Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2019
Genesis 15:1-6, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We live in a time of fear. This is especially true after the mass shootings last week. In the days following, people have been especially skittish. There was a motorcycle that backfired in Times Square which caused a theater to be evacuated mid-performance and sparked a stampede of tourists that sent several people to the hospital. A sign fell over at a shopping mall in Utah, sparking a similar panicked rush to the doors. Someone thought they saw a man with a gun at the headquarters of USA Today, sparking a massive response from local law enforcement, which later reported at a press conference that they found no guns and that no crime had been committed. People are increasingly afraid to be in public spaces, and when they are, more and more of them are making careful note of the exits in case they need to get out quickly.
But even before these most recent shootings, there has been in increasing sense of unease, a growing fear that something is off in our culture. A recent rant I read online seems to capture this unease well. This person wrote: “America is going through an unprecedented social crisis. The media is staffed by nutcases and grifters. Social media is engineered by zillion dollar companies to essentially rewire your brain. Everyone is on some combination of booze, pot, violent video games and porn. Nobody has any friends. Suicide is rocketing up. Depression is rocketing up, both at unprecedented levels.”
There’s some hyperbole there, to be sure, but not much! Add to this assessment our poisoned politics, the widespread breakdown of family and community life, and the lowest levels of church attendance in decades, and you can see why another commentator recently wrote, “It is hard to shake the feeling that the country is on a precipice.” There’s no doubt about it – we live in a time of fear.
What a balm it is, then, to hear these words our Lord Jesus has for us this morning. There’s a lot going on in our scripture readings for today, but I have been captivated all week by a single verse. It’s the very first verse in our gospel reading. There we hear Jesus say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Now I don’t want to pluck one verse out of a longer passage and make is say what I want it to say, which is a practice that is all-too-common in some corners of Christianity. I don’t want to be guilty of it myself. But at the same time I think there is plenty in this single verse that we can meditate on this morning. There is plenty in this single sentence from our Lord Jesus that we need to unpack and digest. This is a sentence that we desperately need to hear!
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Let’s parse this out. First, Jesus tells his disciples to not be afraid. He is speaking specifically about the fear of not having enough, the fear the disciples have about what they will wear and what they will eat and what they will drink, fears about having enough of what they need in this life.
But this isn’t the only time we hear these words in scripture. In fact, “Do not be afraid,” is the most repeated commandment in all of scripture! We hear it in our first reading for today too! There God speaks to an Abram who is anxious and fearful and confused about how or if God will keep his promises, about how or if God is present anymore. God says to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And Abram believed the Lord. Abram trusted him – and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
We hear God say “Do not be afraid” in many other places too. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the Temple, the first thing he said was, “Do not be afraid. The same thing happened when Gabriel appeared to Mary: “Do not be afraid Mary,” he said, “for you have found favor with God.” When Jesus gave the disciples the miraculous catch of fish, Peter fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Lord, go away from me, for I am a sinful man!” And Jesus said to him, “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid.” This commandment is repeated in scripture more than any other. But it is more than just a command. These words do what they command! As we hear them our fear begins to loosen its grip on us. When God himself tells us to not be afraid, how can we not be encouraged by that? How can we not be strengthened by that? How can we not be less afraid?
In our gospel reading Jesus addresses these words to his “little flock.” This is such a tender and affectionate way for Jesus to refer to his disciples. The “flock” language also draws on the history of Israel being described as God’s flock, God’s special, beloved people who are shepherded and guided by him. They might be “little” – small in number, vulnerable in the midst of a big hostile world – but they are his.
We are that little flock today! We might feel little against the powers loose in our world today. Like Abram we might feel anxious and fearful and confused about whether or if God will keep his promises to us, about whether or if God is present. But Christ Jesus tells us, his little flock, to not be afraid. And why? Because, he says, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.
What is this kingdom? It is not a nation. It is not a specific church body. Sometimes this kingdom is confused with either of those things – with disastrous effects – but the truth is that this kingdom our Father is giving us is something much bigger than both of them. This kingdom is described in our reading from Hebrews as “that city whose architect and builder is God.” It is described in Hebrews as “a better country, a heavenly one.”
But this kingdom is not just where we go after we die. We have that future hope as well, but it is even more than that! This kingdom breaks into our lives even now as we live by faith, as we live in hope. It is a state we live in now as God’s gracious reign takes hold of our hearts. It is a kingdom that becomes visible to others even now as we share the hope that is in us, as we share the love and forgiveness and mercy we have received through Christ. We give people a foretaste of this kingdom as we courageously seek to do God’s will. “On earth as it is in heaven,” right?
It is God’s good pleasure to give us this kingdom. We don’t earn the right to be there. We don’t bring it into being by our own efforts. This kingdom, where God rules our lives and our hearts, is a gift of grace, received through faith in Christ.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
I don’t have any special wisdom or easy solutions to the many deep problems facing our nation and our culture today. I’m not going to give you any thinly veiled instructions on who you should vote for or what laws you should support. Not only am I not entirely sure myself, but I also believe that Christians of good faith can come to different conclusions about many of these things, and that bringing a quasi-religious fervor to some of these issues is part of the problem.
What I am absolutely convinced of, however, is that more than anything else, the world needs us to be the people of God. That is to say, the world needs us to be people of hope, people of faith. The world needs us to be people of love and mercy. The world needs us to bear witness to the fact that although our world is broken and bloody, God so loved this world that he sent his only Son to save it.
We are sent to bear witness to this love – both in our words and in our deeds. This is hard. This is scary. We feel so small. We are so few.
And so our Lord Jesus says to us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
The Father is giving you this kingdom here and now as you hear this tender word that pushes out your fears. The Father is giving you this kingdom here and now as you receive his Son, given to you in bread and wine for your salvation.
Through these means of grace Christ begins to reign over our hearts, so that instead of being afraid, we would be people of hope, living out God’s love here and now – on earth as it is in heaven.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church