I learned something interesting this past week. I discovered that you can’t trust everything you read on a church sign. As we were driving back from Alabama on Sunday, I read this intriguing statement on the sign of a church that will remain nameless in order to protect the innocent. (Of course, since I can’t remember the name of the church or where exactly it was located there is no need for them to worry about me divulging their name anyway!?!) But, the sign said this, “Fear not is in the Bible 365 times, once for every day of the year.” Let me say that again “Fear not is in the Bible 365 times, once for every day of the year.” Now, I was impressed. I thought to myself “Wow, that is a little factoid I have never heard, how did I miss that? What a great little reminder to embrace.”
Upon further research, I learned that this famous little statement is also famously inaccurate. The best I can tell from the sources I read, the count is actually down around 80 to 100 times. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to be reminded that the call “not to be afraid” is one of the most common expressions in scripture.
Now, our passage doesn’t include the phrase “fear not”. But, it does include “fear nots” biblical first cousin which is Jesus’ statement “peace be with you”. This statement is offered numerous times in the course of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his disciples.
The days surrounding Jesus’ resurrection were anxious times for his followers. For them, his life had ended on that first Good Friday. They were afraid that because of association with him their lives would soon end too. Further, they were dealing with the anxiety that comes with crushed dreams and uncertainty about the future. After all, they had big plans for Jesus as Messiah. He was going to set up an earthly kingdom, give them important roles and solve this mess which was the Roman occupation.
They were afraid – for their lives and their future. They were anxious – they had no idea what to expect next. Their stomachs were in knots, their hope was gone and their blood pressure was up. In the midst of it all, Jesus keeps saying to them “peace be with you”. He says this in our text from Luke and the parallel passage in John to his disciples who are huddled behind locked doors on that first Easter Sunday evening.
The good news is that what Jesus said in those post Easter appearances is what Jesus still says to us in these anxiety filled post Easter days that we also live in, “peace”…”peace be with you”.
Donald Miller made a name for himself with his famous book Blue Like Jazz. Like a lot of famous authors, Miller has written a number of others books with some of them being arguably better the one for which he is most well known. In one of those other books, Miller talks about fear and the Bible’s continued call to both not be afraid and to live at peace. As he does, he says three things about peace that I think are very helpful and that parallel both our text and our lives.
First, Miller says that the fact that the Bible often says “fear not” or “peace be with you” is a reminder that we are often afraid and have a lot of fears. Fear is simply a part of the human experience. Part of dealing with our fears is admitting that we have fears. It is far better to share with our spouse, a family member, a trusted Christian friend or our minister what keeps us up at night so that we can get it out, gain their support and solidarity. Likewise, admitting our fears to God is the beginning of experiencing God’s presence and the reminder from the Holy Spirit that we are not alone. Truthfully, Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to find peace was also an invitation for them to be honest with each other and with him about their emotions. In essence it gave them permission right out of the gate to name the elephant in the room. He didn’t want them to keep their worries bottled up, he wanted to help them through them.
Second, Miller says we should not let fear boss us around. Yes, we should name our fears but we cannot let fear become the dominant feeling in our lives. That is the whole point of the resurrection appearances. The dominant feeling in the lives of Jesus followers as Easter dawned was anxiety, uncertainty, worry…fear. These feelings were overwhelming their lives. Jesus’ return allowed those feelings to be overcome by hope, possibility, new life. Every day, we are called to embrace resurrection and part of that discipline is allowing the hope of resurrection to be the idea that permeates our lives so that our fears are not our boss.
Third and finally, Miller says that fear wants to trick us into living a boring life. What he means, I believe, is that we can easily become captives of our fear and thus never be willing to take risks, step out of faith or live into the unknown. John’s companion version of our text for today adds the point that the disciples were behind locked doors when Jesus came, stood among them and said “peace be with you”. In essence, their fear had locked them into one world and locked them out of another. They had been immobilized by their fear. This happens so often to us. Our fears dominate and thus we are never adventurous. We don’t follow God into the unknown. We don’t step out of faith. We only do what is safe. We live behind our locked doors and what unfolds in Miller’s words is a boring life devoid of an exciting, adventurous following of God into the unknown. And Jesus stands in our midst and says again, “peace be with you,” “fear not”.
When I was a little boy, my greatest fear was the dark. We lived way out in the country. There were no street lights. And, so when it was dark, I mean it was dark. For years in my childhood, I slept with a nightlight, the closet light on or a bathroom light on. I had to have some sort of light in the darkness or I could not gather enough peace to go to sleep.
Our world is a dark place, just as it has always been. Jesus is the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome. Jesus is the light that says to all of us, in our greatest fears and darkest places, “peace be with you”. Amen.
(Donald Miller’s three ideas about fear come from the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, Thomas Nelson, 2009. Page 108)