John 11:45-57 – Against Fear and Worry

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So, from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Therefore, Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts, they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him. (NIV)

Effective ministry and service is risky business. Just ask Jesus. The Jewish ruling council (Sanhedrin) was deeply disturbed by all the hubbub Jesus was stirring. Rather than celebrating the healing of many people in both body and soul, the rulers were anxious, worried, and afraid. They feared the worst: The Romans will obliterate both temple and nation.

Wherever you find a group of folks living in continual fear that something awful is going to happen, there you will find a strict code of conformity and no allowances for difference. After all, rocking the boat only draws attention. If anything, or anyone, deviates from established protocol, the voice of fear says, the entire religious system and even its people will be destroyed.

Well, my goodness, Jesus was anything but a conformist to the status quo. He frequently operated outside of established religious norms. Thus, Christ was viewed by many religious leaders as a loose cannon that was making too much noise and needed to be silenced before something terrible happened.

One of the problems with living in the fearful worry of what horrible thing may occur is that we play an ignorant game of prognostication. We simply do not know the future. We can predict. We can become full-time pundits. Yet, when all is said and done, the future is not ours to see. Only God is privy to standing above time and space.

Churches, Christian organizations, and really any institution whose chief focus is keeping everyone in line out of a fear of losing influence, power, privilege, money, devotion, buildings, or people will likely experience a self-fulfilled prophecy of doom. It is necessary we define our ministries, services, and actions by who we are and not by what we don’t do.

Today’s Gospel lesson chronicles the forward progress to the ultimate suffering and death of Jesus. Within the Apostle John’s account, two streams run parallel with one another. There is a group of Jews who observed Jesus, listened to his teaching, saw his miraculous works, and believed in him.  Alongside them is another group of Jews who experienced all the same events and heard all the same words of Jesus – yet responded in a quite different manner by plotting how Jesus might be arrested and killed.

Fear can take such a tight hold on some that premeditated murder is planned and executed without any moral misgivings. Worry can worm its way so deeply into a group that verbal assassinations seem both justified and necessary. Anxiety can overwhelm an institution to such a degree that rationalizations for unethical behavior are rife. People cease to be looked at as people. They are referred to as threats, demonized as monsters who are trying to take away a way of life.

Christ before Caiaphas by Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst, c.1617

Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke to his fellow religious leaders, perhaps without even knowing the truth and deep import of his prophetic words: “You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Indeed, not only did Jesus die for the nation of Israel, but on behalf of all nations, and all people. 

The implications of Christ’s death are magnanimous. The extent of his atonement for the people includes redemption from the bondage of sin; reconciliation between us and God; satisfaction of God’s wrath against the sin of the world; and, victory over the demonic realm, death, and hell. With all this incredible work of restoration and renewal, fear and worry take a back seat. Courage and confidence take the wheel.

Merciful Jesus, you are my guide, the joy of my heart, the author of my hope, and the object of my love. I come seeking refreshment and peace. Show me your mercy, relieve my fears and anxieties, and grant me a quiet mind and an expectant heart, that by the assurance of your presence I may learn to abide in you, who is my Lord and my God. Amen.

Genesis 31:22-42 – On the Run

Jacob and Laban by Nicola Grassi
Jacob and Laban by Italian painter Nicola Grassi (1682-1748)

On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrel and harp? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?”

Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.

So, Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.

Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So, he searched but could not find the household gods.

Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine and let them judge between the two of us.

“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” (NIV)

Jacob’s in-law issues did not magically disappear when he sneaked out of town with his entire family. I am glad God is faithful and acts on our behalf even when we are fearful with little faith. Far too often we do the right thing in the wrong way. It is far too easy to run away from people we don’t like. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Sometimes we plain need divine intervention to deal with people in our lives.

To Jacob’s credit, he obeyed God and headed back to the land of Canaan. However, he did it in a deceitful way which avoided confrontation. Out of fear of facing his father-in-law Laban and the worry of what might happen, Jacob got out of Dodge. It seems Jacob’s wife Rachel also acted out of fear by taking her father’s idols. Fear can cause us to have some skewed ideas and do some stupid things which get us in trouble.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” –Jerry Seinfeld

Laban found out what was going on with Jacob and was anything but a happy camper. He went after the upstart Jacob with gusto and finally caught up to him. Despite having the power and ability to deal severely with Jacob, Laban backs off because Jacob finally found his voice and took his father-in-law to task. Embedded in Jacob’s rehearsal of their relationship is the God who intervened and took care of Jacob when Laban didn’t.

Jacob Confront Laban by Jan Steen, 1669
Jacob Confronts Laban by Dutch painter Jan Steen, 1669

The lengthy dialogue between Jacob and Laban was a power struggle: Laban wanted to keep the status quo authority as family head over Jacob’s family; but Jacob asserted himself as having his own distinct household.  In the end, they ended-up on equal footing because of God’s intervention.  Whereas Laban had his own intentions for Jacob and his family, God had other plans.  It was God who enriched Jacob with a wealth of flocks and herds, even as he was being oppressed and intimidated by Laban.

