REV. DAVID KNUDSON
Luke 12 - Rev. David Knudson
12 Pentecost C, 7 August 2016
Text: Luke 12:32-40
A little guilt can be a good thing. Since it's probably safe to say that none of us likes to feel guilty, a little guilt can help to keep us from doing what we shouldn't.
A little fear can probably be a good thing too. A healthy fear of danger may keep us from physical and emotional harm. A friend of mine once told me that he had taken up sky-diving. Some time later, when I saw him again, I asked how that was going. He said that he had to give it up because of his back. “Oh,” I said, “I didn't realize you had back problems.” “Yes,” he replied, “It's the yellow streak running down my back.”
Smart man! He's still alive, years later, and apparently healthy.
Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” We may wonder if that is realistic, given the condition of the world, the state of the church, and all the hazards of living. Doesn't Jesus know how dangerous this world is and how weak and vulnerable we are?
Donald Trump certainly knows and doesn't hesitate to tell us. He talks about out-of-control crime and lawlessness, terrorism, the killing of police officers, trade deals which rob American workers of their jobs, the dangers of allowing immigrants into the country, military alliances which benefit non-contributing allies at the expense of the US, and on and on. Only by electing him president of the United States is there any hope for law and order and safety. Only by withdrawing into a cocoon of Americanism, as opposed to globalism, can security be achieved.
Jesus does know our situation and still he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” He knows how small and powerless we are. He knows his church is in a precarious position, with little influence, wealth, or power. Nevertheless, “do not be afraid.”
This is not the only place in Luke's gospel where we find the instruction not to be afraid. And these commands occur in the most extreme circumstances in Luke, often at those times when it seems quite impossible that God will or can do what he is promising. First, an angel appears to Zechariah with the preposterous news that his ageing wife Elizabeth will have a son, who, of course, becomes John the Baptist. A confused and frightened Mary hears the same command when an angel confronts her with the news that she is to be the mother of the Son of the Most High God. To a group of terrified shepherds near Bethlehem the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” At the miraculous catch of fish, the disciples, suddenly aware that they are in the presence of someone with awesome and uncontrollable power, hear the same words, “Do not be afraid.” Even in the extreme case of death, the father of a twelve-year-old girl, having been told that she is now dead, is instructed, “Do not fear.” Those are all good causes for fear, and the words, “Do not fear,” easily seem naive and simplistic, in those settings and in our dangerous world.
In every case, though, there is no cause for fear, not because the threats to the well-being of those involved are not real, not because they are invited to deny their fears so as to rise above them, not because of any power they have to overcome threats to their safety, and not even because God is miraculously going to protect his faithful people from all harm and danger. In the book of Acts, for instance, we read about God rescuing Peter after he had been imprisoned by Herod. An angel comes and releases his chains and leads him to safety, but then, as part of the same story, we are told that King Herod had James, the brother of John, “killed with the sword” (Acts 12:2). Why was Peter spared and not James, if God is going to protect his servants?
There is no cause for fear only because, in every case where this instruction is given, the command, “Do not be afraid,” is, as one commentator puts it, “the rhetorical prelude to the announcement of God's mighty and saving deeds.” God is breaking into his world to do a new thing and to provide rescue for his needy people. To Zechariah, the angel says, “Do not be afraid . . . for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you will name him John.” To Mary: “Do not be afraid . . . for you have found favour with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” To the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To the fearful disciples: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” To Jairus, whose daughter was dead: “Do not fear, only believe, and your daughter will be saved.” In every case, there was no need for fear because God was acting to save.
Here, in today's reading, Jesus' followers, few though they be and vulnerable as a flock of sheep, need not fear, “for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” God, in the person of Jesus the Messiah, is coming to reign among us to renew and restore all things. God comes to overcome our brokenness and to bring us his gifts of life and salvation. God is coming to include, in his kingdom, Jesus' “little flock,” those who are weak and without resources. In his kingdom they will be safe and secure, even if their lives are taken from them.
This good news calls for a response. We are invited to be people of faith and followers of Jesus. This is expressed, in some circles of the church, as making a decision for Christ. Here, in today's gospel, is decision language at its best. Here is the basis for any decision or response we might make. God has decided for us. “It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” declares Jesus. A gracious God has decided to give us the kingdom and God takes delight in doing so. This is good news all need to hear.
At a funeral service I once conducted, the organist at the funeral home, as part of the post-service music, launched enthusiastically into the song, “I did it my way.” I don't think she deliberately chose to play it for its theological content or for its philosophical approach to life. Maybe she just liked the tune. It didn't fit, though, with the Bible readings we had heard, with the hymns we had sung, or with the sermon I had preached. Those all pointed, quite clearly, I thought, away from our own accomplishments and to what God has done through Christ to win the victory over death, to bring us into his kingdom, and to grant us eternal life.
“I did it my way” expresses our human philosophy of life very well. We like to be independent, to make our own choices, to plough our own way through life, and, at the end, to be able to look back at it all with the satisfaction of accomplishment. I did it my way. I paddled my own canoe. I was dependent on nobody. I dragged myself up by my bootstraps and made a success of life. Everything I have, I earned. Good for me!
This is quite foreign to what Jesus says. “It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That's the only way it's available, as a gift, and the instruction, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” and all the other commands of today's gospel reading flow directly from this good news. Having received the greatest of all possessions as a gift, we are freed from the desperate struggle to find God; we no longer need to search for fulfilment, or try to discover, by ourselves, what life is all about and what its purpose is. We who have heard the good news of Jesus are freed from having to do it our way, freed from having to rely only on our own finite ingenuity and resources to achieve some security and contentment in life. Jesus, with his announcement, “It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” has set us free to rely on our generous and gracious God for all our needs for this life and for eternity. Therefore, he can say, “Do not be afraid . . . Sell your possessions and give alms . . . Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven . . . Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit . . . Be ready” for the return of the Son of Man. Abandon the illusion that wealth and riches can provide any real security. Keep at your calling, your work of service to one another, following the example of the one who came not be to served, but to serve.
There is still much which causes fear among us and we find it hard to be free of fear. This is a dangerous world, although the situation is certainly not as dire as Donald Trump would have us believe. Nor does he have the solution.
In the midst of the often difficult and painful realities with which we live as our Lord's “little flock,” we are reminded that it is our Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom, that God has acted in Jesus Christ to restore us to himself, and that no matter what we may experience in life, nobody can take from us that greatest of all gifts, God's kingdom of life and salvation. God has decided for us. God will care for us and provide for the needs of his church. Therefore, in the midst of our weakness and fears, we can respond with confident trust and faithful service to our Lord and to one another. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Amen.