February 24th, 2019

That Scares Me!
Isaiah 41:10

What scares you? Is it snakes? Spiders? Are you scared of mice or high places? Perhaps you’re one of the many who are frightened by the prospect of doing what I’m doing right now – public speaking. All of us get frightened by something. What is it that scares you?

When our granddaughter Camille was a preschooler she was scared of alligators – not just the real ones but the ornamental ones, too. One day we ate in at seafood restaurant decorated in an alligator theme. As soon as Camille saw the decorative alligators she said, “Granddaddy, hold me.” So I picked her up and assured her that the alligators were just pretend and wouldn’t hurt her. By the end of the evening she finally got enough courage to touch one of them, but before she touched it she reminded me and herself, “Granddaddy, they’re not real alligators are they? They’re just pretend.”

Maybe I did too good of a job helping Camille with her alligator fear. A couple of weeks after the restaurant episode, Camille and her parents were in a museum. Without any prompting she started singing, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream, and if you see an alligator don’t forget to scream! (Scream). Obviously, the museum guards and curators were not so impressed.

Yes, all of us have fears and unlike Camille’s, most of our fears aren’t just pretend. They’re real.

We live in a scary world don’t we? And our world seems to get more frightening every day. Uncontrolled health costs and the opioid crisis certain give us reasons to fear. The possibility of identity theft is an ever present concern. And while the threat of new Russian missiles frightens us, they’re not nearly as scary as the rash of random public shootings at our back door.

Of course, those who are my age or older have an additional list of fears. We have fears about losing our health, losing our security, losing our memory and we even fear the possibility of losing mobility. Yes, we live in a scary world; and whether we want to admit it or not, all of us deal with our menacing fears.

My sermon today is about dealing with our fears and it’s also about one of my favorite verses of scripture. The verse is found in Isaiah 41:10. Listen as I share it with you, and since I memorized several years ago from the New American Standard Version that’s the translation I will use. Here’s this favorite verse:

Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you for I am your God. I will strengthen you. Surely, I will help. Surely, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

That verse has been an anchor for me in some of my most fearful times. Sometimes I fall asleep repeating the verse in my mind. When I’m facing health issues, I rest on these words. When I’m facing a difficult pastoral situation, this verse becomes my prayer. To some extent, this verse is my mantra whenever I find myself facing fear. Listen to it again.

Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you for I am your God. I will strengthen you. Surely, I will help. Surely, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

A little background on this text will help reinforce its meaning. Isaiah writes the words to the people of Israel who have been captured by the Babylonians. They’ve been taken away from their homeland and brought to Babylon to serve as slaves. Everything that surrounded their life prompted fear. Their captors, the Babylonians, were known for their cruelty and brutality. At any moment a Jewish captive could be publicly tortured as a way of keeping the other captives under control. They could be separated from family and friends, never to see their loved ones again. If their service was not deemed good enough they could be killed. And without any warning, they could be called upon to do unmentionable things. Yes, if anyone had reason for fear, surely these captives did.

And yet, the prophet Isaiah brings them a word from God, a word to help them cope with their fears. He assures them, Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you for I am your God. I will strengthen you. Surely, I will help. Surely, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

These were certainly words that Israel needed to hear, words assuring them that God had not abandoned them, that he was with them in their most fearful days.

Let’s look, for a moment, at God’s promise. In these words of hope, God gave the Israelites several reasons why they need not fear. First, God says, “Do not fear for I am with you.” In their times of fear they needed to remember that God’s presence was with them. Like a child who finds new courage in the presence of a parent, these Jews found new courage in sensing the presence of God. They did not have to face their situations alone. The Father who loved them and cared for them was standing beside them, ready to hold them as they faced their darkest days. “Do not fear for I am with you,” God said.

Every now and then, I’ll watch one of the old reruns of the Andy Griffith Show. I always get amused at Barney’s attempt to appear brave and strong, when in reality, he’s a real coward.

