Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 19)

Text: Exodus 14:10, 29-31
When the Israelites saw the king and his army marching against them, they were terrified and cried out to the Lord for help.
The Israelites walked through the sea on dry ground, with walls of water on both sides. On that day the Lord saved the people of Israel from the Egyptians … When the Israelites saw the great power with which the Lord had defeated the Egyptians, they stood in awe of the Lord; and they had faith in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

When fear is near, God is nearer

What scares you?  What raises your fear and anxiety levels?

The passengers on a commercial plane are seated, waiting for the cockpit crew to show up so they can get under way. The pilot and co-pilot finally appear and begin walking down the aisle to the cockpit. The pilot is using a white cane and is wearing dark glasses.  The co-pilot is wearing specs with “coke bottle” lenses and is grasping each seat to guide himself down to the cockpit.  At first, the passengers laugh thinking that this must be some sort of practical joke.  They ask the cabin crew about this “joke” but receive no confirmation that pilots really do have normal eyesight.  The cabin crew simply keep on reassuring the passengers that everything will be fine.  After a few minutes, the engines start revving and the plane starts moving down the runway.

The passengers look at each other with some uneasiness. Then the plane starts accelerating and hurtles down the runway but it seems to take forever to lift off the ground.  The plane is getting faster and closer and closer to the end of the runway, the voices in the cabin are becoming more and more hysterical.  Finally, when the airplane is almost at the end of the runway and the passengers are screaming their loudest, suddenly the plane lifts off and is airborne.

Up in the cockpit, the visually challenged co-pilot breathes a sigh of relief and says to the blind pilot, “You know, one of these days the passengers aren’t going to scream and we’re all gonna die!”

No doubt we would all be screaming and want to get off if we were in that situation.  There are many things that strike fear in our hearts. 
The news that a child has been hurt at school and taken by ambulance to the hospital strikes fear in parents. 
We are fearful of the future – maybe it’s our health that’s causing us concerns; maybe it’s our workplace that’s downsizing and we might lose our job:
maybe it’s the thought of old age and what it will bring that fills us with dread.
Lots of people are afraid of heights; some are afraid of small rooms with closed doors; some people are afraid of spiders; others are afraid of people touching them and the list goes on.

Think of those people who are living in places where there is conflict and terrible atrocities inflicted in the name of a particular cause.  Imagine living in a place like Gaza with your family where at any moment a rocket could land on your house.  Yes, there is a ceasefire there at the moment and the conflict has disappeared from the headlines of the newspapers but the anguish, the grief, the ruin and the fear of surviving in such chaos is still very real.
Imagine what it must be like to be living in the region in Iraq and Syria where there is war and dealing with the extremist ideologies that inflict so much fear on everyone.
What about the people who live with the Ebola virus in their country?  The fear of contracting this disease or members of your family catching it and its deadly consequences is a constant one.

Even here in our own community there are times and places we avoid because we are concerned about our safety.
We are afraid to leave our houses and cars unlocked.  We are afraid to walk alone at night. The local paper noted the sharp increase in assault in our local community.
What the world needs is peace, and with peace comes the confidence that nothing will harm us.  We don’t like fear controlling us.

We come to our Old Testament reading from Exodus.  Everything had been going so well for the Israelites.  God had preserved them from the angel of death that passed over Egypt and they were able to walk free from their slave masters.  They marched out boldly en route to the Promised Land. 

But then they came to the Red Sea.  How could they get across?  Had Moses made a wrong turn somewhere?  And when they looked over their shoulder they saw the dust kicked up by the Egyptian army.  Here they were, caught between the Egyptian army on one side and the sea on the other, with no way out. They were trapped.

Israel’s immediate response was fear. They thought they were rid of Pharaoh forever.  They knew that the Egyptian king would not be merciful when he caught up with his runaway slaves.  We are told, “When the Israelites saw the king and his army marching against them, they were terrified and cried out to the LORD for help” (Ex 14:10).  We aren’t told what they said to God but we can guess because their prayers would be no different to ours if we were in the same situation.  In addition, they attacked Moses for putting them in so much danger. “Didn’t we tell you to leave us alone and let us continue to serve the Egyptians?”

