Before I get to our topic for today, there is something the Bible teaches about fear that is confusing and troubling for a lot of people. The Bible tells us over and over again to fear God.
We opened this series five weeks ago by noting how many times the Bible tells us to not be afraid. About 80 times if you go strictly by the words “fear not” or “do not be afraid”. Over 400 times if you include other phrases that mean pretty much the same thing. The Bible consistently tells us not to be afraid – with one single exception. We are to fear God.
One of you asked me about this earlier in the series. It’s one of those questions that gets asked a lot. What does it mean to fear God? Does it mean we are to be afraid of God? But how can a God of love also be a God who strikes fear into our hearts? Or is the old image of God zapping people with lightening bolts closer to the truth than the image we get from Jesus of God as a kind and gentle shepherd, holding us like baby lambs over his shoulder?
This could be a whole sermon, and we have a lot of other ground to cover, so I’ll be brief. Short answer: The fear of God is not the same as the fear of say a grizzly bear on the attack. God is not out to get us or to hurt us or to terrorize us.
I am one of the lucky ones who was blessed with a great father. So for me, when I think of what it means to fear God, I have an advantage. When the Bible says to fear God, I think I know exactly what it means. It’s the kind of fear I had for my dad. I wasn’t afraid of him. I never for a moment thought he would harm me. But I looked up to him with the deepest respect and even reverence. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I was afraid of disappointing him. Though I knew that even if I did disappoint him, he would still love me. And, no matter what, I could trust him completely and he would never let me down.
It says in Proverbs that, “The fear of the Lord leads to life” (19:23). In other words, the fear of God leads us on the path to life as our Creator intends for life to be lived. If we truly fear God as God is meant to be feared, all our other fears will fade away into insignificance.
Including the fear of our own mortality. That’s our topic for today as we wrap up this series. Mortality just means we don’t live forever. Part of life is growing older, getting feebler, eventually dying. Fun stuff.
My mom took a bad fall last spring. It was the latest in a series of falls. This one was the worst. My sister, brother, and I were crowded into a small room with her surgeon as he explained to us what he planned to do for her the next day. Then he asked us where she would be living after she recovered.
We knew our mom’s strong preference was to stay at home, with a little help coming in now and then as before. But it was becoming clear that she needed more care than that. We had a decision to make. And it was one of those times when the vote of the one most affected could not be the deciding vote.
The surgeon recommended a book. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. He told us that after reading that book, our decision would be easier.
He was right. It’s a book about helping people live as fully as possible as long as possible, without the so-called “heroic” medical procedures that extend life but prolong suffering. It’s a book really about accepting our own mortality.
When God designed the human body, he knew what he was doing. We are God’s handiwork. We are living proof that our God is an awesome God.
We marvel at what Olympic athletes are able to do with their bodies. But look at your own body – your hands, how they were designed to function; feel your pulse, think about the unbelievable fact that there are 60,000 miles to your circulatory system; take a breath, feel the oxygen filling your lungs and realize that there is a system in place to deliver that oxygen to every part of your body; think a thought, as you marvel that you have a brain that works (even in old age, it works!) in ways no one on earth fully understands.
And there’s that part of the brain we’ve mentioned several times in this series. The amygdala. It tells us when we need to be afraid. The job of the amygdala is to protect us from danger. Which means to keep us alive as long as possible. And that’s pretty long. Some of us have been around a long time. But not forever.
Because God designed our bodies to do a lot of things, and a lot of things well, for a lot of years. But God did not design our bodies to last forever. Our bodies aren’t young and functioning at their prime as long as we wish they were. And as John Wooden, who lived to be nearly 100, pointed out, “We are old a lot longer than we are young.”
As we age, it’s natural to fantasize about being young again. Wouldn’t that be great? No more wrinkles. No more hearing aids. No more aching joints. Acne would come back. We could probably deal with the acne if we didn’t have to deal with all the other unpleasant stuff that come with growing older.
There was a Super Bowl ad about this last week. Steven Tyler, who looks older than his 69 years of age, puts his sports car in reverse and watch what happens.
(YouTube: “Steven Tyler, Feel Something Again”)
If you think that can happen to you, or if you think a car can go that fast in reverse, dream on!
