From Panic to Peace

Psalm 23:4

Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

Dear Friends in Christ,

May I ask you a personal question?  What are you afraid of?  Do you have any fears or phobias that cause you a bit of anxiety every now and then, that maybe make your heart beat a little faster or that give you sweaty palms?  Aside from the common phobias that we all know about, like fear of heights or fear of speaking in public, I went to the Internet while I was working on this introduction and discovered a rather lengthy list of other very unusual phobias that apparently some people have.  Otherwise, I don’t think they would have come up with names for them.  Here are just a few of the many I could have given you:  Ablutophobia is the fear of washing or bathing (I know some children like that).  Bibliophobia is the fear of books (I know some children like that too!). Deciophobia is the fear of making decisions (I know some adults like that).  Ergophobia is the fear of work (I know some adults like that too!).  Kainophobia is the fear of anything new (I know some Lutherans like that).  Pogonophobia is the fear of beards (I’ve run into a few babies like that).  Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13, as in Friday the 13th.  And then perhaps the most unusual phobia I came across is this one: arachibutyrophobia which is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.

While it might be fun to look at all those phobias, I can assure you that if you were to have any one of them it would be anything but fun.  Fear is a dreadful adversary that can make the strongest of persons weak.  And while I’m sure we’ve all had to face different fears at different times in our lives, does it surprise you that Jesus did too?  One of the toughest pictures that the Gospels present of our Savior is when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying and anguishing over what he knew was about to transpire in his life.

I remember when I first started dating Marilyn, in her family’s living room there was this traditional picture hanging on the wall of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Marilyn had painted it for her dad on black felt and gave it to him as a present and it hung there until both her parents had died and the house was sold.  As you look at that picture, what do you see?  Well, you see a rather calm and stoic-looking Jesus, hands neatly folded, kneeling in a posture of prayer.  Now I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the artist who originally envisioned and painted that scene, but one reading of the Gospel accounts disrupts that image rather significantly.  For example, Mark says Jesus “fell to the ground.”  Matthew tells us Jesus “began to be sorrowful and troubled” and that he was “overwhelmed…to the point of death.”  Luke says that he was in such anguish that as he prayed his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.

In the light of those passages, how would you paint this scene?  Jesus flat on the ground?  Face in the dirt?  Hands clawing the grass?  Body heaving with sighs and sobs?  Face as twisted and contorted as the olive trees that surround him?

Does that image of Jesus make you feel a bit uncomfortable?  What do we do with such a picture of a fear-stricken Christ?  I’ll tell you what we do with it.  We turn to it for comfort when we look and feel the same.  For there are times in our lives when we find ourselves in the same garden of fear, aren’t there?  How about when you’re in the doctor’s office waiting to hear the results of the tests you had the previous week? Instead of just calling you, he asked you to come in because he wanted to speak to you personally.  Or what about that first day of a brand new job which has you wondering why you even thought of leaving your previous job and stepping out of your comfort zone?  Or what about the time you place your signature on that home mortgage that’s going to have you in debt for the next 30 years?  There’s no getting around the fact that life is full of fears, that it is made up of one anxious moment after another.  So this morning we want to spend some time talking about this subject and learning a few things from Jesus about how he faced and handled his fears.  Indeed, we want to learn today how we can move “From Panic to Peace.”

And I think a good place to begin is that we need to be honest about our fears.  Though I find it remarkable that Jesus in his human nature felt fear, even though according to his divine nature he was the very Son of God, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity, and the Creator and Ruler of the universe, I think it was awfully kind of him to tell us that.  Because we tend to do the opposite, don’t we?  We gloss over our fears.  We cover them up.  We keep our sweaty palms in our pockets and our dry mouths a secret.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  He didn’t put on a mask and pretend that everything was all right as we so often do.  Instead, he openly and honestly faced his fear.  And notice how he did it – he did it with prayer.

“Father, if you are willing, take away this cup of suffering.”  Notice, the first one to hear about his fear was his Father.  He could have gone other places.  He could have gone to his mother.  He could have confided in his disciples.  He could have assembled a mass prayer meeting of all his faithful followers.  Any of those would have been appropriate, but none were his priority.  Instead, he went first to his Father.

Again, we have a tendency to do just the opposite, don’t we?  We might go to the bar or to the counselor or to Barnes and Noble for the latest self-help book on how to better cope with our fears and anxieties.  We go to our friends, our co-workers, our mom or dad, our sister or brother, our Facebook family.  But not Jesus.  He went first to his Heavenly Father.

