When Afraid, Hold on to God
John 12:12-15 / Psalm 46 / Psalm 27
When Afraid, Hold on to God
April 9, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
Here's what that first Palm Sunday was: a crowd of people, banding together to prepare for the week to come. They didn't know it yet, but Jesus would soon be arrested and put on trial and hung on a cross to die. They themselves would soon desert and deny him. And the scripture John shares for Palm Sunday is this, from Zechariah:
Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;
See, your king is coming.
Actually, the "do not be afraid" part is not in Zechariah, at least not the version we have today. Perhaps John added that, knowing it's what the disciples needed to hear, given all they were about to go through.
And here's what Palm Sunday is today: a crowd of people, banded together to prepare for the week to come. And though, unlike the disciples, we do know how Holy Week will unfold, there is much that we don't know about this coming week, or any week—how that doctor's appointment will turn out, whether a loved one will stay sober, whether people will support us or turn against us. And so we band together to prepare, we form a parade and wave palm branches, And we hear the scripture: "Do not be afraid! See, your king is coming."
This banding together is so important. As hard as that next week was for the disciples, just think how it would have been if they hadn't had each other. They did make it through that week, through Jesus' suffering and death and through their own failure, and together they became his powerful witnesses for Christ. Scott Bader-Saye says that we "tend to lack courage just to the extent that we lack community. As a community we can often bear risks together that we might be reticent to face alone."1 We all need someone to parade with, whether that's a literal or a metaphorical parade. So here we are, the community of Christ, banding together to prepare for what lies ahead and to hear the message of the gospel: "Do not be afraid."
At the end of his Palm Sunday story, John adds this: "At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him." That's the way life is, isn't it? As things are happening, it's hard to know what's going on—what you should and shouldn't do, what everything means, where God is in all of it. Only later can we sometimes begin to piece all that together. Which means that for the disciples on Palm Sunday, following Jesus required—here's a big word—TRUST. They didn’t know where he would take them; they had to trust. And for us today, courage and faith in this troubled word require—here's that big word again—TRUST. Of course, it's one thing to trust Jesus on Palm Sunday when the crowds are cheering, the palm branches are waving and Jesus is right here. It's another thing to trust him when the soldiers have come, and quite another when he's hanging on the cross. The same is true for us. It's one thing to trust God when there's money in the bank and everybody's healthy. It's another thing to trust God when health fails and quite another when people you love fail and desert you. I guess that's why they call it trust.
When it comes to trust, one of my go-to scriptures is Psalm 46, which we read together. I often read it for people as they prepare for surgery. I share it at funerals. I read it to myself when I'm afraid, and read it, and read it. Psalm 46 expresses confidence and trust in the midst of various circumstances: trouble (verse 1), change and natural disasters (verse 2), chaos (3) political upheaval (6) and even war (9). Those may not be the only things there are to be afraid of. But if we can have trust in the face of trouble, change, disaster, chaos, politics and war—we can probably have trust in almost any situation.
In the book we've been studying together this Lent, Rabbi Kushner names several other life situations where trust is hard to come by, but therefore all the more important:
Talking about a treatment plan with the oncologist
A congregation facing misfortune or division
Walking into your very first AA meeting
Your first day on a new job or at a new school.2
How do you find trust in God at times like that, when you need it most? Well, turning to scripture, and especially to the psalms, is one great way to start. Rabbi Kushner tells the story that on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Arab nations threatened to overrun Israel, one rabbi told his students, "This is a time of great danger. Don't just sit there doing nothing. Recite psams."3
In Psalm 27, the other psalm we read together this morning, the psalmist says three times in the first three verses that he is not afraid. I suspect the truth is that he was afraid, but was working on not being afraid.4 We tell ourselves, I am not afraid, not because it's already true; but in order to make it true.
In his commentary on Psalms, James Mays teaches that in ancient Israel Psalm 46 would have been sung responsively. A leader would have sung parts of the psalm, but the whole community would have sung together that "The Lord of hosts is with us!" And again, a leader would have begun, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," but the whole community would insist, "Therefore we will not fear!" This psalm, in other words, is worship; it's liturgy by which worshipers learn to entrust our lives to the love and protection of God.5
So here today the liturgist said, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." And we responded "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change." What I’m wondering is--was that really true, what we said? That we will not fear. Well, maybe not yet. But keep saying it; give it time. Worship is the way we learn to trust in God.
Here's something else James Mays says in his commentary, this time about Psalm 27: "Trust is nurtured and strengthened by the exercise and discipline of religion." In other words, worship and singing together and daily devotions and praying for one another are the ways we learn to overcome fear with faith. Trust in God, he says, "transforms mere anxiety [in]to prayer." Let’s just keep saying it, so we can believe it more and more.
Rabbi Kushner says that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish year.7 It's a day for the faithful to articulate their most heartfelt hopes for the upcoming year and at the same time to acknowledge their deepest fears about what may be lurking in the future. And Jews prepare for this Day of Atonement by adding a psalm to their daily morning and evening prayers—Psalm 27. For forty days before Yom Kippur and for ten days after they recite twice a day,
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Now, is that really true for Jews preparing for Yom Kippur, that they’re not afraid? Well, maybe not, but they've got a hundred times to say it. And if it doesn't quite become true this year, they'll say it again next year. Trust is not something you have once and for all; it is something you learn, something you make true by liturgy, by repetition, by the discipline of turning anxiety into prayer.
Psalm 46 says, "Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult." It goes on, "God is in the midst[, in the center,] of the city; it shall not be moved." In the midst of change and shaking, in the midst of roaring and trembling, there is something in the center that does not change, something solid to hold on to. We call that something "God." When afraid, you can hold on to God.
Overcoming fear with faith is about holding on to the God who does not change or tremble. Overcoming fear with faith comes from holding on to the God who’s got you and me, who’s got the whole world in his hands. On your way out today, we're going to give you something literally to hold on to, something to remind you of the God who is at the center of it all, strong and able. When everything else shakes and comes apart, you can hang on to God.
1 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 65.
2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 162-65.
3 Kushner, 16.
4 See Kushner, 162.
5 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 183.
6 Mays, 13