On Facing Our Fear

On Facing Our Fear

On Facing Our Fear
March 10, 2024
Traceymay Kalvaitis
John 3: 11-15

[Jesus said,] “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

Numbers 21: 7-9

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Today’s sermon is titled, On Facing Our Fear.

This spring, Chapman University in southern California, will once again survey Americans about their greatest fears.* This survey has been ongoing for the past ten years and that makes it the longest ongoing study about fears of Americans, specifically. Each year, 1100 Americans are selected to represent a wide variety of the population. The results surprised me, and in particular I was surprised that the top fear has not changed for nine years. Here are the top ten fears, according to the study:

1) Corrupt government officials
2) Economic collapse
3) Nuclear attack by Russia
4) U.S. involvement in another World War
5) Loved ones becoming seriously ill
6) Loved ones dying
7) Pollution of drinking water
8) Biological warfare
9) Cyber terrorism
10) Not having enough money for the future
Does it surprise you that fear of corrupt government officials is number one, for the ninth straight year in a row? The study did show that the fear of corrupt government officials hit its peak in 2020, and it has since dropped sharply, hitting a low not seen in the last eight years. I was also surprised that one’s own illness or death did not make the top ten. We Americans seem much more concerned with events that would affect us all; those were the top five fears, followed by illness and death of those we hold most dear.

Life and death are themes in both our readings this morning. In our reading from the book of Numbers, one of the books of the Torah, we find the Hebrew people once again challenged to the breaking point and once again blaming Moses and God for their plight. They have survived a plague, then a drought, followed by a brutal war with the Canaanites, then starvation from lack of food, and the people have had it. They have no home and they blame Moses and God for all their sufferings. Just when they think it could not get worse, here come the snakes. Remember, these people are not living in houses. These people have no defense; they are about as vulnerable as can be and their fear adds fuel to the fire of their anger. I imagine Moses is terrified, too. We have seen with our own eyes that an angry crowd is capable of unspeakable atrocities.

What does Moses do? He prays, then he knows what must be done. Moses takes the chance to turn this thing around. After all, they have come too far to let it all fall apart now. Moses creates an image of what is now the people’s greatest fear. Moses makes a sculpture of a poisonous snake. If they are bitten they are to look at the snake to be healed. Apparently, it worked and it worked so well that a few hundred years later, we learn in the book of 2 Kings that the King had the bronze snake destroyed because people were making it the center of their lives.

We are offered this story today as part of a progression we have been following. We began a few weeks ago with covenantal promises and then revisited the role of the law last week with the gift of the ten commandments. The promises and the law helped to shape an entire culture. The promises and the law helped to turn the hearts and minds of the people to God, but the promises and the law were not enough, especially in times of crisis like the Hebrews were enduring, times of famine, drought, war, deadly plague, and poisonous snakes. The people needed something more and in this instance, the image of what they feared most held the promise of deliverance from death.

This story of the bronze snake that saved the people from sickness and death is referenced thousands of years later by Jesus; Jesus compared himself to that bronze serpent, saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” It sounds like Jesus is foreshadowing his death on the cross. This is the story we are approaching, Friends, the story of Jesus offering himself up to those in power, the occupying Romans that would sentence him to a public execution.
That is not the end of the story, though, not even close. Jesus says, “…so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” What could this mean, “eternal life”? Some think of eternal life as reincarnation, the soul’s experience of life through multiple lifetimes. Jesus explains eternal life this way in John 17: 3; Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know God.” In knowing God, in being in relationship with God, in keeping the love that is God at the center of our lives, our fears are pushed from the forefront to the shadows and we can truly, and fully, live in spite of our fears.

We will always have some degree of fear, but we must not let our fears define us, we must not let our fears define others, and most importantly we must not let our fears overshadow our love and our hope for the future. I have plenty of fears about the future of humanity, the future of our planet, the future of democracy here and abroad, the future of our school down the street, and the future of the youngest among us. Our fears can teach us what matters most to us, but we must not dwell in our fears because fear makes us smaller and weaker. The artist LeAura Alderson wrote, “By dwelling in fear we die a thousand imagined deaths.” It is only in facing our fears that we are empowered, like those people so long ago who, when facing their own death, were instructed to look upon the cause of their fear and in so doing they lived! In facing our fears, our fears lose their power over us and we are free to get to work building the world we dream of, a world Jesus dreamed of, too, where love of God and love of one another guide us in all our ways.

In closing, on this Fourth Sunday of Lent, we have rounded the bend in the road to Jerusalem where our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, will be arrested and executed. Jesus dies and death can not hold him because the love of God that Jesus embodies is stronger than death. This is the good news. This, Friends, is the message of the gospel: there is a force more powerful than death; that force is love. In knowing this, we have nothing left to fear.

* https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2023/10/20/the-top-10-fears-in-american-2023/

Pastoral Prayer
Beloved God, we can not exactly know Your ways, but we can feel Your grace in the sensations that most capture our attention. In both delight and despair, we become focused in ways that bring us closer to whatever You really are. Save us, most Holy One, from the unfeeling; save us from autonomy; save us from ourselves. When our fears threaten to overshadow our love and our hope, I pray for the courage to face our fears that their power over us may be diminished. For those who are in pain, Lord, I pray for comfort. For those who are in their final hours, I pray for assurance and peace. In the ways we are anxious and stressed, Lord, I pray we remember to breathe and remember to be kind and remember the power of prayer in bringing a sense of calm. Guide us, I pray, in expanding the ways we worship out and into every aspect of our lives. Remind us, Beloved, to let thankfulness for our many blessings be ever-present in our hearts. This I pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

I leave you with these words from the prophet Jeremiah (6:16):

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”