Whom Shall I Fear?


“The night is dark and full of terrors,” says Melisandre in Game of Thrones, and the chilling fires of her cruelty in that series are the reality in too much of our world.  The headlines in any given day resound with words representing fear…Terrorism, Islamophobia, Homophobia…and it seems that every political candidate plays to and even encourages our deepest fears to rise to the surface and propel us to vote to keep the evil at bay.

Our fears are not unfounded; the threats are real.  By some estimates, a child born today will see the earth become uninhabitable in their lifetime. More and more of the world faces random acts of terror that can rip families, communities, and nations apart.  White suburbanites in America are only scratching the surface of the fears that communities of color in the United States have lived with for centuries, and men still don’t really understand the heightened vigilance that every woman needs in every interaction from the day she is born until the day she dies.  There is still no cure for cancer.  Or Alzheimer’s.  And none of us gets to leave this life alive.

There are plenty of real threats to go around, and those who experience fear are not to be dismissed as weak or wimpy or whatever other hurtful label someone wants to throw at them.  Those who bully the fearful are simply trying to divert attention away from their own inner terrors.

This morning, I would like to drop Psalm 27 into that bubbling cauldron of fear.  In doing that, I want to get boring for a minute and explain what the Psalms are, who David was, and why Jesus talking about being a shepherd holds the key to turning our fear into courage.  Trust me. 

First, the Psalms are a collection of songs, written by a number of people across the first millennium BC.  Usually right under the Psalm number is the author most commonly associated with the song.  Sometimes it even gives you a context for what the song is about.  Many are prayers, and a number were used in religious rituals and of course still are used that way today. 

What the Psalms are NOT are moral teachings.  The Psalms are not God speaking to human beings to give instructions on how to live.  They are people singing their hearts to God, encompassing the full range of human emotion—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Like the songs on your own playlist, they speak to the moods of the human heart.

In Psalm 27, we have a song about fear and courage, attributed to the most famous Psalmist, David, who rose from being a young shepherd to become King of Israel in about 1000 BC. In his sheep-tending days he passed the time by learning to play the lyre, which is how he ended up in the court of King Saul to play music to calm Saul when he flew into a temper.

When David became King, he became known not only for his musical abilities but for his military prowess.  In fact, it was that military and strategic expertise that won him the kingship in the first place.  Saul saw it coming and tried to kill his potential rival on more than one occasion.  But David won out and by all accounts was a charismatic and gifted personality who was as totally devoted to God as he was flawed. 

Were he running for President this year, David would walk away with it hands down.  He had the outsized personality of Trump, the strategic calculation of Cruz, the handsome youth of Rubio, the religious convictions of Kasich, the tested experience of Clinton and the fire in the belly of Sanders all rolled into one.  No contest.  When the ark of God was brought back to Jerusalem, David ran before it, dancing naked in the streets.  And the only person upset about it was his wife.  That was David.

But David knew fear.  He had the armies of his enemies camped around him many times with more soldiers than he had.  He had palace intrigues and assassination attempts, even by his own sons.  But when David feared for his throne, his life, or both, he turned to God to find his courage; and that is what we see in Psalm 27.

A number of scholars think that Psalm 27 is actually two Psalms.  The first six verses are a song confident about God’s protection in times of trouble, but there’s a shift in verse seven to a cry to God for help, begging God not to toss David aside as his enemies are breathing down his neck.  But whether they were originally two or not, someone along the way believed they went together and they come to us as a single Psalm.

To me that’s helpful, because it shows that fear is not something we conquer one day, never to have it rise up again.  Some specific threats do go away.  The shooter is brought to justice, Osama bin Laden is killed, the bully moves to another state, the court rules that you have rights.  But just as soon as Al Qaeda wanes, ISIS and Boka Haram move in. Political changes take the rights you thought were safe.  A new war appears on the horizon. Threats like the one to our planet are past the point of neutralizing.  And vaccines for one deadly disease don’t prevent the new one from popping up.  We mitigate what we can, but we also need a strategy for living in a world where some form of threat will always exist.  How do we do that?

