Whom Than Shall I Fear?
Psalm 27, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 26, 2014
Each of us faces the choice every day whether to live our lives in fear or with courage. For some people it takes real courage to get out of bed or to get out of the house. For some the challenge is to try something for the first time and risk failure. For some it is standing up to people who will let you know they disapprove of your position.
There are people—and sometimes that includes us—who live in fear. Their byword is caution. Their constant thought is “what if.” They understand that bad things happen to good people, and this world is a dangerous place.
In Psalm 27, the poet does not deny that the world is dangerous, but he says that God is more powerful than our enemies. The courage he demonstrates doesn’t come from thinking you area tougher than the other guy, or from psyching yourself up and “manning up.” Courage comes from trusting God. It is faith that is the ground of courage. The life that trusting God gives us is a life of confidence—not a false bravado or whistling in the dark, but confident because we know that God will take care of us whatever happens.
Didn’t you love hearing Mahalia Jackson sing the first words of this psalm? “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” She embodied the life of faith and courage. She had her first big hit record in 1948, selling 8 million copies, but refused all her life to sing anything but gospel music. Even though she was successful, she could not find anyone to sell her a house in Chicago in a nice neighborhood; when she finally bought one, someone shot through the windows and she had to call the police. In 1956 she met with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, and soon after they asked her to sing in Montgomery to support the bus boycott. She had death threats, but went to Montgomery and sang. After the concert, they learned that Abernathy’s house had been bombed. She went wherever Dr. King asked her to go, and she always sang about the Lord. You may remember that she sang at the March on Washington before Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech; in fact, she was the one who told Dr. King to “tell them about the dream” and he departed from his prepared remarks. She also sang at Dr. King’s funeral.
If Mahalia were here she’d tell you that her courage didn’t come from her upbringing or from someplace deep inside. It came from her faith in God. She knew that fear is not a failure of nerve; it’s a failure to trust. When Jesus heard that Jairus’ daughter was dead, he said to him, “Do not fear, only believe.” Those are the two poles: fear over here, and faith over here. That’s the choice we face every moment.
Psalm 27 is telling us that there is a good reason for courage. It’s not that his life is easy. Evildoers are attacking him—they want to eat him up. But even if a whole army came after him, he would not be afraid; he would be confident. Why? Because the Lord will save him. Yahweh the God of Israel will be his stronghold, his refuge, his place of safety. It is precisely because he trusts in God that he can be confident.
Who is there left to fear? Who is stronger than God? Psalm 56 (3-4) says “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” What indeed? I used to think that the worst they could do to me was to fire me. But that didn’t separate me from God’s love. They could hate me or make fun of me, but my sense of self-worth comes from God, not them. They could cause me physical pain, but I know from the history of martyrs that this would not result in losing faith or losing touch with God. The worst they could do is kill me—but that wouldn’t be all bad, and it would put me face to face with God.
As Paul says in Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Do you believe that God loves you? Probably the answer is yes, but do you believe that God is able to protect you? Do you really believe that God is powerful? Not that he will never let you suffer: the psalmist is going through a hard time and has to call to God for help. But God will never let you go. Paul asks another question in Romans 8: “What can separate us from God’s love?” The first thing we might think of is death, so Paul starts his list there. “No, not death. And for that matter, not life either, nothing that we face in this life. Angels can’t do it and demons can’t do it. Rulers and powers of this world can’t separate us from God. Nothing that happens in the future can take us out of God’s love as we have come to know it in Jesus Christ.”
Aldous Huxley, surprisingly, wrote a book about the faith of mystics. He wrote “Fear cannot be got rid of by personal effort, but only by the ego’s absorption in a cause greater than its own interest. Absorption in any cause will rid the mind of some of its fears; but only absorption in the loving and knowing of the divine Ground can rid it of all its fears” [The Perennial Philosophy, p. 163].
The Lord is our stronghold—the panic room, the place you can go to hide from bad guys, the way Captain Phillips’ crew tried to hide in the engine room. Yahweh is our refuge. The safe place for us is not a building or a fortress; the safe place for us is the person of the Lord. We hide ourselves in him. People worry an awful lot about security these days. But where does real security and peace of mind come from? Not from hidden cameras or ADT, not from more locks or more guns. Even if those protect you from some bad guys, they cannot protect you from fear. Only God can do that.