I heard James Dobson talk on this subject of aging. He shared a poem written by his dad, James Dobson, Sr. He wrote it for his wife on her 50th birthday.
And winter is not a bad season. Especially this winter. But even last winter. Snow and ice and cold are part of God’s plan. No winter, no Winter Olympics! All the seasons are beautiful in their own way, and so too all the seasons of life.
George Santayana said, “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” Even though I know we are all looking forward to spring!
Here’s what many of you have already discovered and many of our younger crowd will be surprised to learn. Your later years can be the best years of your life. We tend to think the peak years are from like 20 to 40. After that you are over the hill. But many of you know better.
The Nielsen company did a survey a couple of years ago on “self-reported well-being”. 350,000 people of various ages were basically telling the surveyors how happy they felt. Here are the results:
As you can see, at age 18 to 21 we are pretty happy. Then we get married and start having children. We see a little blip as the children get old enough that we can start doing a few things again. Then they become teenagers.
Here’s where we bottom out. Right around age 50. That’s the age when that elderly Mrs. Dobson had that poem written for her. This is where we start feeling those aches and pains we didn’t used to feel. This is where people often experience a mid-life crisis. But look what happens if you manage to get past that point without doing something stupid enough to ruin your life. Notice, many people in their 80’s are reporting that they are the happiest they have ever been.
Robert Browning was right. “Grow old with me. The best is yet to be.”
We find support for this in the Bible. Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Paul – all people who did the work for which they are best remembered when they were old. We find support for this outside the Bible. Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin, Pablo Picasso, Colonel Sanders.
It’s really true. You’re as old as you feel. It’s not your age. It’s your attitude. Some people are old at 18. Some people are young at 90. And we have several of them in this church!
I heard about a 30-year-old mom who was shopping for clothes. She overheard someone who didn’t know she was listening. Here’s what she overheard: “Oh, I would never wear that! That would make me look like a 30-year-old mom!”
It’s all relative. When you’re 18, 30 is ancient. When you’re 82, 70 is a child.
But whatever age we are, the aging process can be scary. It’s scarier than it needs to be because of that tendency we all have to worry about things we don’t need to worry about. I must like this Mark Twain quote because this is the third time I’ve used it in this series: “I’ve had many worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
So you feel an ache where you have never felt an ache before. What’s the first thing that goes through your mind? Cancer. Could be. But the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that the ache will go away as quickly as it came and it was nothing to worry about. You forget someone’s name. Or you can’t find your car keys. What’s the first thing that goes through your mind? Alzheimer’s. Could be. But the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor that it is nothing to worry about at all.
People have always done that – worried needlessly – but making it worse today is that we are bombarded with ads for new drugs that can help people with conditions we’ve never heard of and we’ll never get. We hear the symptoms and we wonder, do I have that? So we go to the doctor and we ask for a certain drug by name, just because we heard about it on television.
Or we don’t go to the doctor and we self-diagnose on our computers. I google the symptoms of my cold and I find out that I have five different diseases, I have a week to live, and I am pregnant. Google started in 1998. I know that because I googled hypochondriac and this is what I got.
A lot of people live with a lot of fear as they go through this natural process called aging. But God says, “Fear not!” The main source of our fear is that we are fighting something we are supposed to accept. Our mortality is part of the bargain that comes with being alive. It doesn’t need to be a negative. Every season of life is filled with blessings, with challenges, and with opportunities to live life fully and well.
Just two closing thoughts. First, live life fully, because it doesn’t last forever.
Holly Butcher died way too young. She was 27. She had a rare form of cancer. We never would have heard of her except for a letter she wrote. She asked her parents to hold onto it and then post it to her Facebook page after she died. She died on January 3, her parents followed her wishes, and the post went viral.
Here are some of the things she said:
It’s a strange thing to realize and accept your mortality at 26 years young. It’s just one of those things you ignore. The days tick by and you just expect they will keep coming; until the unexpected happens.
I always imagined myself growing old, wrinkled, and gray – most likely caused by the beautiful family (lots of kiddos) I planned on building with the love of my life. I want that so bad it hurts. That’s the thing about life. It is fragile, precious, and unpredictable and each day is a gift, not a given right.
I just want people to stop worrying about the small, meaningless stresses in life and try to remember that we all have the same fate after it all, so do what you can to make your time feel worthy and great, minus the b___ s___.