In one particular episode, Barney and Andy were headed into a house to catch a burglar. Andy suggested that Barney go to the back while he went in through the front. As Barney put his one bullet into his gun he replied, “Ange, I think we’d do better if I just stayed next to you.” And as you might imagine, the two entered the house with Andy leading the way and Barney anxiously hanging on to Andy’s shirt-tale.

You know, sometimes I feel like old Barney. In public, I try to appear strong and brave, acting as though the events of life don’t frighten me. But sometimes that show of bravado is less than real. To be quite honest, when my fears begin to overwhelm me the only thing I can do is to say to God, “God, I think we’ll do better if I just stay next to you.” It’s God’s presence that helps me face my fears. My fears become more manageable when I hear God saying, “Do not fear for I am with you.”

There is a second part to the promise we need to hear. Not only does God offer his presence, but he offers his strength and help. He says, "I will strengthen you. Surely, I will help you."

Often, the things that bring us fear are those things for which we feel most unprepared. Why do random shooters make us anxious? We don’t know how to prepare for them? Why do certain health situations frighten us? We don’t if we’ll have what it takes to cope with our illness. Sometimes it is the known that scares us, but more often it’s the unknown; and when we face the unknown we become frightened because we don’t know if we will have the strength and help we need.

To that God says, “I will strengthen you. Surely, I will help you. When the unknown comes, I’ll be there with a strength that is greater than your strength. When the unknown comes, I’ll be there with wisdom that is greater than your wisdom. When the unknown comes, I will strengthen you. Surely, I will help you.”

I think I’ve shared this with you before, but it seems so pertinent to our focus today. Several years ago, I found myself coping with an anxiety disorder that affected me whenever I stood in the pulpit. One day, I almost passed out in the pulpit because of a drug interaction, but then, I started fearing it would happen again whenever I stood in the pulpit. At times, I couldn’t even get through my sermon because of anxiety. Thankfully, after some good therapy and the love of a patient congregation, I was able to move past that frightening time, and today I’m as comfortable in the pulpit as ever.

I’ll never forget one Sunday, just before I went to the pulpit, I was sitting there, wondering if I could make it through the sermon. As I was praying, a verse came to mind. It was almost as if God was speaking directly to me. The verse from 2 Corinthians 12 stated, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." At that moment, I realized God was going to supply what I lacked; and even though I was not sufficient to face the day, God’s grace was sufficient. He would strengthen me. He would help me.

The same thing is true whenever we face fear. When we fear the unknown, wondering if we have the strength and wisdom to face what’s ahead, it’s assuring to remember that God can control what we cannot control. God’s grace will be sufficient when we are insufficient. Yes, He will strengthen us, surely he will help us.

There is one last phrase I want us to look at as we reach out to this verse to find help with our fear. God says, "Surely I will uphold with my righteous right hand."

In the Hebrew culture, the right hand signified the favored position. At a banquet, the king sat at the head of the table and the person most honored sat at the king’s right. The right hand was the hand of favor.

So, as Isaiah shared God’s promise with the Hebrew people, he wanted them to know that they were still God’s favorites. Despite their years of sin and disobedience, God still loved them dearly, they were still favored by God and God would not let them down in their time of greatest need. Yes, “he would uphold them with his righteous right hand.”

God deals with us in the same way. Even though we sin and move away from God, God does not moved away from us. He still loves us. He still considers us his favorite. He still wants to uphold us up with his righteous right hand.

During this month, we’ve been singing one of my favorite hymns, and for me, this hymn reflects the message of this verse. Listen again to these words,

Day by day and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here.
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure,
Gives unto each day what He deems best.
Lovingly, it’s part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil, with peace and rest.

Yes, we live in a world that often brings us fear, but when the fearful times come, we do not have to face them alone. We have a God who loves us, who keeps us at his right hand. He is ever with us and ever strengthening us. He will help us because he is our God.

Do not fear – God says - for I am with you. Do not anxiously look about you for I am your God. I will strengthen you. Surely I will help you. Surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.