Setting Fear Aside

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

November 18, 2018

Isaiah 36 and 37

Hezekiah was a good king. The book of 2nd Kings describes him in chapter 18 this way: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done…..The Lord was with him wherever he went”.

He purged idols from the temple and holy places, he reformed the priesthood. He worked to be a faithful king for his people.

And he still faced invasion by the Assyrians.

When we hear of people like him, we remember that the Lord being with him wherever he went didn’t mean bad things never happened to him. It meant that he wasn’t alone in the midst of what life sent his way.

Other stories in scripture that record other invasions will often place the responsibility square on the shoulders of the invaded people, as a punishment for their unfaithfulness. Next week, we’ll hear a story from Jeremiah, where he instructs the people that if they change their ways, if they follow God, then God will dwell with them. Sometimes Israel seems to see their relationship with God conditionally. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Hezekiah.

As far as we can see, Hezekiah has done all he has been instructed, and the Assyrian’s chief of staff, the Rabshakeh, which is certainly the coolest job title in the world, shows up at the gates and starts offering people a different story.
Do not listen to Hezekiah.
Do not rely on God.
Do not ignore the fact that no other countries’ gods have been able to withstand Assyria.
Do not trust your own thoughts.

Trust us. Yes, we’re invading your country, and soon we’ll be carting you off to exile, but for now, we’ll let you live in your own home, and eat from your own gardens.

It’s a tough place to be for sure.

Hezekiah tears his garments and puts on sackcloth, a sign of mourning.

While we hope for a more robust response from Hezekiah, the guy that God was with wherever he went, perhaps tilting toward despair isn’t always a bad response. His despair is more active than we often think of the word. His despair is not giving up. His despair is a frank acknowledgement of the situation on the ground.

He sends his people to meet with the prophet Isaiah. He enters into an active and visible signs of mourning that indicate to the people that he is aware of the gravity of the situation.

Rabshakeh has a lot of “do nots” in his speech— “do not trust God”, “do not trust our own need for self determination and liberty”, “do not trust Hezekiah”.

The response from Isaiah also includes a “do not”.

“Do not be afraid”.

We all know of world leaders throughout the centuries who have convinced people to go against their own interests, to go against their own values, because the leaders have whipped up fear in the people they claim to serve. They have convinced people to settle for a mild captivity, rather than risk death.

Political leaders tell us to be very afraid—of each other, of power, of other people. And when we are led by our fears and not our hopes, we fall prey to lies and we forget about hope.

Bad leaders set up false alternatives. If you don’t do X, then Y will certainly happen. The king of Assyria, and his mouthpiece, the Rabshakeh, come from a long line of despots, power hungry rulers, and petty tyrants.

I think that’s what has Hezekiah so worried. A more compelling argument from the enemy at the gates is hard to counter, even when we know it is a lie. It sounds better. It inspires more confidence. It offers immediate benefits, even if the long term consequences are bad.

As I read this story at my bible study, I realized how disappointed I was with Isaiah’s first response to the tragedy. Do not be afraid is good and all, but is hard to set aside fear when Rabshakeh is yelling at you from the gates. And then Isaiah reports that God says “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land. I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.”

A rumor?

Really?

He will hear a rumor. And then he will die offstage, later on, and none of the people he’s yelling at now will be there to witness it.

I don’t know about you, but I want the response to bullies like the Rabshakeh to be BIG and BOLD and CLEARLY on the side of SWIFT JUSTICE.

Rumors? Justice later on? This doesn’t feed my revenge fantasy very well. I want to pop popcorn and sit back to watch God mete out divine justice.

For those of us who want to be faithful to God, to trust in God and not in earthly leaders who threaten us with fear—this is the challenge. God’s promises are not quick fixes on our terms. We don’t get to tell God how to deal with Rabshakeh. We don’t get to decide “I’m sure that some day God will fix this, but in the meantime, I’m going to hedge my bets and trust that the king of Assyria is my best bet for the moment”.

What does it mean for us to not be afraid? Especially when the counter message—to be very afraid—makes so much more sense for anyone reading the news.

What could we accomplish if we’re not afraid? We’ll still have some fear, for when used correctly, it is a helpful trait and one to which we should attend.

But what could we accomplish, as a nation, as a congregation, if we decided we weren’t going to let fear be the only story we listen to when it yells at us at the city gates?

This past week was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazis burned and destroyed Jewish stores, homes, and synagogues, while German citizens stood by, some stunned in horror, others in support. At least 267 synagogues were destroyed. Hundreds of people were killed. Tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and taken to camps.

