Fear will make you do strange things. It will make you do terrible things.
Fear can make you hurt others. Ultimately, it will hurt you more than anyone else.
Zach Williams has recorded a song titled “Fear Is A Liar”. To date, the official has over 22 million hits. It captures well the destructive nature of fear.
It’s also true that fear functions as a God-given self preservation mechanism. The great quandary which confronts us requires us to discern between real and imagined fears.
As Jesus prepared for his return to heaven at the end of his earthly ministry, he told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) This promise forms a wonderful bookend to the events of Jesus’ birth.
Jesus was born into an environment filled with fear. His parents had made a long journey to Bethlehem out of obedience, and fear, of the occupying Roman legions. Although Judea experienced relative stability under the rule of Rome and the 33 year reign of Herod, it wasn’t exactly peace as we know it. Many people sought a return to true Jewish independence and purity of worship. While Herod maintained order with an iron hand.
Fear consumed Herod the Great. He was paranoid about protecting his throne. He killed family members. He executed his wife and his brother. He had his sons killed. He believed in eliminating all potential competitors to his power.
Consumed by fear Herod lashed out creating an environment of retribution and fear.
It wasn’t only family. Rebellions and revolts were not unusual during the reign of Herod. His commitment to extinguish these revolts kept him in the good graces of Rome. Like other provincial rulers of the time opposition was met with violence and usually death. By modern standards, Herod was a monster.
Life was cheap when it came to maintaining the peace and the power.
Then Jesus, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, arrived. Herod recognized the threat. He murdered all boys under the age of 2 in the village of Bethlehem.
Jesus was born in this world or fear. Jesus lived in this world of fear. Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt to protect their son’s life.
When we apply the titles of Isaiah 9:6 to Jesus, ‘Prince of Peace’ isn’t just filling in space to provide cadence. Herod had every right to fear Jesus. Jesus was born to become king. Jesus was born not only to replace Herod, but to replace Herod’s environment of fear with and environment of peace. Significantly, in contrast to Herod, Jesus wasn’t ever proposing to maintain peace through violence. He maintains peace through peace.
Thirty-three years later, Herod the Great is long dead. Jesus himself is about to die. But while Herod’s final days were filled with increased paranoia, Jesus could approach death and promise his followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”
Fear isn’t dead.
Fear is real, and sometimes it’s healthy.
But fear is often a liar. And when fear festers it fosters hurt and turmoil.
I’m not suggesting that all Jesus followers just need to “think happy thoughts” to solve all our problems. I am suggesting that we need to take seriously Jesus’ mission to bring peace to the world, including to our world.
The apostle Paul explains it this way in Romans 8:14,
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
May the love and peace of Christ overcome your fears this Christmas and in the year ahead. May you find refuge in the arms of your Father and strength in His Spirit. May you find joy in your adoption as a child of God.
Psalm 4 is not a simple song to read and follow the train of thought.
Two commentaries I read interpreted the psalm in completely different ways. The first focused on v7 and concluded that a severe drought, possibly connected to idol worship from v2, was the context of the psalm. As a result he primarily applied the psalm to our lives by warning against using contemporary idols to distract us from trusting God.
I followed the second interpretation views the psalm as an evening benediction that I’ll describe below. I don’t really have the expertise to decide between the interpretations of these two scholars, but I found this second reading plausible and more applicable to my life, and hopefully yours.
The psalmist breaks the song into 4 sections, each bookended by a similar thought/topic.
|1. The Lord answers prayer||v1 Answer me…||v3 …the Lord hears.|
|2. Trust in the Lord||v4 Tremble…||v5 …trust in the Lord|
|3. Prayer of confidence||v6 Prosperity…?||v7 …abound!|
|4. Sleep well|
The psalmist begins (v1-3) by laying his situation out before God. We don’t get a lot of details but we understand that there’s conflict. I think many of us will resonate with the psalmist’s situation. He gets to the end of a day. It’s been a rough day. There’s been some conflict and he feels disrespected and even like his reputation has been muddied. Lies have been told. He comes home frazzled.
A key phrase occurs at the end of v2. The Hebrew words can be translated as either “seek false gods” or “seek lies”. In one sense false gods are lies, so they can both be correct. However, if we read this verse as the psalmist defending himself, it seems to fit better that he’s offended by lies being told against him.
Each section concludes with a statement of confidence, and verse three closes with the psalmist reminding himself, and his oppressors, “The Lord hears when I call to him.” we all need that reminder at times, don’t we? This is why many people use prayer journals in their devotional lives. They allow the opportunity to go back and look at past prayers and remind themselves that God still hears when we call to him.
Verse 4 begins the second section with a in dramatic fashion with a single word directed at his tormentors, “Tremble”. The psalmist doesn’t provide a reason to tremble. He may have fear in mind, but I suspect that his motive is anger. This meaning was adopted by the Septuagint (an important translation of the Old Testament into Greek) and quoted in Ephesians 4:2, “In your anger do not sin.”
