Praying to Love, Praying Away Fear
A Sermon by
Rev. Richard J. Koch
April 29, 2018
Trinity Presbyterian Church
I was working the late shift at McDonalds the summer of 1977 and the other members of the crew decided it would be fun if we all went out after we closed the store. They decided we were going to go to this new-fangled thing called a disco. Heck, I was 18 and in Wisconsin in those days that was old enough to go out on the town and so I joined them. I can’t say I ever particularly liked discos and, in truth, the adventure was less than memorable. Nevertheless, the party broke up around midnight and I headed home. When I got there past midnight, my parents were waiting for me at the door in their pajamas with their arms folded across their chests. Oh, dang! Well, we had a long conversation about trust, and being 18 didn’t give me any excuse for staying out so late, and, oh by the way, that car I was driving didn’t belong to me, and I’m actually kind of getting nervous just telling this story. The biggest wound, of course, was that I let my parents down and it would take good actions over time to repair the lost trust.
I got to thinking about that story when putting together the message for today from the famous passage about love in the epistle from John. The people of the ancient world experienced a constant and steady supply of broken trust. Monarchs and emperors failed them. Cultural superstitions failed them. Their pagan religions and the gods that accompanied those institutions failed them. You see, in 1 John, something extraordinary is said for the very first time in the bible and perhaps in history. It is something we Christians almost take for granted, which is too bad, because it epitomizes an importance of huge magnitude. The statement is made twice in verses eight and sixteen. “God is love.” For the first time in history, people were hearing about a divine presence they could trust, from a God who would provide promising actions over time. And the biggest action embodied the assurance and implementation of love.
The Rev. Stephen Carlson rightly observes the people in the ancient world viewed their various gods with suspicion and sometimes dread. “[T]he gods are vindictive, petty” he writes when merely considering “The Odyssey” written by Greek poet Homer. “They are deceitful. They play favorites. They make a sport out of interfering in human lives.” In short, they weren’t trusted and any prayers, observances, or offerings made to them likely represented a way to keep them at arm’s length. The worship of the gods was a way to appease them from doing anymore harm to an already difficult and frightening life. And maybe, if things worked out just right, maybe a god or goddess, it was believed, might show some favor upon the lives of the downtrodden people of the earth. Even “the Greek philosopher Socrates,” according to Rev. Carlson, “did not encourage his students to read these stories. He thought that the gods in Greek poetry were immoral and unworthy of respect.”
We can see, then, how astounding the words “God is love” from 1 John would have been to the ears of the ancient world. Inferred in that, of course, comes a whole lot more. God can be trusted. God won’t let us down. God forgives us. John further drives home the point in verse 18, which greatly contrasts the living, loving God with the mischievous and to be feared fantasy gods of the ancient world. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” This message today represents the first of three in a series on prayer. I was fully ready to depart from the lectionary, yet when I saw this passage I thought what a perfect place to start. God is love. Love drives out fear. Prayer invites relationship with God; prayer invites love. Love drives out fear.
Fear epitomizes the enemy, does it not? We’ve all heard this before, yet it’s always worth repeating, the bible shares some version of the phrase “do not be afraid” 365 times throughout its pages. That tells us how aware of our fears the God of love is and how passionately the Lord pursues us to rescue us from dread, anxiety, and worry. Vance K. Jackson, a Christian motivational speaker and who identifies himself as “servant, husband, son” shares several thoughts on the damage fear can do to our lives and the Christian response to defeat it. “If you allow fear to remain active in your life,” Jackson proclaims, “it will take hold of your thoughts, paralyze your forward momentum and suffocate your God-Given Destiny. Through Christ, God has given us Power to overcome every obstacle the enemy attempts to set in our way.” What’s happening here? What’s Vance Jackson saying? If we want to be lifted in the power of love and vanquish the threat of fear, then get into a relationship with God. Start the relationship with prayer. Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love and self-discipline.” How could we possibly receive those gifts of power, love, and self-discipline if we are not praying and not living in relationship with the Lord?
We can also be reminded from Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” Fear represents the real prison in life. Paul proclaimed freedom in Christ even when he was locked up behind bars, while supposedly free people walking the streets outside his prison cell suffered the oppression of being trapped in their fears. Vance Jackson reminds us that Christ sets us free and to, “Be released from the yoke of bondage and be free in Christ completely.” Vance then shares this intriguing picture of how fear, if we let it, can disrupt our destinies. “Fear will cause you to implement new ideas in an old way. God wants you to implement, the new ideas that He has given you, His Way. You cannot put new wine, (new ideas, new businesses, new revelation) into old bottles – an old framework. Allow God to reshape your mind and renew your vessel to execute His Ideas, His Way.” And he introduces the desired means by which we can allow God to become the executive director of our lives: “Sometimes fear can cause us to be complacent, in fear of not excelling or thriving. Fear will plateau your potential. Pray and sit before God so that He can give you a new perspective on what to execute His Way.” Pray and sit before God.
