Matthew 10:24-39

The “Bald Truth” About Fear

June 25, 2017

            The older I get, the more I resemble my Dad.  Those of you who have been to the house and seen pictures of Dad know what I mean. His hairline — or lack thereof — and mine are the same. Pictures of Dad in his younger years show that he had dark, thick, wavy hair as a teenager. Pictures of me in my teen years show that I had thick wavy hair at one time also.  Then, as Dad liked to say about himself, all my wavy hair waved goodbye! When I was Ordained into the Ministry 33 years ago Dad spoke at the service – and commented that he taught me a lot of things – not the least of which was how to comb my hair!  

Dad liked to say: “Grass doesn’t grow on a busy street” and “God only created a few perfect heads – the rest he had to cover with hair”. I have a small statue that has a bald man grinning and under the man it says “Bald Is Beautiful”.  At the first Church I served I had that statue in my office, and one day a four year old came in, looked at the statue, and asked what it said. “It says   Bald Is Beautiful” I replied. He looked at me and said “Like you?” As they say, out of the mouths of babes.

I began going bald in college.  Dad offered to pay for a hair transplant, but I told him that I wasn’t interested.  I really don’t mind being bald, although I do remember one time Sally and I were in a store that had an overhead mirror for security purposes. She was in one part of the store and I was in another – but the way that she ttold the story I suddenly let out a blood curdling scream – I don’t remember it being as loud as she claimed it was – and when she came running to me I was pointing up at the mirror and said “Please tell me that’s not me!” I still had some hair in the front at that point and did not realize how much I had lost in the back!

My baldness always comes to mind when I read the passage from Matthew we are looking at today and Jesus says that the hairs on our heads are numbered.  I wonder if Jesus saw a bald man in the crowd that day and grinned as he made this statement. But you know, I don’t think Jesus was trying to be funny here. I believe He was being quite serious about the reality that those who participated in His mission would likely be recipients of the same hostility and rejection He experienced. Jesus had already been branded as being the reincarnation of Satan so “how much more will they malign”, He says, those who follow Him. But in spite of the hostility they would face, Jesus tells His followers not to fear, In fact, He tells them this three times – in verse 26 – verse 28 and verse 31. And He gives them reasons for not fearing.  In verse 26 He says that God’s purposes are revealed, in verse 28 He tells them not to fear because God has control of the future, and in verse 29 He tells them they should not fear because God also has control of the present.

Jesus tells His followers – and that means us — not to fear, but to trust God. In reality, though, isn’t “not fearing” more easily said than done? Franklin Roosevelt famously declared, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but who among us can turn fear off when it has us in its grip? And it doesn’t matter whether what we fear is terrorism, illness, bad things befalling our children or the collapse of our retirement savings. During the last recession, one of the call-in news shows had a woman on the line who said that the dive in the stock market and the beating her retirement funds had taken had her literally trembling with fear.

Jesus’ comments about not fearing come in the context of His sending His disciples out to preach in towns and villages of Galilee. At the same time He warned them of coming persecutions, saying in Matthew 10:16-18:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; … Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me …”

We can understand something of the dread the disciples must have felt as Jesus dispatched them, especially as He went on to speak of the threats and dangers they could expect to encounter But then He tells his disciples not to fear any of these things. He says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Those words give an entirely different perspective on fear from the one that usually haunts us. Jesus isn’t saying that all we have to fear is fear itself, but rather Jesus says to “fear that which is truly deadly.” He’s talking about the things that truly matter, and about the importance of taking the long view: He’s saying that the worst that other people or troublesome circumstances can do to us is still not as bad as suffering spiritual death. God, and not anyone or anything else, Jesus says, holds our ultimate destiny in His hands. In the final analysis, only two events can happen to His followers — life and death — and both of these are in the hands of God.