There is an echo of the Rabshakeh in what happened in Germany. The shock and awe of the Nazi behavior must have been like the Assyrian invasion, in some ways. And the call to trust in the leadership of people who are harming your fellow citizens—if you don’t cause trouble, you’ll be safe—it is an appealing, if untrue call.

Is anyone safe when society collapses like that?

We may think we’re safe, but is there safety for any of us, when some of us could be carted off to camps, or held in detention at the border, or deported because we don’t “look” like citizens?

In Germany, for all of the people who were persuaded to be afraid by Hitler, the 20th century Rabshakeh, and his calls to go along, to ignore what they were seeing— there were also people who heard Isaiah’s words “do not be afraid”.

I heard a story on NPR this past week by reporter Uri Berliner. His 94 year old father was a Jewish child in Germany in 1938 who remembers Kristallnacht. His family’s story illustrates what happens when we respond to fear with more fear and when we respond to it with hope.

Uri’s father escaped Germany as part of a movement that started after Kristallnacht. The Kinder Transport, or children’s transport, pulled thousands of Jewish kids out of Germany right before the war started. 10,000 of them found shelter in the UK, and others went to other countries in Europe. His father found refuge with a family in Sweden, who kept him safe, at possible risk to themselves. He emigrated to the US as a 22 year old man, where he found asylum and safety on our shores as a refugee. Do not be afraid.
The boy’s parents were unable to get out of Germany.

They were sheltered by some friends, Charlotte and Fritz Mynarek, until someone reported them. His parents were sent to a concentration camp, where they both were murdered.  The man who had sheltered them was sent to a labor camp, where he died. His wife was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck camp for the crime of sheltering her friends. Charlotte survived the war, and later found Uri’s father to tell him what had happened to his parents. “My dear boy … you are still very young and have your life ahead of you.”
Go forth and live.

There is no promise that tragedy will not befall us when we follow God’s call to not be afraid, when we respond with hope and faith. Like Hezekiah, like the Mynareks, our faith in God shapes our response to the news of the world, not the other way around.

It is a tragedy that the Mynareks died doing what is right. It would also have been a tragedy, had they lived, doing what was wrong. The person who reported them to the Gestapo may have survived the war. Which person would you rather be? The one whose fear leads them to do the wrong thing? Or the one who overcomes their fear to do the right thing?

I pray our world doesn’t fracture again as it did in Hitler’s Germany, and in Rabshakeh’s Assyria. But if we want to hold it together, we can’t be led by our fear. We have to be led by our hope. We have to remember we belong to each other.

Mother Theresa is quoted as saying, “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”.

I invite you to read along in Isaiah this week. See how it works out for Hezekiah who responds to words of fear with faith.

What could we accomplish if we remember, if we choose, not to let our fear define us?
Today we are dedicating our pledges for the 2019 budget year. And I’ve been thinking about our fear.

I don’t think we are as gripped by fear as some churches seem to be, but it’s there. Membership is not rising. The budget is not rising. We have plans for a new building coming along, but I know that cost comes with some anxiety, even as we have money in the bank to get us started.  We want to hire another pastoral staff person to help us. There are lots more ministries to do here than the session and I can do alone.

But to make that a reality, it would involve a pretty big increase to the budget. Can we make it happen? I’m certain we have the ability. Will it require changes to our giving? Yes.

If everyone gives this next year what we all gave last year, we’ll get by, but we’ll have to make some cuts. There are a lot of us at Southminster. And if everyone decided to pledge something, anything,  our ability to be a voice of hope in this neighborhood would increase dramatically. $10 more a week from everyone in worship would increase the budget by $75,000.

For those of you who are already at the limit of what you can give, thank you. For the rest of us, maybe this is the year to dream big.

What could we accomplish if we remember, if we choose, not to let our fear define us?

Abraham Lincoln once said “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm”. I looked up that quote to make sure Lincoln actually said it. I know not to trust everything I read on the internet. And he did say those words. To a woman he was helping to get across a muddy road. From paving stone to paving stone, one step at a time.

Isn’t that how we’re supposed to move through life? We often think about the big-ness of the world’s problems and how overwhelming they are. But our faith calls us to not be afraid, and to be sure we put our feet in the right place, and then stand firm. And it is in those smaller moments that we complete the journey.

Listen to the final section of our assigned scripture passage today, from the 2nd Chapter of Isaiah:

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.
’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

The violence of the Rabshakeh, yelling at the city gates manages, for a time, to compel people to act out of their fear.

The vision of Isaiah, of nations streaming to God’s holy mountain so God can teach us the ways of peace—that is a vision that lasts. And one we can lift up every time people try to compel us toward fear. Do not fear, God tells us. For one day, we will learn God’s ways and take God’s paths and we will know peace.

Amen.

Here is the article with the music made by the instruments that were constructed out of guns.

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