Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The problem of fear. . .

Sermon for Easter 2A, preached on Sunday, April 19, 2020.

This year we have much in common with the Gospel appointed for the Sunday after Easter.  We are behind closed doors out of fear but our fear is a virus and like every fear, it makes it hard for us to listen and to see.  So what better occasion for us to once again condemn St. Thomas for his doubts about our Lord’s resurrection.  It is easy to feel superior when you have the advantage of hindsight but it is not quite that simple.  What would we have done differently if we had known in January what curse and threat we know now in April?

From the time of our Lord’s Transfiguration on He spoke clearly and plainly of His betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection.  The disciples heard it in their ears though they were not really listening.  So when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb she was looking for a dead body and not a living Lord.  When Simon Peter and John ran to the tomb, they wondered what had happened to Jesus’ body since they expected Him to be dead and not alive.  Though the resurrection should not have been a great surprise to them, it was.  In fact, it was such a surprise to them that it took some quiet time with Jesus, a view of the nail marks in His hands, and a touch of the scar in His side, before they were ready to invest themselves in believing that He was risen from the dead.

St. Thomas can be faulted for being somewhere else than with his brother apostles on that Sunday evening but you should not be too hard on him for doubting.  Doubting is the default position.  It was for the rest of the apostles and it is for you and me.  We hear what we threatens us with keen ears of fear but we do not hear much more.  Betrayal, suffering, and death all get our attention – in part because we fear we are the ones who must endure them.  Resurrection does not.  In fact, that is the struggle of faith.  The natural focus of our hearts is on bad news and faith has to learn hope and to grow into peace.  It was true for the apostles, for St. Thomas, and for each of us.

We have labored for weeks with the threat of a virus we cannot see.  It has changed our lives and stolen every normal thing from us.  We have become prisoners to our homes and captive to the uncertain of when this will ever end – if it will ever end.  The longer we go the more normal this exception will feel to us.  And judging by our conversations and social media posts, we have decided that we have been lied to, deceived, bullied, and threatened -  all to make us do what our moms taught us to do as kids – wash our hands and respect people’s personal space.  We are most sure of the fact that this is a terrible thing, unprecedented, cruel, and unusual punishment.

In reality, this is not the worst that has befallen us and it is not the last threat we will endure.  But sin has tuned our hearts to fear and made it hard to hope.
Like St. Thomas of old, we want proof.  Proof that the threat is real and that hope is real.  We are adverse to any risk and we want guarantees before we risk believing.  That is where St. Thomas was.  It is where we are.  Faith is a reach for us.  That is why it is always the work of the Holy Spirit.  From the day we first believed to the day after day encounters with disappointment and fear we must overcome.  Faith works only because the Spirit is at work bringing us to faith and then keeping us there.

We might think that St. Thomas and the rest of the apostles got proof positive that Jesus was raised and all we got were words on a page.  In the end, they did not get much more than we get.  They had the Word of God and the promise of the Lord.  That was either enough for faith to hold onto or they surrendered their hearts to fear.  We fight the same fight today.  Either the Word and promise of God is enough or else we retreat into our fears, anger, bitterness, and despair.

Our baptism is like the Transfiguration.  There in baptismal water, the Father opens our eyes to see Jesus, directs us to Jesus’ saving glory, and charges us to listen to Him.  He does this because we are prone to hear without listening, paying attention to things that threaten us but not so much to the promise of hope.  Most of the time, we are not listening.  Our minds are running from thought to desire the way a dog chases a rabbit and then runs off after a squirrel.  We have short attention spans and so we miss much of what God says in His Word to comfort us and what He has done for us in Christ.  Grace is a surprise to us each week because we are more aware of disappointment and fear, quick to judge God and others for what they have done and failed to do.  The Holy Spirit is ever recalling the attention of our hearts to what Christ has done and building up faith and hope in Him.

Long ago, the apostles had the Lord’s own Word and promise that He would rise. They had the eye witness accounts of Mary Magdalene, John, and Simon Peter. But none of it became real until they encountered the living Christ.  Even then, they thought Him more ghost and risen flesh.  The miracle in all of this is that God does not dismiss them or us.  God does not tell us to take our doubts and fears and  take a hike.  Instead, He comes to us and meets us square in the face of our doubts and fears.  Christ does not live in us best when days are good and faith is easy.  Christ lives in us most profoundly when our hearts are tuned to fear, marked for panic, and we ready to believe all the bad news first and none of the good.  That is what we learn from St. Thomas.  When we would have turned the doubter away, God comes to overwhelm the doubts by the power of the Spirit working through the hope of His Word fulfilled and His promise kept.  God meets us doubters and fearful folk right there in our doubts and fears.

The job of the sermon is not to argue you into believing but to open the Scriptures to us the way Christ opened them to His apostles of old.  It is not that sermons never move past sin and death but that is precisely where we live.  Sin tunes our hearts to fear and death lays ready to claim us.  The Spirit is ever at work pointing us aware from our works to Christ’s holy obedience and from the power of death that would claim us to the power of His life that frees us.  Hope lies in His life-giving death that alone forgives our sin and His resurrection that overcomes our death.  Our God is holy and merciful and has the power of life.  He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the prophets and patriarchs, apostles and evangelists.  He is the God of sinners who have no righteousness and the God of doubters who are daily tempted by fear.  He is the God of people like St. Thomas and you and me – a people who must daily be claimed for faith against our enemies.  He is the God of people who struggle to endure without surrendering to disappointment and misery.  He lives to love and save you every day from the prison of your sins, doubts, and fears.

In the end, St. Thomas walked away from the closed room still with doubts and still with fear.  But he had one more thing.  He had Christ.  “My Lord and my God.” he said.  That is the challenge before us today.  In the face of sin’s built, the power of doubt, and the threat of fear, St Thomas and the rest of the apostles put their trust in the Lord.  Whatever we face, we stand with blessed Thomas and the apostles and confess Jesus Christ is our crucified and risen Lord.  And that is where we are now.  Surrounded by fear and living in the threat of the unknown, we are tempted to despair and choked by doubt.  Faith answers these not with explanations but with the Name of Jesus and the confession of faith – “My Lord and My God.”

In the end, nobody can talk you out of your fears or release you from your sins or answer the threat of death.  Not me and not anyone else here. There is only One who can end guilt or stop fear.  Jesus.  The Lord who shows us Himself in living water, in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, in the voice of absolution, and in the Word preached. 

People, loved by God, we are not without hope, not without consolation, and not without power.  For Christ is with us, Christ is for us, pleading His blood for our sins, and Christ went before us, the first born of the dead in whom we too shall rise.  So be of good courage and have peace.  In times of great threat and uncertainty, what we need to remember is that Christ is our God and we are His people – and this is the only thing that matters. 

Christ is Risen!  He is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen.