Sermon audio here.
Most people think fear is a bad thing. It isn’t. Not according to God, at least. The fact that we think fear is a bad thing goes to show that we’re atheists at heart.
Fear isn’t bad. We’re commanded to fear, love and trust in God above all things. As the famous Proverb puts it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” (Prov. 9:10). We ought to fear God. The prophet Amos likens an encounter with God to coming face to face with the King of the Jungle outside the safe confines of a zoo! Amos writes, “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8)
God’s holiness is dangerous to sinners. To not fear God is deadly. God told Moses he couldn’t see Him and live (Exodus 33:20). Uzzah died when He came into direct contact with the presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:7). Even the physical creation trembles at the Lord’s presence. Again the prophets says, “The Lord roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem; the pastures of the shepherds mourn and the top of Carmel withers,” (Amos 1:2).
The Lord has spoken, and even the thief on the cross trembled. “Do you not fear God”, he asked his partner in crime, “since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” (Luke 23:40) You too, dear saints, are under a sentence of condemnation, for you have failed to meet the demands of God’s holy Law.
Like the Pharisees, you’ve feared the wrong things.
You’re afraid of looking bad.
You’re worried about not having enough money.
You’re afraid of growing old and weak.
How will you take care of yourself when you lose your strength, or your senses, or you mind? That wouldn’t be a problem if you trusted God to do that for you. If your life were all about glorifying Christ you would never worry. Like Job you would say at all times, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord,” (Job 1:21).
How many have broken their backs, working hard to earn “the good life?” We think “I would only be happy if…” and then we fill in the blank with something we want to accomplish or get. But contentment is just as much a gift of God as salvation. Like salvation, contentment comes only through faith in Christ. Far too often you’ve made the things you’ve earned or done into little idols, looking to them above Christ for satisfaction.
The sad irony is that the people who think they “have it all”, the wealthiest, are often the most miserable. And some of the most content people in the world live in abject poverty. Why? Because you can’t buy or earn contentment. Discontentment is the result of fearing the wrong things.
Contentment begins with the fear of the Lord. Unfortunately, American Christianity has only taught us all too well to treat God like He’s your fishing buddy. He’s not. Those who encounter the presence of the living God say things like, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips… for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). When St. John saw a vision of the glorified Christ, he fell on his face as though dead (Revelation 1:17).
There is nothing casual about encountering the Holy Lord God of Hosts. If you don’t fear God, you don’t believe in the right god. Everyone’s afraid of something. The only question is whether you fear God or an idol.
But don’t worry, you’re not alone: the disciples were afraid of the wrong things, too. They were afraid of drowning once when they were caught on the sea in a storm. They were afraid of “mother nature”, apparently forgetting that “mother nature” is a pagan idol and that they had the true Lord of nature right there in the boat with them (Matthew 8:24–27).
The wrong sort of fear had overtaken the disciples on Easter Sunday and the following week. They were afraid the Jews were going to find them and kill them just like they killed Jesus. Peter wasn’t the only disciple whose fear of man supplanted faith in Christ.
Prior to our Lord’s passion, Thomas was fearless in calling the other disciples to go with Jesus to Judea despite the fact that there had already been multiple attempts to kill Him there (John 8:59; 10:31). For them to go back to Judea would be about as safe as taking a stroll through Englewood after 9pm. But Thomas insisted: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him,” (John 11:7–8, 16). But by the time we get to John 20, Thomas has become so consumed by fear of the wrong things that he puts on a stellar display of atheism. Now the Word of God isn’t enough; he won’t believe unless he sees it with his eyes (John 20:25).
These things have been written for your comfort. It’s encouraging to know that even someone like Thomas, who was so devoted to Jesus at one point that he was willing to die for Him, could lapse into the wrong fears. Nor does our Lord deal harshly with Him. Instead, He comforts Him and takes the opportunity to assure that we are especially blessed who believe without having seen. Likewise when Martha’s preoccupied with worldly concerns, this prompts our Lord to give a lesson on contemplation and prayer.
Jesus comes to calm your fears and give you peace, but He does it in a way quite unlike what you might expect. Dr. Luther said it so well we can do no better than to sit at his feet and learn from him. He wrote,
The devil will not allow a Christian to have peace. Therefore Christ must bestow peace differently than the world. He quiets the heart and removes fear and terror, although contention and misfortune remain all around. So, in today’s Gospel, Our Lord Jesus enters while the apostles are in fear and terror. He quiets their hearts and brings them peace, not by removing the danger but by speaking His “Peace.” The wickedness of the Jews is neither removed nor changed by this. But the disciples are changed. At the Lord’s Word, they become courageous and bold, and the hatred of the Jews now concerns them little. This is true peace. It is able to calm the heart, not in time of good fortune, but in the midst of misfortune. (Blessed Martin Luther)
Jesus comes to bestow peace not by removing your troubles, but by giving you faith. For where faith is living and active, there is no worry.
Jesus doesn’t come to scold or condemn. Now if He shows up and you reject His gifts, that’s another story. One of the most blessed gifts Christ has given us is His Church, a gift that is often rejected today even by many so-called Christians. The Church is the place where the Holy Spirit does His work of calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying God’s people.
But let’s say you, like many, say you don’t need His Church; that you think don’t need the communion of saints and that you can be a Christian all by yourself. Jesus will say, “Have it your way, then. If you have no use for my Bride, you have no use for Me. Go back to your true father; He despises the Church, too.”
Now to despise the Church doesn’t mean to hate Her; it means to neglect Her. You neglect the Church when you fail to avail yourself of Her gifts, fail to pray for Her, and fail to support Her as best you can by your offerings. Your tendency to put things above your Lord and His Church is just more evidence of the atheism in your heart.
But Jesus comes to atheists like Peter and Thomas and you and me. He brings comfort to the anxious and gladdens the sorrowful. Jesus didn’t let the unbelief and misplaced fear of His disciples stop Him from going to the cross. It was precisely for those sins—and every other sin—that compelled Him to the cross. He didn’t want you to die in your sins, so He died for them instead.
Jesus didn’t show up on that first Easter or the following Sunday to exact revenge, though that’s no doubt what you or I would do had we been treated the way our Lord was. He comes to re-direct your misplaced fear to the place it belongs. He comes to you in whose heart was once nothing but idolatry, and creates in you a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). He comes to meet you in Sacrament in a communion even more wonderful than that which our Lord shared with Thomas.
On Easter Sunday and again on the eighth day Jesus came and stood among His fearful, doubting disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” That’s the same message He has called me to bring to you even today: peace be with you, dear saints; peace be with you. Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. John 20:19–31
Quasimodo Geniti, 2015: “Atheists at Heart”
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