April 2, 2017

Victory over Fear

Are you afraid of anything?  We all are.  Perhaps a better way of asking that might be this: What are your phobias?  There are actually quite a few of them out there.  There are quite a few that are pretty…interesting…as well.  For instance, I know that some of you are stricken with herpetophobia—the fear of reptiles, or creepy, crawly things.  Perhaps you suffer from katsaridaphobia.  Any guesses on what that one is?  Fear of cockroaches.  Here’s one that’s a bit clichéd, but receives a fair bit of attention in the media because it’s just so creepy: coulrophobia—the fear of clowns.  Along the same lines, you may be afflicted with automatonophobia.  That’s a fear of ventriloquist dummies.  Another common fear is hypsiphobia.  That’s the fear of heights.  Your presence here this morning suggests that none of you likely suffer from eccliosphobia, although you may know some folks who seem like they do.  It’s the fear of churches.  And one last one just for fun: You may find yourself afflicted with hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia.  Any guesses here?  It’s the fear of long words.  Honestly, I think they may have just made that one up.  It’s actually the longest name for any phobia.

Now, most of those (and frankly, most of the other phobias on the list I found) are pretty silly.  Did you know there are phobia names for the fears of having something on the left or right side of your body, respectively?  Yes, some people really have these—indeed, there probably wouldn’t be a name for them unless someone had them and a name had to be constructed in order to diagnosis the issue—and yes, some of them can be truly debilitating, but how often do you really encounter ventriloquist dummies?  If you don’t like clowns, stay away from the circus.  (And since last weekend was the last time it will ever be in town that’s not such a hard thing to do anymore.)  Stay off of ladders and amusement park rides if you don’t like heights.  If you don’t like cockroaches or snakes, keep your house clean and your shed well-stocked with snake-away.  Simple solutions can deal with many of these things.

But there are some fears that are harder to overcome.  They are not associated with some specific thing but rather a set of circumstances over which we may or may not have control.  What’s more, these are fears that everybody has to some degree because they are part of our nature.  For instance, most of us are afraid of being alone.  Now, some of you are probably thinking, “Well, that’s not me!  I love to get off by myself whenever I can.  In fact, my life would be a whole lot better if I could get rid of people a little more often than I do.”  I get that.  I’m an introvert.  I recharge my batteries by getting by myself and chilling out.  But there’s a difference between being by yourself and being alone.  We were made for community and to be truly alone for very long can mess us up in some significant ways that are hard to fix.  There’s a reason solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments that can be given in prison.  In fact, I’ve heard about some studies which show that it really is an inhumane punishment.

Another fear that’s pretty common to all people is the fear of being lost.  Even the most free-spirited person likes to feel like she has at least some measure of control over her situation.  When you’re lost, though, you lose that feeling.  I hate feeling lost.  Lisa will tell you that when I feel like I’m lost on the road I come unglued.  When I’m in a social situation and feel like I’m lost I shut down.  It’s not a fun place to be.  It’s not a place that makes us feel victorious at all.

This morning we are in the fifth part of our series, Victory.  For the last month, we have been talking about this incredible victory we have in Jesus because of His victory won on the cross and in the resurrection.  We started this journey by making sure we had our eyes fixed in the right place so that we had this victory firmly in our sights.  With the help of John’s record of his vision of the events that will culminate in the end of the world in the book of Revelation we saw that Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  Because of this, as we talked about in the second week of our journey, when we come to Him in faith, we find hope.  Because Jesus is absolutely able to accomplish what He says He’ll do, when we come to Him trusting in that fact we will find ourselves filled with confidence in the positive future He promised is coming to all those who follow Him even though it isn’t here yet.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the fact that this victory doesn’t just fill us with hope for the future, it fills us with power for the present.  When we find ourselves in Christ, He extends to us the power His victory gave Him over sin such that we don’t have to be entangled by it any longer either.  It is not our master—Jesus is.  This enables us to live with the freedom of righteousness in a way that is not accessible by other means.  Last week we got to enjoy the kids’ presentation of Blast Off!  Wasn’t that awesome!  They worked really hard and it showed.  Kim and Mark worked really hard with them and it showed.  In Bible study that morning, though, groups reflected on the fact that our faith really is the key to our appropriating this victory.  It is the key and we have a pretty healthy record of the fact that it will be recognized and rewarded when the time is right.  The right time may not be now, but we can rest assured that by the exercise of our faith we are part of God’s grand plans for His world.  And as John made clear throughout Revelation, one day soon we will get to see those plans come to their glorious completion.

