Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"Farewell Discourse II: Fear

Romans 8:35-39

John 14:1-6, 18-19, 25-27


      On this second Sunday of Lent, we continue our sermon series “A Farewell Discourse.”  Last Sunday, today, and over the next three Sundays, we’re listening in on Jesus’ final words of spiritual instruction to His disciples as recorded in the 13th through 17th chapters of John’s Gospel. But we’ll be doing far more than merely listening in.  As we bring an ear to the door of the upper room, we find the door swinging wide for us, and we become more than passively observant eavesdroppers.  We become actively-instructed disciples.  So the stairs have been ascended, the door has been opened, and we are now reclined around the table with eleven disciples and Jesus.  The flickering of lamps and the shadows they cast dance around the room.  Our attention is directed toward a face which glows with an unwavering, divine light.  And Jesus says…….

(John 14:1-6, 18-19, 25-27)

      I think there are two things people fear the most.  Now I’m not talking about superficial fears and phobias such as heights, public speaking, water, swallowing pills, spiders and the like.  I’m. speaking of deep fears; fears which grab us at the gut level; consuming our thoughts by day; keeping us tossing and turning at night; causing us to do all sorts of things – rational and irrational – in response to these fears.  I speak of the fear of death, and the fear of abandonment.

      Perhaps a reason these fears are so predominant and so deep is that they’re what we call “primal” fears.  They attack at the center of what it means to be human.  In the first instance, built into us is what anthropologists call instinct for survival.  It is a drive to keep ourselves alive, and most folks will do almost anything to preserve their lives, and at almost any expense.  Consider for example members of the infamous Donner-Reed  party who, in the mid 19th century, allegedly resorted to cannibalism in order to survive their passage through the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Consider the cancer patient whose disease doctors have declared terminal.  He or she is often willing to spend every last ounce of their energy and every last dollar in the bank to seek a miracle cure which might be awaiting in Mexico.  Death strikes fear into us like little else; its uncertainties; its mysteries; its perceived painfulness; its finality.

     In the second instance, God builds into us an instinct to be in relationship.  People are created for people.  Perhaps at one level, that’s what the Genesis 2 story teaches us where it is written: “….the Lord God said, ‘it is not good that the ish [the Hebrew word for human] should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for (the human).”  This seems to imply an innate need built into us by God to be in the company of another.  We are instinctively relational beings.  More than any-thing, the infant needs the closeness of her mother, and will be negatively impacted without it. The child needs the presence of his parents, and will forever lack a sense of wholeness and identity without it.  The husband needs his wife. [I sure need mine!]  A woman needs her children. And on it goes.  To be left alone, to be orphaned, to be abandoned, to be in the world all by ourselves is, for some, a fate worse than death.  Short of the death penalty, what is the worst punishment a penal institution can inflict on an inmate?  A protracted period of solitary confinement.  Being left alone is a primal fear.

      People will even subvert other relationships and short-circuit other’s lives in order to not be abandoned.  Movie rewind.  How many of you have seen the Alfred Hitchcock classic “The Birds?”  One of the sub-plots of the film is revealed in a conversation between characters Annie Hayworth and Melanie Daniels.  Annie has been rejected romantically by Mitch Brenner, and predicts Melanie will meet the same end in her fledgling relationship with Mitch.  Why?  Mitch’s mother Lydia.  Lydia Brenner sees to it that no relationship potentially leading to marriage is allowed to develop between her son and any woman.  When Melanie questions why a mother who loves her son would stand in the way of future happiness,  Annie explains, “She’s not afraid of losing Mitch. She’s only afraid of being left alone.”  You see, the fear of abandonment is very potent, and may lead us to holding back or sabotaging others – even those we love – in order to protect ourselves.

      Jesus, fully aware of the primacy and potency of these two fears – death and abandonment –sees fit to address these issues with His disciples to whom he’d soon be saying “Good bye.”  He begins by offering words of comfort, and a basis for that comfort:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.”  In other words:  You’ve confessed me to be the Christ, the Son of God.  Believe, then, what I’ve said.  Believe in what I’m going to tell you.

      An important part of any pastor’s ministry is with the dying.  I myself have sat at the side of many a deathbed including my Aunt Susie’s, my cousin Frank’s, and my own father’s.  And there is no more painful aspect of this ministry than to try to lend comfort to someone who’s nearing death.  First of all, as close as I try to get, I sit apart, because I’ve not yet been where they are. Secondly, what can I say out of my inexperience which could possibly have some benefit for a person on the threshold of death?  I’m basically without resources, save the presence of the Holy Spirit. 

      Jesus, on the other hand, spoke to His disciples out of His imminent experience, and speaksto us out of His actual experience of death.  He assures us that in the Kingdom of God “are many dwelling places” – places prepared specifically for each and every one of us.  Jesus doesn’t try to describe what these “dwelling places” will look like.  In the historical discourse with His disciples, maybe in His full humanity, He Himself didn’t know.  In His present discourse with us, I suspect

there are no words, no language, no fitting descriptive categories we could begin to comprehend. All we can know is it will be wonderful beyond measure; a place so awesome that I’m sure once arrived, if given a choice, we’d never want to come back.

