“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” These words of Jesus to his disciples must be the most comforting words we could possibly hear from the lips of our Lord. “Do not be afraid.” Sit with that for a moment.
This instruction from God is the most frequent instruction we encounter in the Bible. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we read it more than 360 times, phrased a little differently but with the same meaning, “Do not be afraid.”
Over and over again, God implants this message in our hearts and minds so that in times of distress we will hear his voice saying, “Do not be afraid.” The message is a message of the need to trust – trust that God is keeping his promise to his people for all eternity. It is a message of believing – believe that it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom as Jesus reminds us in this morning’s Gospel lesson. It is a message of faith. Have faith that God our Father wants only what is best for us.
Throughout the Bible, faith is epitomized through Abraham; Abrahamic faith, has its own special definition shaped by the depth of Abraham’s trust in God – trust in our God who tells us again and again, “Do not be afraid.” And yet, even for Abraham, singled out and chosen by God as our first patriarch, life held little certainty. Surely, even Abraham was plagued with doubt; only faith could assuage his fear of the unknown territory into which God directed him.
In our lesson from Genesis 15, God in a vision to Abram says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And, Abram protests God’s admonition, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?” Three chapters preceding this one in Genesis, in His first encounter with Abram, God had promised to make Abram a great nation. The scriptures tell us Abram was 75 years old at that time. Then, again in Chapter 13, God had promised Abram offspring so numerous that they could not be counted. Here we are at Chapter 15, after Abram has endured a number of exciting escapades including rescuing his nephew Lot who was taken captive from Sodom.
Still, there is no offspring – no evidence of a great nation to come. Abram and his wife are approaching the ages of 90 and above. Surely there was little certainty in their minds that together they would parent a great nation of chosen people.
Abraham’s saga through the book of Genesis does not overlook his frailties, his humanity, and his doubts. But, through it all, Abraham continues to trust and it is his trust encompassed in his deep faith in God that is the message we are intended to receive. Our faith is not measured in quantity or quality. We are asked simply to remain faithful – to listen for the words of our Lord, “Do not be afraid.”
The message is faith that cannot be equaled within our human imagination – a faith in the words of God, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” For Abraham and for us, there is no certainty of the specifics of where this faith will take us, only assurance that God is our shield – only the words of our Lord, “Do not be afraid, little flock.”
The writer of Hebrews describes this faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Where do we find such faith? Where do we find this assurance in the face of the worst of our fears? Truly, we do not find this assurance in our own self-sufficiency or in the wealth and prestige that the world has to offer – the things that are seen.
There are some instructions: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” In other words be prepared; be awake; and don’t be hindered by your possessions – possessions that we cling to out of fear – possessions that we wrongfully believe will bring us security and certainty.
It is our responsibility to be prepared and awake, to help our neighbor be prepared and awake, to pray, listening for God’s voice, and to study his word daily, to give alms generously, to worship and praise God with our whole heart. Our faith is a gift, but we must open our hands to receive it.
Our beagle Sallie is a rescue who spent the first four years of her life in research. She was not abused; she loves people and other animals; but she obviously missed the formative years of being cuddled and petted. She is not a snuggler or a cuddler. And, like many dogs, she is horribly frightened of fireworks and thunderstorms. She is absolutely inconsolable from the first detection of a far-off boom. I try to wrap her in blankets and hold her close and whisper soft words of comfort, but she struggles to be free of being embraced; she remains frantic, consumed with fear, trembling uncontrollably. It is a heart-wrenching experience for us that she is unable to accept and respond to our assurances that we will keep her safe, that there is no need to be afraid.
Surely, Jesus’ heart wrenched when even his closest followers could not accept and respond to his promises of guidance and protection. Imagine the heartache God our heavenly Father feels when we cannot allow ourselves to believe and trust in his promise – when we cannot hear and respond to his words, “Do not be afraid.”
Throughout the Bible, God commands us again and again – Do not be afraid – the most frequent and, I am convinced, the most difficult of all God’s instructions. Following God’s call and remaining non-anxious in the face of day-to-day uncertainty or sudden crisis requires trusting, believing, remaining faithful as Abraham remained faithful. “You must be ready,” Jesus says, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” And, above all, “Do not be afraid, little flock.”