Well, the last time we were together like this we talked about a potential roadblock to our enjoyment of Jesus’ victory.  That roadblock was sin.  As I said, thankfully, in Christ, sin is not our master.  This morning I want to talk with you about one more potential roadblock.  This is one that can come out of a place of sin, but it doesn’t have to.  Think about it like this: Have you ever had something or been in a situation that seemed too good to be true?  What is the thing you fear most in times like that?  Isn’t it that it is in fact too good to be true?  This is another fear that we all face from time-to-time.  The irony here is that if we lean too hard into that fear, we will begin to behave in ways that make losing it more likely.  Our fear can thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Well, doesn’t this situation we’ve been talking about having in the victory of Jesus sound too good to be true?  I mean, think about it: Eternal life, joy that never leaves, peace that is unshakable, unconditional love, unwavering hope, genuine and meaningful purpose, freedom from brokenness, the assurance we’ll never be alone or lost.  It’s everything we’ve always wanted out of life.  Sure, health and wealth aren’t thrown in there, but plenty of people have those but don’t have these other things and are miserable because of it.

Just think a little further about how great is this thing we have in Christ.  In Romans 8, the apostle Paul wrote this: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.  For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.  By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  Do you hear that?  No condemnation.  Guilt is gone.  Freedom from sin and death.  God gave us the law to help us avoid all those things, but we promptly made a mess of it.  Sin infected it and it became a tool of oppression instead of an instrument of life.  He knew that would happen.  It was an imperfect system from the get go.  But it was a necessary system because the time for Christ’s arrival hadn’t come yet.  Paul wrote elsewhere that God sent His Son at just the right time.  He spent hundreds of years gently guiding the movements of the world’s players like pieces on a chess board; allowing their free choices to be conformed to His perfect will.  The law was the holdover to keep us from completely undoing ourselves in the interim.  And it was a good thing, don’t get me wrong.  But, it wasn’t the best thing.  When the time was right, though, God took the initiative to put that best thing in place.  He enabled us through His Son to keep our side of the covenant of the law all for the purpose of empowering us to enter into a relationship with Him.

How much better could it get?  The God who created the heavens and the earth moved them so we could have life.  When you really get your heart and mind around all this, wondering if it’s all too good to be true is as natural as breathing.  Come on, God doesn’t just make us able to enter into a relationship with Him, He makes us able to stay in that relationship in spite of our continuing to struggle with sin.  He works in our circumstances, whatever they are, so that no matter how grim they may seem, they’re still going to turn out for our good if we’ll stick with Him and continue to pursue the kind of life He has called us to live.  Listen to this in Romans 8:26 now: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And he who searches hearts knows what is the will of God.  And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Wow!  That sounds amazing, doesn’t it?!?  The things we’ve spent the past few weeks talking about sound amazing too—victory, hope, freedom from sin.  So then, let’s just be honest and ask the question: Is this all too good to be true?  Is it going to suddenly disappear on us?  Is there anything we can do to accidentally fritter it away?  Is there anything that can separate us from this incredible victory and love?

