The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis is credited with the demand, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” However, we can come up with numerous ways that command is laid upon us. Unfortunately, being exposed to manufactured fear has become a way of life.
Are we familiar with the slogan regarding news broadcasts, “If it bleeds, it leads”? The focus in the news tends to be on bad news. And what poses as discussion is either interviewing people who already agree with the host or shouting at and interrupting those who don’t. On occasion, good news finds its way into the mix. Nonetheless, it seems that the directive, “lead with the bleed,” has been bumped up a notch or three in the past couple of years. We are learning to fear each other. We are being censored. We are taught, like it or not, fear sells. Panic is profitable, as in billions of dollars profitable.
[A scared chicken, courtesy of Doug Savage]
Still, there are reasons for fear that are legitimate. Fear jumping off your roof—especially if you have a three-story house. Fear driving down the interstate with your eyes closed. Fear walking up to your wife while she’s cooking and asking, “What is that stench?”
The psalm which is Isaiah 12 addresses a basic fear. The first two verses tell us,
“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. / Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”
(Quick note: if you wonder what “in that day” means, see chapter 11, which speaks of the restoration of Israel.)
This is a fear pervading the prophet / psalmist’s outlook, one which is seen to be found in the God of all. Some might prefer language such as “pervading life itself.” An elemental anger—an inherent indignation—welling up from the divine is felt. We might think the whole world is against us!
However, there is a discovery of salvation. The prophet Isaiah speaks of freedom from fear. “I will trust and will not be afraid.” Trust and fear don’t do very well in the presence of the other. Fear is afraid of trust. To be honest, fear is afraid of many things!
We can even be afraid of ourselves.
I remember one day when I was in college and visiting home for the weekend. I was arguing with my mother—an argument, to my shame, that I started. Quite simply, she was talking to me about the Lord. It was a conversation I didn’t care to have, and I made it quite clear.
She responded in an overly emotional manner, and it irritated me. It made me mad. I stormed up the stairs to go to my room, and with each step, I became angrier and angrier. I slammed the door to my room as hard as I could, causing a sound like a thunderclap.
I plopped down in my chair, shaking. It terrified me that I was capable of such rage. (And I don’t use that word lightly.) I was scared. Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night. I immediately got in my car and drove back to school. Fortunately, a few days later, we were reconciled. Thanks be to God!
Looking back at my outburst that day, I would say that I was convicted by the Holy Spirit. The Lord was reaching out to me, and I did my best to say “no.”
Verse 3 seems instructive at this point. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” With joy I drew water from the wells of salvation, though it didn’t happen then!
My experience of faith and college differed from what is so often the case. If college does have any effect on a student’s faith, it’s usually that they lose it. Of course, it can always be retrieved! But for me, college is where I found my faith. And this wasn’t a religious college; I was at a state university, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).
Recall my comment about divine anger welling up. Following along with that image, the fresh water from those wells of salvation quenches the fire of fury. Salvation brings the ultimate trust, and fear is banished.
That’s not the only time the book of Isaiah speaks of pure fresh water welling up: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (58:11).
There’s something about how that well water will be drawn. There’s a certain state of mind, or state of being. It will be drawn with joy. Such is the promise of the prophet: with joy. It won’t be a question of going through the motions, of following a formula, of following instructions on a box. I mentioned how fear and trust have trouble co-existing. With joy, that’s even more the case. The force, the energy, pulsing at the heart of joy is the power of God. We hear and feel the holy message, “Fear not.”
Still, there is a fear many people have, and it is singing before others. Maybe that’s a fear I would be better off having, at least, according to critiques I’ve received over the years.
However, to that point, there is a theological lesson we can learn from Isaiah. Verse 5 tells us (no, encourages us, exhorts us) “Sing praises to the Lord”! If we understand that when we’re singing, we are singing to God, we can be assured we aren’t being graded; we aren’t being critiqued, as I have been! God is tone deaf in the best possible way. God is the ultimate in being a forgiving audience.
More than once, the psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!”
There’s a joke along those lines. Someone is being recruited to sing a solo, and they respond, “I’ll sing a solo. I’ll sing so low you can’t hear me!” (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)
Why is Isaiah 12 a text for Advent? What does it have to do with the coming of Christ?
We always have to be careful when taking an Old Testament scripture and viewing it through New Testament eyes. Still, this chapter works well for this time of year. It speaks of hope and joy that the Holy One is in our midst.
The same is true of our epistle reading from Philippians 4. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4). We are reminded that the Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”!
There’s something about verse 5 I really like. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.” The Lord is near. If that’s not an Advent theme, I don’t know what is.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. The word translated as “gentleness” has many nuances. The Greek word επιεικης (epieikēs) is powerful. For example, it expresses what is suitable or fitting. One described as επιεικης is patient and gentle. Understand, this isn’t a gentleness born out of weakness. It portrays one who possesses a loftiness of thought, one who is noble.
I especially appreciate how it reads in the New English Bible: “Let your magnanimity be manifest to all.” Be magnanimous. Be great in character. Avoid the pettiness, the vindictiveness that so easily infects. Cultivate the willingness to laugh at oneself. (Sadly, that’s no problem for me.)
Sometimes I’ve heard people say if they had the ability to do it all over again, they wouldn’t change anything about their life. After all, it has led them to be the person they are. Well, I would love to do some things over. (The day of my meltdown would be one!) There are many situations in which I wish I had been more… magnanimous. In that way, we help each other disobey the command to be afraid, to be very afraid.
The apostle Paul counsels us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6). A life of anxiety hampers the desire and ability, not to pray, but to pray with thanksgiving, with gratitude. There’s a big difference. Paul says to thank God even while making our requests, our supplications. One version says, “Be saturated in prayer” (The Passion Translation).
Then what happens? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). The peace of God is superior to every frame of mind.
Trust, joy, gratitude—all of these send fear packing. We can cultivate healthiness as a nation and as a church. We too often fall sway under the politics of fear, which has its own sad spirituality. Fundamentally, it’s a way of controlling the population. A certain level of anxiety must be maintained for it to work.
Elsewhere, Paul cautions us, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:14-15). If we develop a taste for human flesh, we will never get enough.
Still, there is the holy word of peace, “Fear not.” It might seem counter-intuitive, but there are ways in which we choose to be afraid. Sometimes we move heaven and earth to get a sip of that bitter draft of dread. We ignore Paul’s guidance to not worry, to not get all worked up. We ignore Isaiah’s encouragement to shout aloud and sing for joy—to raise the roof!
When we do not ignore the prophet and the apostle, what we do is to face down fear. We embrace a holy boldness.
[Something appearing on our wall, y'all]
Can we agree to engage in a kind of rage? Not the foolish, stupid rage that captured me on the day I spoke of. No, can we agree to rage at all that would intimidate us, to fill us with fear? Can we agree to a holy rage? The peace of God isn’t passive; it flexes its muscles. It is shalom, and shalom kicks fear in the hiney.
“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Do not be afraid.