthy to untie his sandal.
His mission in life was not himself,
his mission was what he came to do.
And that is the way we can overcome fear.

Focusing on the larger thing can give us perspective,
so we don’t  chiefly focus on what we have to lose.
We know that whatever we do lose, our gains will be greater.
We can push our fear aside and press on.

And that is why we are here .
There is so much to be afraid of in this world today.
Some of it real, some of it exaggerated.
But we are here to remember that we serve something
bigger than our fears.
We might feel, doubts, anxiety for what may come in the future,
but we don’t let that rule us.
We don’t let that change us or
decide our actions for us.
We do not choose fear.

We choose the way of Jesus
over the way of fear and hate.
We have a mission to be Christ in the world together.

Do not be afraid.

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