Okay, we understand Jesus’ point, but from the standpoint of our day to day lives,   there’s a lot of scary stuff in the world, in the community, and even in our own lives. When confronted by a threat, who among us can sit back and say, “Oh well, whatever harm this situation can cause me, it cannot destroy my soul.” More times than not, when we perceive a threat to our immediate circumstances, our fear is in the present tense and it’s not unreasonable. In fact, for most of us, fear of something is unavoidable. It’s an involuntary response to a threat. It can even be a positive thing, for, in the case of an immediate threat, fear often leads us to respond. There’ve even been studies that report that realistic fear appears to be healthy for a person. Moderate levels of fear, for example, have been associated with better adjustment to surgery than low or high fear levels. But fear can also paralyze us and cause us to panic and react in ways that make things worse.

Friends — Jesus’ instructions to His disciples invite us to let a little heavenly light shine on our earthbound fears. Not that we can put all our fears behind us, but we can lower the level of terror inherent in the situations that frighten us. I think it would be helpful to differentiate between being afraid and being fearful. We have little control over feelings.  Our feelings simply are what they are. But we have choices about our attitudes and how we will live. Feeling afraid is a normal response to a perceived threat. But being fearful is an attitude toward life. And there is a difference.

I read about a man I’ll call Jack. Jack  managed a church camp, which was a popular site for not only summer children’s programs but also for church retreats the rest of the year. The camp was situated in a heavily wooded site, and the main lodge sat a considerable distance from the house where Jack lived. To keep expenses down, the camp did not keep the lodge lit and heated except when it was in use. In winter, with the early dark, Jack often had to walk over to the lodge in darkness to turn the lights on and the heat up in preparation for a church group to arrive. Most of the time Jack was already busy somewhere else in the camp when it came time to turn the lights and heat on and he didn’t want to take the time to go home and get a flashlight, so he would walk to the lodge, seeing only by whatever moonlight there was. Jack says that when he arrived at the dark lodge and was ready to open the door, there was always a moment of uneasiness. The lodge was not kept locked, and it was always possible that someone was inside up to no good. That thought always crossed his mind, and it was a realistic possibility. But always, after recognizing the fear, Jack told himself that such a scenario was very unlikely, and that he’d never had any trouble before. He’d open the door, reach around to the light switch and turn the hallway light on. Now — for Jack, at least, that fear was real, but his decision to go into the lodge anyway meant that he was choosing not to act fearfully.

When it comes to fear, there’s always some choice in how we react. In the gospel reading, Jesus tells us to face our fear, even at its possible worst, and proceed in the right direction anyway. That has applications for us even in the face of problems forced on us. A man who was a gunner in the nose bubble of a B-17 airplane during World War II was  in that part of the plane as the pilot was landing on a narrow strip of jungle. Suddenly, the gunner saw that there was a ditch across the runway. “I knew it was curtains,” he said. “I tried to warn the pilot, but I couldn’t speak fast enough. When I finally switched on the intercom, I knew the pilot had seen it. He was praying ‘God, don’t let me panic, don’t let me panic.'” Somehow, the pilot managed to bounce the plane on the ground and into the air again, leaping the ditch. The gunner says that he has often thought of that prayer and prayed it himself in the years since. He prayed not for anything tangible, but just not to panic.

Friends — we who follow Jesus ought to remind ourselves that the things we fear are never have the final word on our lives. That’s what Jesus was telling the disciples as He sent them out into dangerous situations. We can imagine several of them praying a similar prayer: “God, don’t let me panic,” and it must have been answered, because they all went forward, doing what God called them to do, regardless of the dangers. Jesus assured them that God, whose eye was on even the sparrow, who knew even the number of hairs on their heads, regardless of how great or small that number may be, was with them would not desert them. As a follower of Jesus, the same is true for you. The same is true for all of us who follow Jesus. Nothing can separate you from the love of God, not even fear itself, and not even the frightening things that actually happen to you.

Don’t let your fears paralyze you into not doing what God calls you to do.  The God who calls you is the God who is with you, and He has the power over all things and the last word in all things. Amen.