Kelly Blackwell writes, "Clearly I wasn't winning the battle of the bulge on my own, so I decided to join a gym. 'Before you start working out, we like to do a health assessment,' explained the gym representative. 'So when you come in, wear loose-fitting clothing.'"
There was a brief pause and then Ms. Blackwell responded, "If I had loose clothing, we would not be having this conversation." (Reader's Digest, September 2004, pg. 226)
Beloved people of God, some things are so obvious that we don't think they need saying--but they do. One of these is that we live in a Season of Anxiety. We are bombarded by the headlines that keep the body count, not only of our soldiers lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, but of civilians mutilated by hate. Many of us watch the nightly news only to be confronted with one more incident of sudden tragedy that's overtaken others. And we cannot help but wonder about our own lives.
No wonder we are Afraid of the Future. Some of us have lost jobs. Others of us have watched as our health benefits have dwindled even as their expense grew and grew.
We worry about our future and we Feel Helpless. Dr. Martin Seligman has shown that this sense of "learned helplessness," as he calls it, of life out beyond our ability to influence it, is directly linked to depression. He further shows that there is more depression in our time than was evident even during the Great Depression in American history.
Worse than that, however, Seligman suggests, is our perception of the pervasiveness of depression. He writes, "Adults in the United States believe that the prevalence of clinical depression is 49% of the population, while in fact it's between 8%-18%. We further believe," he says, "that only 56% of adults in the United States report positive life satisfaction when in all actuality over 83% of adults do." (Statistics taken from Authentic Happiness, Seligman, pg. 50)
Our "learned helplessness" bolsters our anxiety by skewing our perception of reality so that, if we aren't anxious, we think something is wrong with us! We are like Kelly Blackwell - we think what is obvious goes without saying...but it doesn't.
Added to this is Religious Anxiety. Not long ago many of us read the "Left Behind" series of books that stimulated a great deal of conversation about the end of time. For some it was easy to dismiss the religious convictions of these best selling books. For others, they were, in fact, positive faith builders. And yet, for many of us in the Christian churches, they became sources of anxiety. It's easy for us, in our anxious season, to add religious worry to our list of things over which we can feel helpless, isn't it?
That is exactly what the writer of the Book of Hebrews addresses in our text today. The Christians of the first century lived in a time of great upheaval and high anxiety, and into that mix was added religious anxiety, the voices of some who actually told them their faith was second rate to the faith from which they had been called.
We read: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God . (vs. 1-2)
There are two critical spiritual truths upheld in our text. The first is that faith ought to be a source of confidence - not fear. The second is that the Lord has gone before us to make a way through anything life can throw at us and to bring joy into our lives.
In the midst of anxiety, the author of the Book of Hebrews reiterates a spiritual truth that may seem obvious to us - but must be repeated again and again - Faith is the Antidote to Fear. Let me say that again. Faith is the Antidote to Fear.
You Can't Choose Faith and Fear Simultaneously! Now that's not to say that you cannot feel them at one and the same time. The truth is you can - but in that very moment that you do, you will have to choose which of them will govern your decisions and actions.
Elton Trueblood expressed this truth in these words: "Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation." William R. Inge put it this way: "Faith is an act of rational choice which determines us to act as if certain things were true and in the confident expectation that they will prove to be true."
This is our confidence in God's actions on our behalf, this faith in God's love and grace that is the very basis for building Deep Footings in Jesus Christ. That's why we have both the realism of Hebrews 12, that speaks of persevering, as well as the assurance of looking to Jesus.
Today, surrounded by those who have held steadfast so that we might have our faith, thank God we stand firmly On The Shoulders of those who have gone before us. We don't water down the message of faith that we have received from those who believed before us.
One of the reasons many of us repeat the Apostle's Creed in our worship services is to reiterate our confidence in the witness of the historic Christian faith. We uphold, many of us, the Sacraments in our worship life as a way of standing firmly on the teachings we have received. The very reason we teach the Bible in our churches is that we hold fast to the authority and the truth of God's Word. This means that we stand in the very center of the truth of the Gospel as the Bible declares it and as the historic Church, from the Apostles on, proclaims it.
We are Confident in What We Know - because it has stood the test of time from the date of the first writing of these words until now. In any season of anxiety we thank God for what we have received and we will choose faith in the face of fear.
Now these deep footings are clearly established in our text as the basis for the Wide Support we both receive and give.
Teens, are you anxious about the rejection of your peers? I understand that. But I want to assure you of God's acceptance in Jesus, an acceptance that will last you a life time and then some.
Adults, are you concerned about our world, the state of the economy, the outcome of the coming presidential election? Let me assure you that, as Scripture says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow." Let his presence be your confidence.
But don't keep it to yourself!
Teens, do you know someone who has been hurt or is fearful? Why don't you call them or write them an encouraging note? You can't imagine the difference it will make in their lives.
Adults, are you aware of others whose life has been shaken? Why don't you take the time to speak to them, share your compassionate confidence in Jesus Christ or drop them a note of encouragement? It will be a powerful connection for them.
I believe the Devil loves to fill our lives with fear. Why? Because fear cuts us off from the best of ourselves, others and the power of our faith in Jesus Christ.
With the author of the Book of Hebrews, we celebrate that the sources of fear through the ages have come and gone but the Christian Faith remains.
I'd like to invite you into an experiment with me. I'd like you to imagine the name or names of one to three Christians whose witness has meant a great deal to you. Maybe they're family members. Maybe they're friends. And, now, if you have just a moment, join me on the count of three and say those names aloud. One, two, three...
How's your confidence level now?
Beloved people of God, we are those who have received the greatest assurance of all - God Holds the Future!
"I am not afraid." Four words that echo even today in my heart and soul with remarkable clarity. They were spoken to me by my father in a context that could have been filled with fear. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer. The radiation treatments had provided some lessening of the pain but the cancer was relentless. Faced with the prospect of a chemotherapy regimen that would, at best, give him just a few weeks of additional life even as it ravaged his body, my father chose not to take any further treatments. As he made the decision, with its certain outcome, he was upheld by the prayers of others and the faith that had led him throughout his life. Looking at me after I had asked him how he felt about this decision, he simply said, "I am not afraid, Mike." And he wasn't - because he knew where he was going.
God held my father's future...and God holds yours. Your Future, in this world or the next, is held in the hands of the one who has already chosen you.
The World's Future rests in those same hands. Oh, I don't mean to say that there will not be struggle - there will be. My father struggled with varying amounts of pain and discomfort until he died. I don't mean to say that there will not be heart break - there will be. When my father died, my heart broke along with the rest of my family's. Nor do I mean that holding onto God's promises is always easy - it isn't. I remember my father watching the worship service of his home church on television and seeing those that he so wanted to worship with, those he knew by name and loved, but he couldn't.
But we know that the God who so loved all those who have witnessed to us in the past, will not abandon us nor the world for which Jesus came, died and was risen. Here's the deal. If you really want to know what the future looks like, just look at the Savior. Christ is the Future.
St. Paul has written elsewhere, "For this purpose God called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. (vs. 14)
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the preview of the future of the world, the future that you and I will share with all who believe. We shall be met by those who have gone before us; and in that dimension of time we call eternity, by God's grace, we shall meet those who having received our witness of faith came to believe after us.
This is our deep footing in faith. This is the wide support in the church that we share....
Almighty God as you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses that we might receive the gift of faith, today we ask that you would number us among them that our witness might be shared with our family members, our friends, and generations to come. And we ask it in the name of the Risen One, Jesus Christ! Amen.