Whine less, people! And help each other more. Give, give, give. It is true that you gain more happiness doing things for others than doing them for yourself. I wish I did this more. Since I’ve been sick, I have met the most incredible giving and kind people and been the receiver of the most thoughtful and loving words from my family, friends, and strangers. More than I could ever give in return.
Get up early sometimes and listen to the birds while you watch the beautiful colors the sun makes as it rises. Listen to music. Really listen. Music is therapy. Old is best. Cuddle your dog. Talk to your friends. Put down your phone. Travel if it’s your desire, don’t if it’s not. Work to live, don’t live to work. Tell your loved ones you love them every time you get the chance and love them with everything you have.
Also, remember, if something is making you miserable, you do have the power to change it . . . Have the guts to change. You don’t know how much time you’ve got on this earth so don’t waste it being miserable.
Anyway this is one young gal’s advice. Take it or leave it, I don’t mind. ‘Til we meet again,
Thank God for people like Holly. And people like Laura Mullins. Whenever a life ends way too soon, what a gift these people give to the rest of us when they remind us of what we too often forget – how precious each day on this earth truly is. So that we will live life fully, because it doesn’t last forever.
Finally, live life without clinging to it, because it does last forever.
We’re back in the Psalms as we close this series – the most beloved Psalm of all and these wonderful words:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me . . . Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (23:4, 6).
Life is a precious gift from God. A life that is long and full and fruitful is a very good thing. We all want that. We all wish that for those we love. But when the time comes when our physical bodies have taken us as far as they can, whether we are 27 or 107, how good to know that there is more.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed,
we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (II Corinthians 5:1).
So we don’t need to cling to life. And we don’t need the “heroic” medical procedures that can keep us alive past the time when it is time for us to accept God’s good plan for life beyond this life. We can accept death without fear. With faith. With peace. With hope. Even with anticipation. Because good as this life is, God has something waiting for us that will be even better.
Adam Hamilton tells the story of one of his first hospital calls. It was a woman in her 80’s. Her name was Ruth. She was going to have surgery. She was told the truth about how risky this surgery was. The surgeon told her he wouldn’t do the surgery if he didn’t think there was a reasonable chance of a good outcome, but he had to tell her that there was a possibility she might not wake up.
And yet as Adam talked to her, she was so calm. Much more calm than he was. She had no fear. None. This made an impression on him. So he asked her about it. “How can you be so calm at a moment like this?”
She said, “I’ll tell you why.” And she told him the story of her first experience with death. It was her grandmother. She was a small girl. Her grandmother died at home, which used to be the case almost always, and is once again becoming more common than dying in a hospital.
They had a bed set up in the living room. For two weeks her grandmother couldn’t speak or open her eyes. The doctor stopped by to check on her. He told the family the end was near. They should call their pastor.
When he came, he gathered the family around the bed and suggested that everyone touch her. This girl’s parents, her siblings and little Ruth, each one touching their mother or grandmother. She was holding her grandmother’s foot.
The pastor prayed and when he said “Amen” and everyone opened their eyes they saw that she had opened her eyes, too. For the first time in two weeks. And she was looking right at her granddaughter.
She said, “Ruth, it is beautiful. It is absolutely beautiful.” Then she laid down and she died.
Ruth told Adam, “I have never been afraid to die ever since. Because I know that whatever is on the other side is going to be absolutely beautiful.”
This life is beautiful, too. But if we can believe that this life is just the beginning, that there is a great and wonderful adventure waiting for us, then we don’t have to be afraid.
And hard as it is to let go of a loved one, we don’t have to be afraid for them. We can grieve, we will grieve, but not as those who have no hope. Because we do have hope. We know there is more. And it will be good. Because God is good.
We come to the end of this series on fear, O God. We wish we could say that we come to the end of our fears. But we know the reason you tell us so many times in the Bible to “fear not” is because you know us so well. You know we are scaredy cat people. And you know how much we need you, our shepherd, to walk with us, to be with us, to comfort us with “thy rod and thy staff”. We affirm that you are our Lord, not our fears. And that we will fear you alone, and take you at your word, that when we do that, we can live as you want us to live, and that all our other fears will fade away into insignificance. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name, Amen.