The psalmist advises his opponents to contain their anger and malice. They should examine their hearts and be silent. But stopping their bad behaviour isn’t enough. They need to get right with God, so the author advises them to offer sacrifices, to worship, and to trust God. Again this last line has relevance not only for the troublemakers, but also for the psalmist. To gain a healthy perspective on this situation and life as a whole, worship and trust God.
The third section opens in v6 with a question, a doubt, maybe even an accusation against Yahweh. “Where will good things in life come from?” Having expressed that doubt the psalmist immediately answers his own question by quoting from Aaron’s blessing in Numbers 6:24-27. This blessing that he’d no doubt heard many times before points him to God as the provider of all good things. “May the light of your face shine on us.” The greatest joy for which he prays is not that of a harvest, of food or drink, but an awareness of the light of God’s face shining upon him.
Having completed this process of moving his thoughts from dwelling on the turmoil of the day to dwelling on the blessings of God, the psalm concludes,
“In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, Lord,
make me dwell in safety.”
Regardless of what life throws at us, may we each sleep in peace, confident of God’s protection and that the light of His face shines upon us.
In my current sermon series I will spend one week discussing some of the bigger concepts in Christianity: Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love. I don’t think the Bible ever groups them all together, but they often appear together in pairs or triads. Since they are core Christian values it’s not surprising that they’re each associated with the birth of Christ. Despite the connection they share to Christ’s birth, I chose to use Romans 15:13 as the key text for this series since it mentions Hope, Joy, and Peace.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)
I find the logic in this sentence a little complicated to follow. The verse has a lot of great words, but the way they connect takes a little thinking through. Here’s my step-by-step breakdown of the syntax.
- God is given the title: God of Hope. I like that.
- God gives people joy and peace. We don’t generate them ourselves.
- Joy and peace are given to us as we trust the God of Hope. So if we don’t trust him, should we expect joy and peace?
- The God of Hope gives us joy and peace in order that we might receive hope.
- Therefore, our hope (confident expectation) is inspired by the joy and peace the God of Hope gives us.
- The Holy Spirit ties our joy, peace, and hope together. The Holy Spirit connects the dots for us.
I find it very interesting that hope comes from joy. It’s very tempting to say that our hope for the future comes from our knowledge of what Christ has done for us in the past. Or that our hope comes from the promises contained in Scripture. Both those things play a part, but since joy [and peace] is something we experience, it’s also true to say “Our hope arises out of our experiences of God in our lives.”
God promises to give us joy. When we fill our lives in such a way that we suppress God’s joy it impacts our relationship with Him and diminishes our overall hope. I’m not saying Christians should never be sad. Of course we should. We’re human. I do believe that Christians need to keep reminding ourselves of our reasons for joy. We need to remind ourselves of our experiences of God. We need to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness.
Even in times of great darkness our memories of good times, of joy, reminds us that life isn’t always dark. Our experiences of God inform our future. We need to remind each other individually, but also as a church. Our relationship with God isn’t limited to words on a page. It’s also experienced through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the blessings God gives us. Churches without stories are churches without hope.
Our trust in God should produce joy, that inspires hope. That’s why Paul could write to the Thessalonian church “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
- Pop culture often portrays Christians as morbid party-poopers. Do you think that’s because we don’t convey our joy enough?
- When do you most experience God’s joy? Is it a worship inspired feeling, or something that hits you at other times.
- Do you agree that “joy inspires hope”?
My current sermon series on Matthew concentrates on identifying themes and structures. A verse-by-verse study of the book would just take too long. So I need to point out that the magi’s search for a newborn king supports all the kingly concepts captured in 1:1.
Despite Jesus kingship, an appropriate word to summarise this chapter is “turmoil”. Look how the events described impact people’s lives:
- Joseph: His betrothed is suddenly pregnant! (1:18-21) I imagine this was pretty traumatic for Mary also!!
- Jerusalem’s Religious Establishment: What would happen to them if the Messiah arrived?
- Herod: Suddenly, his crown is threatened by an apparent challenger.
- Bethlehem: When a king faces turmoil, so do his subjects. The murder of all boys under the age of 2 surely brought unimaginable terror to the town.
- Jesus’ family: Forced to live as refugees in Egypt for about 4 years.
While the Gospel of Luke presents the birth of Christ as the traditional Christmas message of peace and hope, Matthew conveys a different message. Matthew presents the dramatic inbreaking of the Kingdom of Heaven that challenges the existing order and establishment.
Matthew’s dramatic narrative is not designed to inspire revolution. Instead, he tells a story of reassurance. In the midst of turmoil God is still in control. Herod sought to use the magi to destroy the Messiah, but God protected him. Chapter 2 concludes with Herod dying, and Jesus’ family settling peacefully in Nazareth. After his tumultuous entry into the world, Jesus experienced 25-30 years of peaceful anonymity. As frenetic as the magi’s visit may have seemed, God was able to bring Jesus and his family safely through the storm.
I wish I had better answers as to why all those children had to die in Bethlehem just to protect Jesus. Was God in control in their lives too? My best rationalisation is that it serves as a reminder of the severity of the spiritual battle taking place around Jesus. It demonstrates the evil and suffering that Jesus came to forgive, and to remove.
This is a well-known story, please share your reflections with us.