Look at what Paul says now in v. 31: “What then shall we say to these things?”  There’s the question.  How shall we respond to all of this?  Is it too good to be true?  Is there anything that can rise up to challenge us and take it all away from us?  He answers this question with another question: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Well, who?  If the God who created the world and everything in it is on our side, who could possibly stand against us?  Do you know any people who have more power than God?  I don’t.  Do you know any things that have such power?  I sure don’t.  And, lest we question whether or not God Himself is really intending to stick with us, Paul throws yet another question at us in v. 32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Do you see what He’s saying there?  Look, if someone you trust says he has your back, you’re probably going to buy it.  But, there’s at least a little bit of doubt.  I mean, he may change his mind.  He may have something going on about which you know nothing but which will result in his bailing on you at the last minute.  You don’t know.  Now, if the same friend puts money behind his promise to have your back, you’re going to have more confidence.  He’s got more skin in the game.  He’s more invested in the outcome and is a lot more likely to do what’s necessary to see it through to a successful completion.  Take this one giant step further: What if that same friend willingly lays down, not his own life, but the life of his only son in order to back up his promise to have your back?  There would literally be nothing in the world you would hold more dear than his word to you.  Nothing could shake your trust in it or him.  You would walk around with an absolute confidence that if there was something you needed to succeed, he would provide it.  If there was something standing in the way of your success, he would demolish it.

Are you with me?  Folks, this is what God did do.  God sacrificed His only Son for us out of His great love for us in order to be in a relationship with us.  He’s already gone to the max for us.  What else wouldn’t He give us or do for us in order to make sure we succeed?  Nothing.  He’s all-in in terms of seeing us become fully who He created us to be—in other words, in His love for us.  We can trust that with absolute confidence.

Yeah, but kind of like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, even though we have victory over sin in Christ…we still sin.  And sin brings the possibility of accusation.  What if we’ve sinned somehow and somebody brings this accusation against us before God?  What if Satan—the accuser himself—brings such an accusation against us?  Surely, he knows what all our sins are.  What do we do in a situation like that?  Could that drive a wedge between us and God and serve as the catalyst which finally reveals this whole salvation situation is in fact too good to be true?

That’s just where Paul goes next in v. 33: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?”  Well, we just thought of two examples.  I’ll bet if we think on it a bit longer we could come up with a whole bunch more.  Who can bring charges against God’s elect indeed!  Every time we sin against someone else there’s another person who can bring a charge against us.  But here’s the thing: In Psalm 51 David offers a prayer of repentance to God for his sins with Bathsheba and her husband Uriah after his friend and prophet, Nathan, called him out on the carpet.  In that context, he makes this radical statement that at first read seems totally contradictory to reality.  In fact, I remember a Bible study one time in college where we got into a pretty heated discussion because one guy was adamant that this wasn’t true.  In Psalm 51:4 David says this: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”  Wait a minute!  Didn’t David rape Bathsheba and have her husband murdered?  I’d say his sin was primarily against them, not God.  It definitely doesn’t seem true that it was only against God.

Well, his sin certainly did affect them in tragic ways, but in terms of the actual object, his sin was indeed against God.  Think about it like this: Let’s say you become a toymaker and make a bunch of action figures.  Then, let’s say that one night they all come alive.  But, instead of everybody getting along, one of the toys smashes all the rest (clearly you should have made less violent toys).  Who’s the chiefly offended party?  Well, the toys are all smashed and so are clearly offended, but it was you who created them.  It is your craftsmanship that has been destroyed.  Sure, they’re offended, but the sin was against you because you owned them.  It’s just like if somebody came and hurt your dog they wouldn’t be forced to pay restitution to the dog, they’d be forced to pay restitution to you because you’re the owner.  Legally speaking, you would be recognized as the chiefly offended party.