The very last two verses of Psalm 27 gives David’s answer to all of that: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” Is he just being delusional, thinking God will bail him out?  Shouldn’t he face the danger realistically?

Well, in David’s eyes, he was being realistic—and on a number of levels.  David was a brilliant strategist and courageous fighter.  And there’s one thing an experienced fighter knows—whether it is a military soldier or someone fighting cancer or the inner demons of performance anxiety.  If you make your decisions based on fear, you will get it wrong.  If you let your fears have free reign inside your head you will fall off the balance beam, fail to notice information or opportunities that could save your life, and make decisions that will harm both yourself and others.  Fear clouds our thinking and we will make poor decisions or be frozen in place unless and until we can beat it back.  And that wrong choice or indecision can cost us all that we hold dear.

For David, giving into fear would have been the most impractical choice he could make, and he knew it.  He knew he had to find his courage somewhere or risk both the battle and his life.  But how did he do it?  Was it just shoving fear aside and repressing it?  Hold that thought and let’s talk about sheep. 

What we often forget is that David had practice finding courage from his days as a young shepherd.  The life of a shepherd was not all green fields and pan flutes. 

Listen to David describe it in 1 Samuel 17 in the story of David going against the armed giant Goliath.  Saul is king at the time and wants to know why this kid with a slingshot thinks he can take on the enemy’s champion when all of Israel’s military was cowering in terror.  David says to King Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it…The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Now that’s a shepherd.  But why would a shepherd risk his life for a sheep?  Yes, it was a financial investment, but Jesus reminds us that those simply hired to be shepherds run away when the lion or bear comes calling.  Jesus then explains in John 10:13, “The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”  David found the courage to chase down lions and bears because he loved the sheep.  The most common metaphor for kingship in the ancient Near East was that of a shepherd.  Just as David once risked his life for the sheep that he loved, he now fought for the people that he loved and trusted that the God whom he loved would do the same. 

And that’s where courage comes from.  Courage is what happens when you face a threat out of love instead of fear.  That is the lesson of Psalm 27.  Every minute of every day there are threats large and small that have the potential to ruin us.  And every minute of every day we have a choice as to how we respond to those threats.  We can respond with fear or we can respond with love.

Especially since 9/11, we have seen up close and personal where responding to threats with fear has taken us.  It has divided us one from another.  It has started wars.  It has caused us to hate and kill innocents because they look like those we fear.  Hear me.  Responding to threat with fear will lead us down the wrong road every single time.  If you enter the voting booth and vote from your fear, you will make an ill-informed choice.  It’s how it works.  Fear paralyzes your brain and often your body.  I have come to believe that just about every human vice is rooted in fear.

But the good news is that the opposite is also true.  Every human virtue is rooted in love.  Fear narrows your options.  Love expands them.   Now back to the first verse of Psalm 27. “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”  The word “light” in that verse is the word for the first sun of a new day.  It is what God created in Genesis 1 by saying, “Let there be light.”  The word for “salvation” implies a form of defense or deliverance.

God is love and that love gives us a new dawn and a strong shield to face every threat.  I don’t care if you’re on your knees about to be beheaded by ISIS or on your knees praying for the latest round of chemotherapy to work, reaching deep inside for the Love that made you—the Love that will keep you through death to resurrection—will replace your fear with courage.  If there is a way to survive the threat, that new dawn of God’s love will help you find it.  If the threat takes your life, you will simply be delivered to glory.  When we are filled with love, we are in a place that no threat can truly reach.  We find our courage by facing whatever threatens us with love.

That light—that morning sun of God’s love—allows us to see what was invisible in the night.  In the gleaming of a bright dawn the bogeymen of the dark are seen for the dust bunnies they are.  When we can see clearly, we can see that although there are very real dangers in all parts of our world, there are also incredible acts of courage and love, mercy and kindness all around us.  For every terrorist there are a thousand people working for love and justice.  For every corrupt politician there are legions of public servants working to make their cities, states, and nations a better place. 

You can see them when Love is your light.  And once you see them you can say with David, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.”  Wait for Love.  It will come.  The dawn will break.  We will find our courage.  And Love will win.  Amen.


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