      As I attempt to share this vision with dying persons in my own fear and trembling, they often ask, “How do I die?  How do I get to this place of which Jesus’ speaks?”  The disciple Thomas stands for the doubts in all of us when he asks a question arising out of that deep fear of uncertainty,  mystery, pain:  “Lord……how can we know the way?”  Jesus reassures Thomas, the rest of the disciples, and us:  “I am the way…..” You don’t have to fear, because I myself am going before you to see to your place.  I’m like the Kingdom real estate agent upon whom you trust and depend to have your new home move-in ready as soon as you arrive.  Then I’ll come myself to pick you up and take you there.  You’ll need no directions, no road map, no GPS, not even a vehicle.  Only me, because “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  I’m your way to the Kingdom of God, Jesus promises.

      As a caveat at this point, I want to take care to not gloss over death with a thin veneer of

platitudes and stained-glass rhetoric.  Death for those witnessing it, and I suspect for those going through it, hurts like hell – no greater pain; in the theological sense, no more formidable an enemy.  No modern writer puts it better than Nicholas Wolterstorff whose story I’ve shared with you before.  Reflecting on the experience of his 25 year-old son dying in a mountain-climbing accident, Wolterstorff writes: “Please: don’t say it’s not really so bad, because it is.  Death is awful, demonic. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is…. To comfort me, you have to come close.  Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.”

      Jesus offers words of hope and promise in the very face of the hell of death because He alone is qualified.  He alone is with resources. And the full sweep of the Scriptural witness shows us Jesus who comes close; who sits beside us; weeps at the news of His friend Lazarus’ death; cries inwardly in the garden, “Remove this cup from me,” and cries out from the cross and from His own primal fear, “My God, why have you forsaken (or abandoned) me?”  This One – Jesus alone –can empower the words:  “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”Along with the fear of death – ours, or of one we deeply love – the fear of abandonment can cause our blood to run cold, and for some is a fate worse than death.  We can almost sense the disciples shudder in the dancing shadows of lamplight as they slowly begin to understand what Jesus had been trying to tell them for so long; but that which they were unwilling to either entertain or accept. 

      I’ve encountered in my ministry of bereavement counseling common expressions of grief;  the sadness; the anger; the isolation; the loneliness; the profound sense of being abandoned; of being left behind.  I remember in the many months after my father’s death, my mother questioning with both sadness and resentment in her eyes:  “How could daddy leave me like this?”  Most in my mother’s situation would agree that there is no loneliness to be compared to that of losing the one closest to you.  Many of us here this day know intimately that sadness; that resentment; that loneliness; that overwhelming sense of having been left alone. 

      I believe Jesus knew this is what His disciples would be feeling upon His departure.  So he assures them while still with them:  “I will not leave you orphanous” which is translated from the Greek “orphaned” or “desolate.”  Jesus promised He would not leave them as orphans; as dependent children with no one to care for them; no one to hold them; no one to feed them; no one to instruct them.  Rather, Jesus promised that He would come back to them; to figuratively scoop them up in His arms and hold them like a mother lovingly coddling her child.  Yet it will be in a spiritual way.  Jesus points out that the world will neither see nor understand this spiritual relationship.  But we who are in relationship with Christ – as the original disciples were in relationship with Christ – will understand.  He promises to live on the inside of us; at the heart level where we most fear being left alone.

      Jesus goes on to name that very presence of Himself Holy Spirit; a life force and active voice. both outside and within us which will speak to the deepest places; the deepest fears; reminding us of Jesus’ words; reminding us of Jesus’ compassion; reminding us of Jesus’ mercy; reminding us of the truth Jesus both taught and embodied.  These things quicken to life within us the very life of Christ; that however alone we may feel – and at times we feel terribly alone – we can rest assured that we’re not alone.  There is constant relationship with God through Jesus Christ, who created us to be in relationship with God through Jesus Christ, who by Holy Spirit in turn sustains us.

      Jesus tells us to not let our hearts be troubled.  Jesus offers us a peace which the world without Him does not and will not know.  Yet He gives us a basis for comfort, hope, peace.  You fear death? Jesus asks.  I will be at the end of your life’s journey.  You fear abandonment? Jesus asks.  I will accompany you all the way along the way.  How do we know?  Because Jesus pledges:  “Where I am, there you may be also.”  Paul in his own theological interpretation addresses these dual fears when he writes to the church in Rome:  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor. angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

      So in this Lenten season, let us acknowledge these fears, face these fears, then seek the assurance of Christ who instructs His disciples, and instruct us, not to let our hearts be troubled, neither to let them be afraid.

Lord, we all bear our fears; fear of abandonment; fear of death; fear of what tomorrow may bring.  As You assured Your disciples in that upper room long ago, You assure us in this room today:  that we have nothing to fear, for You will never abandon us. Speak to us through Your Holy Spirit, and fill us with Christlike faith, that we may walk daily in courage and confidence. Hear this our prayer, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.



Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102