The gospel is good news. The whole gospel is good news for all of our desperate questions, for all of our poignant needs, for all of our mute pleas, for all of our fitful moods and gloomy emotions. The gospel is also good news for all of our anxieties and fears. There is an arresting scene about fear in the New Testament. A little boat was bearing the disciple band from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. The sky-blue surface of this calm and placid lake is six hundred feet below sea level, and sudden winds whipping from the valleys of the surrounding mountains can fan these peaceful waters into wild and frothing waves in a matter of seconds. There came a storm at sea. Light banter suddenly turned into frantic cries. Eyes which but a moment before had been lighted with laughter were now glassy with terror. Muscles which but a second ago were relaxed and easy were now taut and strained. The disciples were afraid. Stark consternation raced through their ranks. The fear of a watery grave drove all reason from their minds and froze their hearts with a terrible dread. Jesus, worn from the labors of the day, calm in his confidence in the Father above, lay asleep.
Suddenly the disciples realized that they were helpless and terrified. They ran to where their friend lay asleep in the wildly tossed boat. Their fear-palsied hands were laid rudely on him to arouse him from slumber. On their lips was a fearful plea, a wildly blurted exhortation, a desperate request for aid, “Lord, save us, we perish.” Suddenly awakened, distressed by their needless fears, startled by their groundless dread, as if forgetting that God was still sitting King of the floods, he said to them, “Why are you so fearful, o ye of little faith?” Then he spoke, and the storm passed. Leslie Weatherhead says that Jesus spoke as much to the storm in their hearts as he did to the storm on the sea, bidding their terrors to be calm, putting at peace their wild, distressed fears, the point of the narrative being that Christ is more than a match for our fears.
Surely our generation needs a gospel which can speak to our fears. We are afraid. Of course, fear is a precious native endowment. It is our alarm clock in the moment of peril. A person without fear is a fool and worse. There is a parable in the Gospel of Luke of a judge who feared not God nor regarded man. Is it any wonder he is called an unjust judge? He might also be called an insane one. Fear has blessed our world. People, afraid of ignorance, have built schools. People, afraid of sickness, have erected hospitals. And people, afraid of lawlessness and disorder, have formed governments. People, afraid of tyranny and slavery, have refused to obey unjust laws at the cost of their own lives. This healthy instinct, however, can drive us nearly mad when it is in the saddle, making us neurotic, unreasoning, and turning life into a nightmare.
So many of us are afraid of so many things. There was a time when we spoke of death as our greatest fear, but life, having grown complex and baffling, many more of us are afraid of life. We are afraid of our friends, since the hectic pace of modern city life gives us so little time to make friendship real and deep. We are afraid for our children, since they must live in a nervous, jittery age when the evil of war and the danger of narcotics may prey on their bodies and minds. We are afraid for ourselves since there lurks in each of us a deep marsh of evil and sin, of treachery and betrayal. Many are even afraid of whatever religion they have, since it drives them with demands they cannot meet and places upon them yokes they cannot bear. Alfred Houseman speaks the creed of so many godless, helpless, driven, fearful people of our age of rush and ruin, of anxiety and aspiring, when he cries out, “And how am I to face the odds of man’s bedevilment and God’s? I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made?” Who can exhaust the list? We are afraid of sickness, sorrow, suffering, of jobs that seem too much for us, of the crowd that waits to snare, of husbands and of wives whose love we do not quite trust. A lot of our boldest, loudest talk is done to cover the fears we feel and which frustrate us and make us ashamed.
The gospel is for those who are afraid. First, it gives us the status of possessed people. Second, the gospel gives us a place where we can air our fears and place our pleas. And then, the gospel gives us a partner, a companion to go with us through whatever we are called to pass. One of the reasons for our fears is that we appear to be loose in the world, unowned and therefore not listed on anybody’s sheet of assets. To be but dust with the mockery of dreams in it is a terrible fate. To have no relationship to anybody big enough to protect us is perhaps reason for terror. I suppose one of the reasons so many modern people are stricken with fear is because they have no sense of being possessed and owned by God. They feel themselves adrift, spiritually displaced persons, wandering aimlessly across the face of their years.
What a difference it is to be worthily owned. There was a day in Jewish history when the nation was under peril of invasion from the Moabites and Ammonites. The whole populace gathered before the tabernacle and called on God for deliverance. The Scriptures say that all the men of Judea stood before the Lord with their wives and their children. They looked to God as a possessed people would look to their master and protector. The answer was “be not afraid nor dismayed by reason of their great multitude, for the battle is not yours but the Lord’s.” Jesus tells us over and over, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear you not therefore. We need to be owned. Our flight to false freedom is a flight to fear, for we were born to be worthily possessed. Parents own us and protect us while we are children. When we are grown and the fitful fever of life is upon us, we need a heavenly Father to possess and to keep us. Thus possessed, we have a hiding place, the shadow of a great rock and refuge, as the Bible says.
The good news of the New Testament is that we have also a place to pour out our fears and to make our petitions known. The psychologists tell us that one of the dangers of our fears is that they get repressed, driven down and back into our inmost selves where they spread their venom and secrete their poison. Thus kept within, fear turns the meadows of our souls into dismal swamps, growing their awful plants of dread and terror. What a privilege to be able to lay our fears and anxieties before God. This is the gospel. These men on the stormy sea remembered that they had someone in the boat with them to whom they could cry, “Lord, save us, we perish.” Each of us has available an appointed place where we can sob out our deepest fears, lance their festering sores, and open them to the sunlight of healing. There is a secret place of prayer where the soul can bow and cry unashamed and tell God things we dare not utter to any person. There is a trysting place where God does wait to hear and bless his people’s deepest needs. How many souls have forded their rivers and have risen from their valleys because they found in God a place to report their anxieties and troubles?
This gospel to the afraid gives us a sense of a partner who goes it with us. The sense of loneliness and abandonment in modern life is almost unbearable. We move in crowds but are lonely. No friend can sit with us in the shadowed recesses of our inmost dreads. There is sickness in life and there is great sorrow, and there is at last the bleak fact of death, and before it a thousand gnawing fears. The disciples remembered Jesus was on board. They were there. The storm was there. Fear was there. But Jesus was there, also. That made the difference. We have a partner. In the distant years of my childhood, we had a saying in the Creole bayou country, with its eerie willow trees and mysterious swamps. If night fell while we were still at play and there was a dark part of the way home, low-hanging trees where fright would freeze young hearts, we had a term. We would ask our friends, “Would you go a piece of the way home with me?” Through that lonely stretch of the road! There is that big, strange, silent house that we all fear between me and the light of home. Will you go “a piece of the way”?
The gospel tells of a friend who does not go “a piece of the way” but to the end of the last mile of our mortal journey. Now, here is the difference which high religion makes. It does not promise us exemption from those experiences of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure which belong to all people. Any religion which does so promise is a shabby possession soon to be revealed as counterfeit and deceiving. A worthy religion looks unblinkingly and honestly at all those ills to which we are heir, and having recognized them for what they are, celebrates the glorious confidence that we are conquerors, and in that daring word of the New Testament, “more than conquerors” in the midst of whatever it is that would otherwise terrify us and crush us. No exemption, but strength, more than enough. Listen to this word: “O Israel, Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God.”