- Is there a particular aspect of this story that captivates you?
- Do you agree that “turmoil” is an appropriate descriptive word for this chapter?
- How do you process and explain the deaths of those Bethlehem babies?
I must confess that I found this week’s sermon preparation academically exciting. I only hope the church members also experienced some spiritual excitement from the message.
I was fascinated by the similarities in the praise of Zechariah (Lk 1:67-79) and the angels (2:10-14) which I’ll lay out below.
Zechariah: [God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… to rescue us from the hand of our enemies… (1:69, 74b)
Angel: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you. (2:11)
While Zechariah clearly anticipates an earthly Davidic king and rescue from the oppression of the Romans, the angel doesn’t shy away from that expectation. In fact, the angel emphasises Jesus’ Davidic heritage by referring to the “town of David”, rather than to Bethlehem.
However, we sell Zechariah short if we think his understanding of God’s salvation was limited to political deliverance. Zechariah understood the connection between political peace for God’s people and their holiness. He knew from studying the prophets that Israel had lost its freedom because of their sinful neglect of their covenant with God. That’s why in v77 he summarises John’s mission as being to give his people the knowledge of salvation throug the forgiveness of theirs sins. Which is certainly consistent with the Christian understanding of Jesus as Saviour.
Zechariah: the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. (1:78b-79b)
Angel: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. (2:10)
Zechariah and the angel both see God working through Jesus to replace fear and darkness with joy and peace. While the reference to Jesus as “the rising sun” is unusual, the imagery of Jesus bringing light to a dark world is frequently used in the NT. Eg. John 1:4-5
Paul uses similar language in an interesting way in Ephesians 5:8b-10 where he calls upon Christians to “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.” Not only is Jesus the “rising sun”, but Christians are “children of light”. And while Jesus bring joy and peace, Christians are to reflect our Saviour by first “finding out what pleases the Lord” and then living it.
Zechariah: …to guide our feet into the path of peace. (1:79c)
Angels: …on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (2:14b)
Both Zechariah and the angels expected the Messiah to bring peace, but the both regard the peace as conditional. Zechariah has already connected it with the forgiveness of sins, and here implies that while Jesus guides our feet, we still have to walk down the path. Jesus isn’t dragging anyone down the path of peace.
Likewise, while the angels declared “joy to the world”, the peace is limited to those “on whom his favor rests”. Without going into a lengthy explanation, I understand that phrase to reference those who accept Jesus as Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. They are the ones who receive God’s favour. Jesus comes for all, but not everyone benefits from his coming!
So maybe you’re not jumping out of your skin with excitement right now, but I find the comparison fascinating. We find Luke repeating the same message, but quoting different people saying the same thing in different ways.
FINALLY: An interesting point about 2:11 is that this is the only place in Scripture that all three of these titles for Jesus are used together: Saviour, Messiah (Christ), and Lord. Also, if you’re looking for some indication in look about the deity of Christ… there’s that whole Son of God thing in 1:35 & 3:37, but additionally, in 1:46-47 Mary refers to God as her Lord and Saviour, titles that the angels also bestow upon Jesus in 2:11!
I know I didn’t really discuss the nature of the promised peace, so maybe you can help me out?
- Do you think the angels are only speaking of spiritual peace / forgiveness of sins? or are they speaking more broadly than that?
- How have you experienced God’s peace in your life?
- Should Christians expect peaceful families, or peaceful societies?
- Surely churches should at least be peaceful places? If so, then doesn’t that mean Christians carry a peace that goes beyond spiritual reconciliation?
- Read Philippians 2:1-11 here.
- Sermon audio will be available soon.
This passage of Philippians really prompts humility in us. First, it encourages us to think more highly of others than ourselves, the very definition of humility. Second, In v6-11 Paul uses the life of Jesus as an example for us. Basically he says that Jesus demonstrated humility by thinking more highly of us than himself, becoming human and dying for us. That is a staggering thought for me, that Jesus thought more highly of me than himself. There is absolutely no logical reason for him to think like this…and plenty of logical reasons he shouldn’t, but no one ever accused love of being logical.
The logical flow in this passage can be illustrated as:
Serving Others –> Humility –> Peace/Unity –> Joy
So we have a couple of ways to develop humility: 1. Meditate on the example of Jesus which should squash any proud thoughts we might have, & 2. Serve others, since this moves our thoughts away from ourselves. Do you have any thoughts on this passage or suggestions for ways we can develop humility in our lives?
Songs & Scripture
I’m starting something different this week. I’ll give you a sneak preview of the text for the coming Sunday and you can suggest songs that go with that passage. Next Sunday (Nov 2) the sermon will come from Philippians 2 1-11. This passage centers on humility (v3) and the facts of the Gospel: Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection and return. In fact, verses 6-11 seem to be a song that Paul has copied into his letter, so what songs come to your mind that talk about Jesus’ life and death?
- That’s Why We Praise Him
- We Saw Thee Not
- I Believe in Jesus (SFP – Howard)
- I Believe in Jesus (SFP – Nelson)
- Creed (Rich Mullins on the album A Liturgy, A Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band – 1993)