The same goes with God.  Stay with me, though: Because our sin—all of it—was chiefly against God, once He’s justified us (and in Christ, He has justified us), there isn’t anybody else who can legitimately bring charges against us.  Nobody.  In the situation with your dog, once the jerk who hurt your dog has paid his price and been justified, your neighbor couldn’t also file a charge against him because it wasn’t her dog that was hurt.  There’s nobody who can condemn us—which is exactly where Paul goes next.  Look at v. 34 now: “Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”  If we’ve got Jesus sitting there next to God the Father saying, “Dad, let them off on that one.  It was on me, remember?” who could possibly condemn us about anything?  Again: nobody!  This is not something of which we need to be afraid when we are in Christ.  God Himself is invested up past His eyeballs in our becoming fully who He created us to be and He’s working all the angles to make sure that nothing is ever going to change that.  This salvation thing isn’t too good to be true, it’s too true to not be good.

So then, Paul just kind of summarizes all of this in v. 35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”  In other words: Is there anything else that could make this all come up as too good to be true?  Paul’s answer in v. 36 is a little cryptic: “As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”  He’s quoting there from Psalm 44.  In Psalm 44, the psalmist (not David) is issuing a complaint and a plea to God for his experience of suffering in spite of his faithfulness.  The point is that people who are faithful to God do indeed experience all of these various kinds of hard times without this experience serving as any kind of an indicator of God’s displeasure.  Or to put that another way: No, these things can’t separate us from the love of Christ.

Paul agrees: “No…”  See!  Continuing: “No, in all these thing we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”  Now, have you ever wondered what’s more than a conqueror?  I’ll tell you what’s more than a conqueror: a king.  A conqueror does just that: conquers.  But when the conquering is done, the conqueror is out of a job.  Or rather, he has a decision to make: Go conquer more things, or do something with the things you’ve conquered.  Now, if the conqueror is conquering on behalf of a king, then conquering is his job.  He conquers on behalf of his lord.  But if the conquerer is the king, when the conquering is done, he shifts gears to ruling.  In Christ, we are not merely conquerors with Him over all of this world, we will rule with Him.  In other words, we will indeed be more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  And to borrow a bit of Middle Ages thought: Who can challenge the king?  Nobody.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

That is exactly where Paul lands in one of his more beloved declarations.  Listen to this now in vv. 38-39: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Let me change my syllabic emphasis to make the point clearer: No-thing can separate us from the love of God.  If there is a thing, it cannot separate us from the love of God.  Can you think of a thing?  I can think of a thing.  I can think of several things.  I can think of a whole bunch of things.  But I can’t think of a thing that can separate us from the love of God.  Do you know why?  Is it because I’m not creative enough?  Is it because I need to get out more?  Is it because I haven’t experienced enough of the life (some of you people still tell me how young I am in spite of the ever-increasing count of gray hairs on my head and in my beard)?  No, no, and no.  It’s because nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Let’s be honest again here for the sake of making the point: The riches of the love of God sound too good to be true.  They do.  There’s no getting around that.  We can find in it the satisfaction of all of our deepest desires.  Hope.  Love.  Joy.  Peace.  Justice.  Righteousness.  Acceptance.  Meaning.  Purpose.  Significance.  Life.  Pleasure.  Even health that does not fail in our promised resurrection bodies and riches beyond our ability to imagine them that will become ours by inheritance when we become sons and daughters of the King.  If there is a desire people have it is fulfilled in the love of God.  Five words: Too.  Good.  To.  Be.  True.  Except it’s not.  Because nothing can separate us from the love of God.  We need not fear it will fade.  We need not fear the eventual springing of the trap.  We need not fear that, like the cable and cell phone companies, the deal is only going to last for six months and then our prices are going to be jacked up to the moon.  It’s not going to happen.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

If you have a fear, wrap it in this love.  If you are afraid, wrap yourself in it.  In the victorious love of Christ, we can find victory over fear.  It doesn’t need to trap us down or hold us back any longer.  After all, as the apostle John wrote: Perfect love casts out fear.  And from the love of God we can’t be separated.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.  My prayer for you is that you will know this love in as intimate a way as you possibly can.  My challenge to you is to step fully and formally into this love so that you can be transformed by it; so that you can become a conduit for it to flow to the people around you.  Step into it, be transformed by it, and live out of it with confidence because nothing can separate you from it.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.