As we wind down the church year with only one more Sunday left before Advent begins a new year, the lectionary always leads us to readings like the one from Mark today which are pretty fearful and sound like the end of the world. Jesus and the disciples arrive in Jerusalem and go to the temple and the disciples are gawking at the very new building. They are from Galilee, remember? So think about your first trip to New York City. “Teacher, look at these huge buildings! Look at these huge stones used to build them!” The Temple had a majesty to it which looked immovable, indestructible.
Jesus said, “Bah! Not one of these stones is going to be left on top of another. It will all be destroyed.” Some of the disciples came to him and asked him in wonderment when this would take place and how they would know it was about to happen. The answer does not calm their nerves.
“There will be wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. And that’s just the beginning.” He keeps on piling on fearful imagery for another 20 verses.
We know all about living under such fearful images. The video from 9/11 is still etched in our brains, and the different colored terror alerts are still with us 15 years later. We have fears about different world leaders who have or could have access to nuclear weapons, and we look anxiously at the people we are considering to put in charge of that button in our own country. We see videos of beheadings, bombings, and nonsensical attacks on innocent people at schools, movie theaters, and in their own homes. And now, of course, we have Paris to add to the list. And that brings up the daily uncertainty that followed 9/11. Is that the end of it? Will there be more? Are there plans for other countries? Wars. Rumors of wars. Earthquakes. Floods. Famine. There is so much to fear, so many things to worry about. So many things we can’t control. How can we keep from succumbing to anxiety, depression, addiction, even suicide?
The passage I have paired with the Mark passage today offers the simplistic message the Beatles sang about a number of years ago: All you need is love. I’m not saying that some sort of mushy love simply makes us forget about all the problems. I’m saying that a life rooted and grounded in love gives us a foundation to face the trials of this life unafraid. That doesn’t mean there aren’t times that feel like you are sitting in an amusement park ride waiting for it to start that you know goes 60 miles an hour and turns you upside down and sideways seven times. It’s exhilarating when you are getting off, but somewhat terrifying when you are waiting to start.
So let’s talk about how love works to fashion a foundation that will give us a foundation to face the trials of life unafraid, whether you are a teacher or an accountant or a police officer or a writer or a member of the armed forces. I’m going to talk about four aspects of that foundation of love, and since we are at different places in our lives different ones of them will currently be more important to different people.
The first, most important, bedrock foundation is the love of God for us demonstrated most fully in his Son, Jesus Christ. I John says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. We love because he first loved us.” This is good news whether we know about it or not, but it cannot help form a foundation for a life lived unafraid if we do not know about it and believe it. And so it is essential that we teach our children from the earliest age about God’s love and salvation. If our lives are lived in a fearful, worrisome manner you can be sure our children will pick up on that and it will be hard for them to learn a different approach to the trials of life. If we show them that faith enables us to handle all the crises that come our way in life and we move forward in confidence and trust as a result, the likelihood is good that they will learn a good bit of this from us. If we look to the Bible more for the answers to our lives than we look to MSNBC or Fox News; if prayer is more important in our homes than ammunition or stockpiling food; if trust and understanding are more emphasized than mistrust and hatred; then we are on the way to helping our children understand how perfect love casts out fear.
When we know that there is eternal life beyond this life, and that the Jesus who loves us is in charge there, we can live this life fully, courageously, unafraid, in spite of the terrible things that happen and the difficult things we may be called to do. This trust in God’s unconditional love is critical to this kind of life. It doesn’t just mean teaching our children, it means seeing ourselves as learners until the day we die, studying the Bible and worshiping together and learning from each other. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
The second foundational role that I want to talk about in more detail is the love of parents for children. As important as the love of God for us is to establishing a foundation for living a non-fearful life, the love of parents for their children is a very close second. In those early years of life, when we really don’t know much about God or faith, the place we learn whether the world is a place of stability and love is from our parents.
Now I need to say something at the very beginning about what I don’t mean by this. I most definitely do not mean that the role of parents is to protect our children from experiencing failure, disappointment, and even pain. Our role is not to get revenge for their hurts or to fix their grades or get them out of being disciplined. Our job is to help them learn that all of those things are part of life, help them get back on their feet and learn from the experience, and know that nothing that has happened jeopardizes the love and acceptance they have at home. Disciplining our children is important, but it needs to be done with the aim of teaching and guiding more than alleviating our anger. Our children need us to be their mentors more than their best friends, at least until they are adults. They need to experience a balance of unconditional love and an emphasis on personal responsibility and accountability from us.