You might ask how you get the courage and confidence of David or whoever wrote Psalm 27. Part of the answer is in verse 4, one of the most beautiful verses in the book. Listen:
One thing I asked of the Lord,
that I will seek after:
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to inquire in his temple.
Then there is verse 8:
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
I think there is a secret there: the person who has courage that comes from confidence in God is a person who is focused on seeking God’s presence. The courageous person is not just a “man of action,” but a person who sits in silence before God, in yearning, in listening and looking for a word from God or a sign of God’s nearness.
The psalmist does not say “One thing I seek after: courage.” Or victory. Or security. The one thing is to be near God, to see God, to enjoy God. I don’t think we need to take it literally that he wants to go to Jerusalem and stand in the temple; that can be a metaphor for seeking God’s face—seeking an intimate encounter with God. What is the one thing that matters most in your life? Is it your job or your family or your church or your safety? Or is it knowing God? Remember when Jesus visited the house of Mary and Martha. Martha was doing good work, doing the right thing by getting dinner ready, but her sister put that aside for something more important: sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus said, “Martha, dear Martha, you are distracted and worried about so many things, but your sister has chosen the one thing needful”—the one thing we need more than anything else.
So here’s my thesis: the ground of courage is trust in God, and the ground of trust in God is orienting your whole life toward knowing and loving God. Wasn’t that Jesus’ thesis too? “Seek and you will find.” “Seek first God’s reign and everything else will be added to you.”
It’s not that the person of confident trust will be spared trouble—and, for that matter, he may well fall off his horse of faith from time to time. In verse 7 of this psalm, the tone changes to a plea: “Hear me, God, when I cry to you. Answer me! Don’t hide your face from me. Don’t forsake me now.” But then he reminds himself of what he already knows: even if his father and mother forsake him, even if every last human turns away from him, the Lord will pick him up and carry him in his arms. The psalm ends on a note of confidence: “No matter what people do to me, I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord while I am still alive”—in the land of the living rather than in the world of the dead. Then in the last verse, the poet turns to his audience, to the people hearing this in the sanctuary: “Wait for the Lord—that is, wait expectantly for God to act, wait in hope. Be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
Think of what Jesus was teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. He was saying that because your heavenly Father is faithful and generous, you do not need to be anxious about anything. Don’t be afraid that there will not be enough food or drink or enough to wear. Don’t be afraid to love your enemy. Don’t be afraid of people who say bad things about you. In John’s gospel (16:33) Jesus says, “In the world you will have trouble. But take courage! I have overcome the world.”
What is it that you are afraid of? American Demographics published a study that said, once again, that the #1 fear of Americans—56% of them—is public speaking. They’d rather stand on the edge of a cliff than stand behind a pulpit. But do you know what the #2 fear is? 46% say they are afraid of getting fat. That must be the 46% who aren’t already fat. The obese are probably more worried about dropping dead.
Paul Tillich, a German philosopher and theologian who came to America to escape Hitler, wrote a famous book in 1952 called The Courage to Be. He wrote a lot about anxiety in a period they were calling “The Age of Anxiety”—which I think has been extended through my whole lifetime. In this book about courage, Tillich said that under all the specific fears of individual threats there lurked three basic anxieties. These are the three things that deep down we are really afraid of:
- Fear of nonbeing and death,
- Fear of guilt and condemnation,
- Fear of emptiness and meaninglessness.
I think he’s nailed it, and he understands that those are the fears that the gospel addresses. At various times in history we have focused more on one or the other, but every religion has to answer those fears—the fear, as Keats put it, “that I will cease to be;” the fear that Paul expressed that after all he had done “that I myself should be disqualified;” and the fear expressed by everyone from the preacher in Ecclesiastes to Sartre to punk bands—that everything is vanity, everything is meaningless, chasing the wind.
The message of the whole Bible is that God has acted to save us from death and from condemnation and from meaninglessness. And if we have those things settled, we can take the side of being against nonbeing, the side of life against death. We can have courage.
On this day of the church’s annual meeting, it is worth remembering that courage is one of the cardinal virtues for a church—along with prudence, justice, and self-control. Are we as a church characterized by the confidence that comes from a deep trust in a faithful God? Our are we a church of the cautious and protective? Do we fundamentally act out of fear to preserve what we have lest it be taken from us? Or do we act out of the courage that comes from faith, not worrying about tomorrow and waiting expectantly for God to act? The word for today is “Be strong, and let your heart take courage: wait for the Lord!”
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