Sermon: “Here is Your God” (September 6, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Here is Your God” (Isaiah 35:4)
September 6, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament is Isaiah, who lived about seven centuries before Christ. His prophetic ministry lasted over fifty years, during which he witnessed firsthand the continual moral and spiritual decline of Israel. While Isaiah repeatedly exhorted Israel to forsake their sins and idolatry and turn back to God, he also repeatedly prophesied about the coming work of salvation God would bring about in Jesus Christ, salvation not just for Israel but for the world. Along these lines in today’s passage Isaiah writes:

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,“Be strong, do not fear!Here is your God.He will come with vengeance,with terrible recompense.He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4).

Did you catch to whom specifically these words were directed? “To those who are of a fearful heart.” What are you afraid of? What makes your heart fearful?

In 2012 Chapman University in Orange, California revealed the results of a survey about the fears of Americans. Conducted with 1,500 participants from all across the United States from many walks of life this survey revealed, “The number one fear in America is walking alone at night.” This was closely followed by the fear of being the victim of a mass public shooting and the fear of natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

Of course, there are many other fears too. Some people are afraid of confined spaces (claustrophobia) or ghosts (phasmophobia) or heights (acrophobia) or the dark (nyctophobia) or crowds (enochlophobia) or germs (mysophobia). Others are afraid of public speaking (glossophobia)—so that at funerals, as Jay Leno once quipped, “I guess we’d rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy.”

Some fears are relational like the fear of commitment (gamophobia) or the fear of abandonment (autophobia). There are some rather, um, unique fears as well. Some people are afraid of balloons (globophobia) or cotton balls (sidonglobophobia) or zombies (kinemortophobia) or clowns (coulrophobia) or chickens (alektorophobia, which of course, means those who suffer from alektorophobia are “chicken” of chickens). I am not making any of this up.

In his hilarious cartoon The Far Side Gary Larson helpfully informed us of the phenomenon of “Luposlipaphobia,” the fear of being chased around a kitchen table by wolves on a newly waxed floor while wearing socks.

And Yours Truly is not immune to fear. While I am not afraid of public speaking or chickens or cotton balls, I have always struggled with the fear of failure (atichyphobia), even though in spite of the many failures in my life God has remained faithful and the world has kept on turning. Moreover I am embarrassed to admit that I am susceptible to katsaridaphobia (fear of cockroaches)—and living in the Deep South this fear is not very helpful.

And you have your fears too, don’t you? And all these fears, and many others, may cause us to, quoting the frightening1986 science fiction/horror film The Fly, “be afraid, be very afraid.” And when our fears are realized, we are reminded why we had those fears in the first place.

Allow me to now juxtapose two classic rock songs about fear—one from forty years ago and one from fifty years ago.

A couple months ago I watched a documentary about the making of the classic 1975 Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here. Surprisingly enough, I was the only one in my family who wanted to watch it. Roger Waters, who wrote the title track, recounted what this song means to him:

I think most of the songs that I’ve ever written all pose similar questions—Can you free yourself enough to be able to experience the reality of life as it goes on before you and with you and as you go on as part of it, or not? Because if you can’t, you stand on square one until you die. That’s what the song is about (from 2012 documentary Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here).

In the chorus of Wish You Were Here David Gilmour longingly sings:

How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year
Running over the same old ground
What have we found?
The same old fears
Wish you were here

A couple weeks ago marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most groundbreaking albums of rock ‘n roll history, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I listened to this album while driving down the actual U.S. Highway 61 through the Mississippi Delta last spring, an epic experience. In the opening track Dylan, both on individual and societal levels, sings about what it can be like when your fears are realized:

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?
People’d call, say, “Beware, doll, you’re bound to fall”
You thought they were all kiddin’ you
You used to laugh about everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging for your next meal
How does it feel?
How does it feel
To be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?
(from the song “Like a Rolling Stone”)

What are the “same old fears” in your life? How does is feel?

That is the exact place where Isaiah 35:4 speaks, the place where you are “of a fearful heart,” the place where your fears are realized, the place where you really feel it. And what does Isaiah say? “Be strong, do not fear!” Why? “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Here is your God.

In order to allay our fearful hearts we are all tempted to create our own gods or versions of God—as the seventeenth century French mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “God created man in his own image…and man returned the favor.” This is nothing new. We see this in the Old Testament when after Moses led Israel out of their bondage in Egypt he went to Mt. Sinai. In his absence the heart of Israel became afraid, so Aaron collected gold jewelry, which was melted and formed into a golden calf, and then presented the calf to Israel: “This is the god who brought you out of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:14).

And we do the same thing sometimes, don’t we? In spite of the saving works God does in our lives we still revert to trying to create our own little gods. But when our fears are realized, when we “don’t talk so loud” or “seem so proud,” these little gods fall short.

But the God Isaiah wrote about—“Here is your God”—was not a false god Isaiah created in his image, but a reference to the Creator, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23)—and yes, as Isaiah wrote, Jesus indeed came “with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” But rather than exact that vengeance and recompense on fearful sinners like you and me, Jesus took that vengeance and recompense upon himself at the hands of these very same fearful sinners. That is a god no humans would create in their image.

And in taking that vengeance and terrible recompense on himself on the cross Jesus gave all of us fearful sinners grace. In his book The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross the late biblical scholar Leon Morris describes this:

Instead of God’s severity the sinner experiences God’s grace…We can think of forgiveness as something real only when we hold that sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences. When the logic of the situation demands that God should take action against the sinner, and yet God takes action for him, then and then alone can we speak of grace (212-213).

And make no mistake about it—in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before Jesus died he was afraid, he was very afraid.

And yet the next day he still walked alone in the darkness of human depravity and sin and evil, carrying the instrument of vengeance and recompense upon his back.

And on that cross Jesus—vulnerable, bleeding, broken, afraid—had all his fears realized. How did it feel? We could never know or even imagine. And Jesus’s death silently proclaimed to a fearful world, “Here is your God.” And in his death on the cross, as Jesus not only took the vengeance and recompense for our sins upon himself, he did exactly what Isaiah wrote even centuries before—he saved us.

And that is why the gospel is good news to those who feel like they are without a home, good news to those who feel like lost souls swimming in a fishbowl year after year, good news to all who find themselves suffering from the same old fears wishing God were here, good news for the fearful of heart.

The antidote to fear is love. Scriptures assures us that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The love of God in Jesus Christ is strong enough to do exactly that, cast out the greatest fears in your heart, even a fear not yet mentioned but nearly universal, the fear of death, thanatophobia.

In the final stanza of his poem “A Hymn to God the Father” the Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631), wrote about how the death and resurrection Jesus Christ gave him hope as he approached his own impending death:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more
(John Donne: The Complete English Poems, Penguin Classics 349).

So today may Isaiah’s prophesy about Jesus Christ encourage all of you who may be “of a fearful heart”—“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God”—and may the perfect love of God cast the fear out of your heart, and replace it with peace.

Amen.