Sermon for February 4, 2018

February 4, 2018

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Psalm 46:1-7, 10

The fifth in a series of six.


I have a book I’d like to recommend.  It won’t take you long to read it.  Maybe three minutes.  But you’ve probably already read it.  Or had it read to you.  It’s called Chicken Little.   Maybe you know it as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny.  Same story.

We have it in our church library.  It’s well used.  You know the story.  Chicken Little is hit on the head by an acorn falling from a tree and concludes that the sky must be falling.  This is big news.  The king has to be told.  On her way to tell the king she meets Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and finally Foxy Loxy.

There’s a happy ending and a not so happy ending, depending on the version of the story you read.  But the moral of the story is the same.  Don’t get caught up in mass hysteria.  Just because other people are afraid, you don’t need to be.

In this series on fear, we’ve been in the Psalms quite a bit.  Because there’s a lot of fear in the Psalms and there is also a lot of faith.  Psalm 46 begins:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear though the sky should fall.

Isn’t that what it says?  Actually, it’s close.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

And I don’t think we are stretching things too far to interpret it like this:

Therefore we will not fear though everyone else is running around like Chicken Little telling people that all these terrible things are about to happen.

It just occurred to me that the old playground taunt that someone is “chicken” may have originated with this story.  So don’t be a chicken.  That’s basically what I have to say to you this morning.

Chapman University in Orange, California holds a special place in my family’s heart.  Our daughter, Kelsey is a Chapman alum.  Chapman has become known for their annual “Survey of American Fears”.  They’ve been doing this since 2014.  They just released their 2017 findings.  Kind of interesting.

It was a random sample of adults across the United States.  They were given a long list of things they might fear.  Topping the list in 2017 was “Corruption of Government Officials”.  74.5% of the respondents said they were either afraid or very afraid of that.

Rounding out the top five were “Healthcare” 55.3%, “Pollution of Oceans, Rivers, and Lakes” 53.1%, “Pollution of Drinking Water” 50.4%, and “Not Having Enough Money for the Future” 50.2%.

This is quite a contrast to the top five fears in 2014, the first year they did this.  Topping the list that year was “Walking Alone at Night”.  Then “Identify Theft”, “Safety on the Internet”, “Mass Random Shootings”, and “Public Speaking”.

So, why did “government corruption” get to the top of the list last year?  It has do with the aftermath of the 2016 election.  Both sides were saying the other was corrupt, dishonest, immoral, dangerous, criminal.  And that registered with the average American.  So people on both the left and the right of the political spectrum had been made afraid and with both barrels that fear came out loud and clear when Chapman University did their survey.

The Gallup organization is always doing surveys on how satisfied people are with the direction of our country.  Their latest one shows that Republicans right now are very satisfied.  And Democrats are very dissatisfied.  Would it surprise you to know that when our president was Barack Obama, it was the Democrats were very satisfied and the Republicans who were very dissatisfied?  Probably not.

But here’s what I find interesting.  Gallup also asks people how satisfied they are with their personal lives, and it doesn’t matter who is in the White House.  The number is always high and it’s remarkably stable.  87% of Americans say they are satisfied or very satisfied with their lives right now.  This is the highest since 2006 when it was 88%.  And even when the bottom fell out of our economy, even when things were as bad as they got, still 78% were happy with their personal lives.

So if people are that content, how does a political party manage to get them to even bother to come out to the polls and cast their ballot?  Fear.  It’s a proven strategy.

We quoted Franklin Roosevelt earlier in this series.  He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But when election season comes around, there is a variation on that.  “The only thing we have to offer is fear itself.”  Both political parties are equally guilty.  We might call it the “Chicken Little Strategy”.

But remember the moral of the story.  Just because someone else is afraid, just because someone else says you need to be afraid, you don’t have to be.  Don’t be a chicken.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear.”

One thing I love about Psalm 46 is its refrain.  We find the same words in verses 7 and 11:  “The Lord of hosts in with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Years ago I heard Eugene Peterson give a talk.  He’s the guy who is famous for The Message Bible.  He was talking about Psalm 46 and he pointed out something interesting.

“Lord of hosts” literally means “Lord of armies”.  This is God who fights the battles and wins the wars for Israel.  It’s an image of God that stresses God’s power, not God’s love.

“God of Jacob” reminds us of the story of Jacob.  In one part of this story, Jacob is running scared.  His brother Esau has sworn to kill him.  Jacob knows he deserves to be killed for the way he cheated his brother.  At night he is attacked.  He assumes it is Esau attacking him, but it is God.  God wrestles with him all night long.  The next morning he does meet Esau, and Esau, surprisingly forgives him.  Embraces him.   Weeps with him.  Jacob says to his brother, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).  So when the Bible speaks of the “God of Jacob”, it is God’s love, not God’s power, that is being emphasized.

Here’s what’s interesting in Psalm 46.  You would expect it to say that the powerful God, the Lord of hosts, is our refuge.  Because God is strong enough to protect us.  And you would expect it to say that the loving God, the God of Jacob, is with us.  Because God also holds us and cares for us as he did for Jacob.