A millenium earlier David was urging the fear-filled to do the same.  In our text he boldly says of himself, “I will fear no evil.”  That’s quite a claim for a mere human being to make, isn’t it?  How could he do it?  Where was he coming from anyway?  Well, it wasn’t exactly where he was coming from but rather who he was going to that made the difference in David’s life.  For he was going to his Heavenly Shepherd to whom he says: “Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

So rather than turn to one of his fellow sheep, David turned to his Shepherd.  Rather than stare at his fears, David stared at his Shepherd’s rod and staff.  By the way, have you ever wondered about this part of the 23rd Psalm?  What exactly is David talking about when he says, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me”?  Well, here you need to understand that the shepherd’s rod was a straight stick that the shepherd would use to keep the sheep in line.  He would poke them and prod them with it to keep them going in the right direction.  And while I’m sure that there were times when the sheep didn’t appreciate that, David knew that the rod was really a sign of the shepherd’s love for his sheep.  He didn’t want them straying from the rest of the flock because he knew how prone sheep are to get themselves into dangerous and life-threatening situations.

And if that did happen in spite of the efforts and intentions of the shepherd, that’s when the shepherd’s staff that came into play.  That staff had a hooked end on it that was used to rescue the sheep if it fell into the crevice of a rock or waded out too far in a swiftly flowing stream.

I’ve often times seen the shepherd’s rod and staff in this psalm as being the equivalent of what we Lutherans typically refer to as the Law and the Gospel.  The Law is our Heavenly Shepherd’s rod that he uses to keep us going on the right path.  And though we may not always like it when he pokes and prods us with his Law, though we may not always appreciate the restrictions he imposes on us through the Law, we need to understand that those restrictions are for our good.  They are given out of love to protect us from ourselves and the many spiritual predators that are out there just waiting to pounce on us should we stray from our Shepherd and the rest of the flock.  It’s no different than when your little child picks up that nice, sharp, shiny scissors and wants to play with it, but you step in and place a restriction on her.  You take the scissors away not because you’re being mean, but because you love her and you know that she could get hurt if she treated it like any of her other toys.

The staff that David speaks of in this psalm is a picture of the Gospel which our Heavenly Shepherd uses to rescue his wayward sheep from those times when they choose their way over his way.  The staff is best symbolized by the cross for it was there that our Shepherd carried out the greatest rescue mission of all time.  It was there that he reached down into the muck and mire of this dark and sinful world and built the bridge that could one day lead us into the eternally green pastures of heaven.

So the reason that David was able to write that rather bold statement, “I will fear no evil,” is not because he was such a brave person, but because he had his focus in the right place.  The writer to the Hebrews picks up on this same idea when he says in chapter 12:2: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

Those words make me think of when my daughter Bethany was in the 8th grade and I was trying to teach her how to shoot free throws because she was going to be participating in a free throw contest at school which is sponsored by the Elks every year.  It’s a nationwide contest called the Elks Hoopshoot.  Well, we’d come over to church here and practice in our gym and to this day I know Bethany could tell you the 2 words that I hammered home to her during those practice sessions: FOCUS and CONCENTRATE.  I taught her to first of all get the basket in focus with her eyes and then blot out all distractions, concentrating on the one goal of putting the ball through the hoop and even envisioning the ball going through the hoop.  I might add that she was a good student and took to heart what I taught her.  In fact, so much so that she ended up going all the way to state that year in Bloomington.

Well, the writer to the Hebrews is encouraging us to do the same as we run the Christian race and face its many battles and struggles.  He’s telling us to fix our eyes on Jesus, our Shepherd, to focus and concentrate on him, and he will get us through one way or another.

By the way, remember Jesus’ fear in the Garden of Gethsemane that we talked about earlier?  Remember his prayer?  “Father, if you are willing let this cup pass from me.”  Was the Father willing?  Well, yes and no.  For he didn’t take the cup away from Jesus, but he did take away the fear.  He didn’t still the storm, but he calmed the sailor, his Son, in the midst of the storm.  And my friends, that is precisely what he can and will do for you and me.  So don’t focus on the size of the mountain in front of you.  Instead, draw near to the One who can move that mountain.  And discover for yourself how he can take you from panic to peace.