I’m going to share with you a couple of amazing stories found in the memoirs of Edward Bender, a B-17 bomber pilot in World War II who flew missions over Europe and eventually taken prisoner by the Germans after he was forced to bail out over enemy territory. Being a devout Missouri Synod Lutheran, Bender attended the Protestant worship services at the prisoner of war camp and he heard these two testimonies of God’s providence that juxtaposes moments of terrifying fear with the loving power of life and hope:
I was the navigator of a B-24 that had been damaged by a FW-190 in a fighter attack, and our plane was on its own as we attempted to return to England. When our pilot saw that he couldn’t keep the plane in the air, he gave the “bail out” order at an altitude of about 4,000 feet. My parachute wouldn’t open, but I fell on a large straw stack. My only injury was a sprained ankle that I got in the process of getting down to the ground off the stack.
Pretty amazing, huh? Now try this one for size:
My plane blew up at 25,000 feet and I “came to” to find myself prone on a section of wing that was falling horizontally through the air like a “falling leaf.” I looked around and discovered a parachute pack only an arms-length away. Being careful not to disturb the balance of the wing, I managed to reach the pack. While attaching it to my harness, I saw it had my name stenciled on the cover! I then rolled off the wing, pulled the ripcord, and landed in the main street of a small town.
Do you ever feel like your parachute isn’t opening, or that you’re floating aimlessly on the precarious and fleeting safety of a piece of wing heading toward ultimate destruction? Turn to God in prayer and find the Lord dispelling fear and working miracles in your life. James tells us, “The prayer of the righteous [person] is powerful and effective.” It doesn’t have to be fancy or poetic. Just genuine. Back in 1990 I had accepted a new position at a church in Wisconsin and Mary and I were out driving around to find a place to rent. We drove through a busy intersection and a person ran a red light and smashed into the back of our small van which caused it to begin spinning counterclockwise and the forces of physics were really too much and it completely rolled over. It sounded like being inside a big metal drum and most of the windows shattered from the many impacts. I also remember another sound. It was Mary saying a prayer. “Oh God! Oh, God! Oh God!” Now, I know my wife very well. She’s a very spiritual person. This was not just some vain platitude. She just wanted to make sure the relationship was alright if it was our time to go. Most of you know her well enough by now that if you heard the intensity and inflection of her voice you would realize that it truly was a genuine prayer. Simple, yes. Not a lot of time for fancy and poetic. I also remember thinking while rolling upside down to right-side up, “God, listen to her prayer, but don’t take us yet. We’re still good.” All in all, we came out of that mostly unscathed.
Prayers, simple or fancy, rough or poetic, embody the center of our relationship with God. Our reading from John’s letter today reminds us God initiates the relationship, always reaching out to us, “We love, because he first loved us.” Our prayers acknowledge God’s persistent calling love into our lives. Our prayers are our part in meeting God in our daily walk. Our prayers admit, even on the most foundational levels, that we’re willing to participate in the Divine plan happening in the moment. John also tells us about that plan in that “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” The resultant effect of prayer, of loving God, of having fear cast out of our lives, means we cannot help but to break down barriers and connect with the people around us in meaningful ways. Rev. Edward Markquart put it beautifully, “God commands us to love one another in these ways. It is like God commanding fish to swim. It is like commanding birds to fly. It is like God commanding daffodils to be beautiful. When God commands us to love as God loves, God is simply commanding us to be the kind of people that we were created to be in the first place.”
Rev. Stephen Carlson shares a good reminder when he said, “We forget that God’s love is not obvious to everybody.” In a sense, then, by connecting to the loving God through our prayers our relationship with the Lord morphs from words to action. Our lives become a living prayer around our brothers and sisters in this world and because we live in the light of God’s love, we can be bearers of that love and, in turn, vanquishers of fear and anxiety. “That is the way of the gospel,” writes Carlson, “We are bearers of the message that God is for you, God is with you, God cares for you, and, yes, God loves you.”
It all begins with prayer, and sustained with prayer, and grown with prayer. It has to be, because to learn to love as God loves us is really hard work and demands a lot of interaction through prayer, because new fears and anxieties will surely crop up. God’s kind of love is the kind that can scare people who are too timid yet reward all who enter therein. It’s the kind of love that is willing to penetrate into dark places where the gospel is needed most. Jesus alludes to this when he said, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” These are all places of fear and “perfect love drives out fear” and perfect love is willing to go to the hard places. Love wins and fear loses when it goes to the hard place inhabited by an enemy and makes a friend. Love wins and fear loses when it goes to comfort our sisters and brothers who might be in pain, even when the only thing we can do is just sit with them. Love wins and fear loses when we set aside our personal agendas and work together for the body of Christ, the gospel, and allow God to make great things happen. And it all begins, and continues, and finishes with prayer, because we’re open to the eternal relationship with God. And God is love. Amen.