This parental love plays an important role for both parent and child. For parents it helps us understand God’s love for us, and how God can love us even when we make bad choices, and how there are sometimes consequences when we make those bad choices but that doesn’t mean we are abandoned. For children it helps them to understand that it is okay to try and fail – you are still loved and you can get up and try again or try something new. You learn that no matter how bad the day was, there is someone who always has your best interests at heart, who will welcome and embrace and love you no matter what. Perfect love casts out fear.
The third foundation I want to speak of is the love between spouses, which is critical for most of our lives. Marriage is mocked, it is devalued, it is entered into lightly and dissolved lightly. It is not my intention to make those of you who have had marriages fail feel bad today – I know you do that enough on your own. What I want to do is to encourage those who are married to work at your marriages and relationships and make them into something wonderful, and I want to tell you young people who wonder if you ever want to get married based on all you have seen that it is enormously important. Therefore it is important to choose carefully, choose wisely, and prepare thoroughly.
Here’s something that a fair number of you have heard me say. If you know that at the end of the day you will go home to a place and a person where you are loved, welcomed, and appreciated, you can put up with whatever else happens in the course of that day. If home is not a place you look forward to going, then it makes every bad experience during the day three times as bad. If you know you can go home and tell about the person who undermined you at work and get a hug and a sympathetic word rather than getting mocked and ridiculed, you will be okay. If you can go home and tell your spouse about the huge mistake you made and be assured it is not the end of the world, then there is nothing you can’t face.
All this doesn’t just automatically happen when you fall in love and say “I do,” though. Because when you live that closely with someone you begin to see all the faults as if through a magnifying glass, and the other person begins to see yours as well. And when we start to get mad about them or make snide remarks about them, it is easy for distance and resentment to set in. And once that train gets out of control it is hard to slow it down. So think of marriage as a garden which requires constant attention, constant nurture, getting rid of the weeds that threaten to choke the good out, providing water and sunshine, joy and laughter, to encourage growth.
If you know there is love at home, you can face the rest of the world unafraid. I John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”
The last foundation for living life unafraid that I want to mention today is love in the church community. People who go through difficult times frequently say to me, “I don’t know how people go through things like this without a church family and without faith in God.” It means something to people when their brothers and sisters in Christ reach out to them in times of distress.
Church community doesn’t just automatically happen by joining a church. You have to get involved, you have to get to know people. Joining a Sunday School class is one of the best things you can do, or a choir, or a committee. Go to a women’s circle or a Midweek class. Relationships aren’t developed just by following someone on Twitter or becoming their friend on Facebook.
Church community doesn’t just magically happen, and it is always at risk. Church people are human beings and bring the same personalities and mindsets that lead them into disagreements at the homeowners’ association meeting, the PTO, and the voting booth. Most people assume that everyone they go to church with has the same opinions about things that they do, so it is difficult to deal with when that is found not to be true.
Broken fellowship is one of the biggest issues in I John. The writer emphasizes time and time again that love must overcome all things, and especially so within the Christian community. He writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Just as is sometimes true with our children and with our spouses, loving our fellow Christians can be work. When you make that love your aim, even above being right, then you do your part to create a fellowship of trust and caring rather than criticism and division. As I say when I start a new Kerygma Bible study, “I’d like to know I can trust you enough to say some things in here that aren’t orthodox without worrying that you are going to bring me up before the Session.” Perfect love casts out the fear of saying something wrong, doing something wrong, failing at some task.
Such love is built by experiencing and trusting the love of God for us in Jesus Christ our Savior; by faithful parents who love their children enough to always be there for them without always saying yes to them or bailing them out of problems; by loving spouses who know how precious the love and acceptance they share really is; and by communities of faith who focus on loving, building up, encouraging, and strengthening.
May we all dedicate time and energy to building this kind of foundation in our own lives and in those we come in contact with. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” “We love because he first loved us.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 15, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church