The same God, who was with Jacob, is with you and me:

  • God is with us through difficulty, oppression, and injustice.

Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20, CEB)

  • God does not give up on his people. We Christians are often living contradictions, like Jacob, who acknowledge God and give him glory but at the same time act out of fear and insecurity. Out of the compost of human sin, the sovereign God accomplishes his will.

Christ died for us when we were unable to help ourselves. We were living against God, but at just the right time Christ died for us… while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (Romans 5:6, 8, ERV)

  • God cares both about what we do, and about why and how we do it. Ethics is the difference between morality and legality; and, between what I ought to do, and what is required of me. Jacob did what was demanded of him by God; yet, he did it out of fear along with unwise methods.

Anything that is not done in faith is sin. (Romans 14:23b, GW)

  • God’s intervention is needed. Without divine help, we are hopelessly lost. Furthermore, we continue to need God so we can deal with the unpredictable attempts of others to control us and push us into a mold outside of trusting in God.

Give all your worries to God because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, NCV)

  • God instills confidence in us. After twenty hard years of service, Jacob returned to the land of Canaan prosperous and more confident in God than ever. Jacob’s trials with Laban gave him a growing sense of dependence on God. Jacob struggled, suffered, and endured – and came out the stronger for it.

You know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:3-4, NRSV)

God loves us enough to not always give us an easy out because he is concerned for our walk of faith and our education in grace. So, may you discover the intervening God and exercise trust through those times when others give you a hard time.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.  –The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951

1 Corinthians 7:32-40

            We understand worry and anxiety.  Its part of the human condition in this broken world.  You may have even woken up this morning with deep furrows of anxiety about the state of your life – and maybe God was lost somewhere in your worry.  The Bible addresses worry many times, and the Apostle Paul brings it out here in our New Testament lesson for today.
            Throughout the letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul dealt with several issues effecting the life and spiritual (even physical) health of the church.  In chapter 7, he discusses the prospect of marriage for unmarried persons (sounds like Paul spoke at a lot of college campuses).  He goes back and forth as if he has a daisy in his hand giving a pre-marital counsel of “she loves me, she loves me not” as he pulls petals off the flower.
            Paul vacillates between whether to get married or not because he’s concerned for the larger issue of worry and anxiety.  “I want all of you to be free from worry.”  This, then, becomes a sage grid from which to make an important life decision: Does being unmarried create worry and anxiety within you, to the point that you can’t think about pleasing God?  Then drop the long engagement and get married; or, put yourself out there to connect in a relationship.  If not being married doesn’t cause you to worry, then stay in your current state and don’t pursue marriage.  Use your station in life to serve God freely, liberated from the worry of caring for a spouse.
            Pleasing and serving the Lord is Paul’s highest good.  If we are in life circumstances which make it difficult for us to serve God, then we ought to work to change the situation so that we can focus better on Christ.  This is one of the most simple and wise ways of making decisions for the Christian, and discerning God’s will.

 

God Almighty, you have brought me in safety to this new day.  Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into worry – forgetting to please you in every way.  Help me not be overcome by anxiety, and in all I do direct me to fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, along with you and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Luke 12:22-31

            Let’s be as real and honest as we possibly can before God, because there is no way we are ever going to fool him, anyway.  We all worry.  Some folks might worry more than others, but worry is endemic to the human condition.  Telling someone not to worry (which we are in the obnoxious habit of doing with each other) is about as helpful as barking at another person about having hemorrhoids – it just isn’t going to do much good.  So, what do we do about worry?  We change the conversation and put the priority not on ourselves, but on God.  Jesus told a group of worry-warts to “put on God’s work first” (verse 31, CEV).
 
            We inevitably worry because we do not put the context of our concern in the realm of how really big God is in the world.  Here is some Jesus logic:  Birds and flowers don’t worry much, and are well cared for.  Birds and flowers aren’t as important as people.  Therefore God will take care of you.  So, then, our emphasis is to shift toward the ability of God, rather than our inability.  And this is right where Jesus wants us – recognizing that we are not self-sufficient independent automatons who are meant to function by themselves without ever needing help.
 
            Now we are the nub of the issue:  We don’t like being dependent.  We’ll do most anything other than admit we need help.  Sound familiar?  Here is some more Bible logic:  We need Jesus.  The church is the Body of Christ.  Therefore we need the church.  Some of us are more than ready to cry out to God, but have no intention of admitting any need to a group of people who might misunderstand or judge us.  We would rather worry.
 
            It’s time to get off the roller coaster and put our feet on the ground of God’s work, which is the church in the world.  We can run all we want, but we’ll never outrun worry or the reality that Jesus is tied forever to his church.  So, turn around, face them both squarely, and see what that kind of faith does in your life.
 

 

            Compassionate God, I believe I can trust you for everything, including my nagging worries.  Today I choose to take steps of faith in the understanding I have of you and the Body of Christ, and confront my worry in Jesus’ Name.  Amen.