Fear distorted the truth; they were now ruled by doubt rather than faith. 
Fear had a numbing and paralysing effect – they forgot all that God had just done for them in freeing them from slavery. 
They forgot about God's continual presence – a thick cloud during the day and a flaming fire at night.  All they felt was the fear of being slaughtered by the Egyptians. 

Isn’t that what happens when we become afraid. 
We know God. 
We know his promise to always be our strength and support in times of trouble.
We know that God loves us and is committed to us – after all didn’t he send his Son to die for us.
We know that even though God never promises to eliminate all the problems in our lives, he gives to those whom he loves the strength to endure all things and one day will take us away from it all to our heavenly home.
But when fear comes along, suddenly we become very forgetful.  We are anxious, depressed, terrified, worried, and panicky.

While the people panicked, Moses stood like a rock. “Don't be afraid! Stand your ground, and you will see what the Lord will do to save you today; you will never see these Egyptians again.”    

Then Moses adds, “The Lord will fight for you, and all you have to do is keep still”.

“Keep still.  Don’t do anything.  Trust God”.  We all know how hard that is.  “Be still.  Stop what you’re doing.  Stop your panicking and know that I am your God” (Psalm 46:10).  Our strength, our mind, our skills are of no particular use.  We need to wait patiently for God to act, keeping in mind that God is never far away.  “Keep still! Stop! Be confident that God will take care of you”

The Israelites were nervous about their situation and likewise we are uneasy about what is happening in the world and in our lives.  We don’t understand why God seems slow to act, and we panic like the Israelites. Moses calls the people to be calm, trust in God their Saviour because he will save them.  And he did. 

What can we do when fear grips our hearts?

Firstly, really get to know how gracious, loving and faithful God is.  God loved the whining Israelites and saved them from danger.  We don’t deserve it but he loves us and always stands by us.  We see just how wonderful his love for us is when we look at the cross and marvel at what Jesus has done for us. 
Get to know God as the king and ruler of the universe.  There is nothing so great or too difficult for him to handle. 
Parting the sea to save the Israelites,
saving Daniel from the lions,
or Jonah from the belly of the big fish,
springing Peter from jail,
or saving Paul from a shipwreck were all a piece of cake for him. 
Our lives are in his hands and his help is always near.

Secondly, know that God truly understands our pain.  Because of Jesus we never cry into the emptiness of space, “Hey, you up there – do you even care?” 

Jesus knows about human suffering; he knows what it’s like to feel the icy fingers of fear grip our hearts; he felt physical pain as the lash tore at his back and as nails pierced his hands. 
He felt emotional pain as he grieved over the hard hearts of the people of Jerusalem. 
He felt spiritual pain as he called from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” 
Know that because of Jesus, God understands, truly understands our fear and pain.

Thirdly, there is nothing like having in your memory some of the promises of God that you can recall in an instant when fear and doubt are so overwhelming. 

Memorise and trust words like these -
The Lord is my light and my salvation; I will never be afraid. (Psalm 27:1,2).

God is our shelter and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not be afraid… (Psalm 45:1,2).

Or Jesus words of authority and power, “Don't be afraid! I am the first and the last. I am the living one!  I have authority over death and the world of the dead.” (Revelation 1:17).

Or simply Paul’s words,If God is for us, who can be against us? … There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31, 39)
Even though God may not miraculously part waters or enable us to walk across stormy seas, be assured that God keeps his promises; that he is with us and give us the strength we need even in the worst possible situation imaginable on this earth. 

Finally, realise that there will be times when our human attempts to be bold are not sufficient.  Exhausted and weak we place our lives in the hands of the Holy Spirit to help us, to forgive us, to support us while we tremble in fear and to take our sighs and groans as a prayer to God our Father (Rom 8:26-27). In spite of how we feel about God and the situation we are in, we simply do as Moses told the people, “Be still, be calm and let God do the rest because the situation is out of our hands”.

Remember that God has given you Christian friends for your encouragement, support, prayer and reassurance.  Ask them to help you, to add their prayers to your prayers, to pray for you when you can’t pray yourself.

When fear is near, God is even nearer.


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
14th September 2014

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