But it doesn’t say that.  Here’s what it does say, twice:  “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”  This is not what we expect.  So it gets our attention.  And it reminds us of something important.  The strong God is the loving God.  And the loving God is the strong God.  It’s one and the same God.  God is all-powerful and all-loving.  “Therefore, we will not fear.”  Because, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”

When we are in trouble, or when we just think we are in trouble, whether we really are or not, our fear kicks in.  That fear-detecting part of our brain, the amygdala, gets triggered.  The fear can morph into panic.  Before we know it, we are running around with Chicken Little and Goosey Loosey and all the rest.

Our prayers become more prayers of panic than of faith.  We’re not really praying, we’re just worrying out loud to God.  Because in our own minds, our fears have become bigger than our God.

So when that is where you find yourself, how about trying this for a change?  Instead of telling God about your troubles, tell your troubles about your God.  Because, “The Lord of hosts is with us;  the God of Jacob is our refuge.”  And this all-loving, all-powerful God is “a very present help in trouble.”

When we are afraid, we tend to be self-absorbed.  Fear turns us inward.  All we can do is think about how awful this is, how much more awful this could become, how awful we feel about this whole awful, scary situation.

I’ve been in meetings dominated by fear.  Everyone there, myself included is afraid.  The future does not look promising.  The future looks just like the present, except longer.  We don’t like the trends we can clearly see.  The handwriting is on the wall.

And even if it is a church meeting, we seldom talk about God.  It’s all about us.  What we can do.  What we can change.  Someone always brings out that tired old chestnut, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  So how are we going to do things differently?  How are we going to get ourselves out of this predicament?  How can this possibly work?  How?  How?  How?

Do you know what I think?  “How?” is a fear word.  “How?” is the word frightened people use when they think they are problem solving but they are really just grasping at straws.  They are really just trying to convince themselves that they have the answer, they are the answer, and they are trying real hard to believe that.

But what if we flip that?  Instead of believing in ourselves, we believe in God.  Instead of being impressed with ourselves, we are impressed with God.  Instead of asking “how?”, we say “wow!”

Many of us experienced a “wow!” moment last summer.  You had to drive a little from Nampa, but not far, and you got to see something most people live an entire lifetime without ever seeing.  A total solar eclipse.

I drove further than I needed to.  Madras, Oregon, my hometown, had been identified as the place to be.  So that’s where I was, along with about 100,000 other people in that town of 6,000.

Here’s what the eclipse looked like from Madras.  This was definitely a “wow!” moment.  In fact, I want you to listen to the voices you hear on this video and see how many times you can hear the word, “wow!”

(YouTube: “The ‘Total’ Total Solar Eclipse in Madras”)

How many did you count?  I got 14.  That’s not counting the “woo’s”.  If you count the “woo’s”, you get a few more.  When you see something that spectacular, it’s hard not to say, “Wow!”

Ancient people were terrified of eclipses.  They thought the world was coming to an end.  Maybe even that the sky was falling.  They thought “how?” are we ever going to live through this?  Instead of “wow!”, we have an awesome God!

“Wow!” is a faith word.  It is a praise word.  It is a God word.  When we get our eyes off ourselves, our troubles, our worries, our fears, and lift our eyes to God, we cannot help but say, “wow!”

And suddenly our whole perspective changes.  When I get stuck in meetings like the one I described earlier, I try to remember some good advice I once heard.  “Wow!” new ideas to life, don’t “how?” them to death.

And the same thing applies when we find ourselves afraid of the future.  When we don’t like the direction our country is going.  Or we don’t like the direction our lives are going.  Or we don’t like the direction the life of someone we really care about is going.  Or we sit down to watch the news and have to change the channel because the news is so awful.  “How?” are we ever going get through this?

The answer to the “how?” is the “wow!”

If all you can see is how scary and hopeless things are, you will feed your fear and your hopelessness.  But if you can manage to get your eyes off your troubles long enough to get your eyes on God, the cycle of panic and despair will be broken.  The “how?” becomes a “wow!”

Because God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  God is doing good things, great things in this world.  See that.  Be more impressed with that than you are with what is going wrong in the world.

And God needs you to partner with him to build a better future.  Respond to that call.  Ignore the Chicken Little hysteria all around.  Don’t be a chicken!

Fear feeds on fear.  Faith feeds on faith.  Both are contagious.  Only one will take us on God’s path into the future.

Dear God, we praise you!  We are so often so preoccupied with ourselves and our problems, with our world and its problems, that we forget all about you.  We turn to you out of desperation rather than lifting your name in praise.  Forgive us.  Fear makes us selfish.  Praise reminds us that you are bigger than whatever makes us afraid.  Bigger, better, infinite in both power and love.

So when we find ourselves in a tough spot and all we can think of to say is “how!”, remind us of that other word.  “Wow!”  In Jesus’ name, Amen.