Psalm 34:1-8; 19-22
You have probably heard the same conventional wisdom I have heard on more than one occasion. When it comes to what we fear the most the big two are, in order, public speaking and death. In the mid-90’s, Comedian Jerry Seinfeld had a funny bit he did where he said, “'According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” The genesis of this ordering of fears comes from an over simplification of a study on fear that was published back in 1973. Public speaking is something that many people are anxious of, but it is never what people are most afraid of. Of course, death is not our greatest fear either. For the past several years Chapman University has done a survey study to determine what Americans fear the most. In the results of the 2017 study generic death rated 48th. When it comes to our fears we are much, much more creative in fearing how we die. Devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, nuclear wars, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and sharks all ranked well above generic death.
While I do not have a psychological study to back it up, I feel like people are more afraid than ever. After all you probably also here these common thoughts expressed often: “You just can’t be too careful anymore” or “these days, you just don’t know who can be trusted” or “it isn’t safe for kids to play outside like it used to be.” Maybe I have a bad take on this, but I get a sense that a lot, perhaps a majority, feel that there is more to be scared of in the world today than their used to be. There is a foreboding sense that the world is not as safe as it once was. The fascinating thing is that feeling is in complete contrast to reality. In reality, in the United States, 2014 was the safest year ever in the country’s history. Since then the violent crime rate has gone back up some, but it is still below 1999 levels and the murder rate for instance is still almost half what it was forty years ago. The good old days, it seems, were statistically more dangerous.
So if things are in general safer, why is there so much more fear? Part of it is the nature of the crimes have changed. Inner city muggings may be way down from the 80’s, but mass shootings are up as example. Another issue is that social media, texts alerts, and 24 hour news media has saturated us with news of scary things happenings. The world may be safer, but in news media “If it bleeds, it leads” is still a true reality. So even though there is less scary stuff happening in the world, we are keenly more aware of it. We may have this gut feeling that the world is less safe than it used to be, but the reality is that we have always felt that way. Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark College and author of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things points out, “My research starts in the 1980s and goes more or less till now, and there have been very high fear levels in the U.S. continuously.”
Fear is part of the human experience. Today it might be terrorism, a decade from now it might be something different. There is always a boogeyman lurking, there is always a specter of uncertainty that can keep us awake at night, and there seems to always be something wicked about to come over the horizon. This morning’s scripture deals with fear, but it does not ask what are we afraid of, it ask us why are we, as people of faith, so afraid in the first place?
Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, seventy three of them are attributed to King David. Of those seventy three, thirteen of them are related to specific events in his life. This morning’s scripture is one of them. If you look at the pre-text before verse one it states, “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.” The Bible refers to David as a man after God’s own heart. David, while still a teenager, was anointed by God to someday be the king of Israel. The process to get him there and his kingship, are documented in 1 and 2 Samuel. He wrote this psalm during a particularly hazardous time of this journey. To put it mildly, David was in trouble through no fault of his own.
At this point in his story, David had faithfully served Saul, the king of Israel. 1 Samuel 18:5 states, “Whatever mission Saul sent him on, David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army.” However, Saul had not been faithful to God’s leading and Saul knew that God had chosen someone to replace him as king. This made Saul petty, paranoid, and insanely jealous. This escalated to a point where Saul had decided David was too great a threat and actively sought to use all of the power and authority he held as king to kill David. David fled, and with nowhere to go he sought an audience with the king of Gath. Gath was a city-state near Israelite territory. While it was a radically different world and it is not quite the same, we can think of David as seeking political asylum from Gath.
David’s problem though is that Gath was a Philistine city. All of the missions that David led the army on were against the Philistines, many of them no doubt were against the fighting forces of Gath. Right after David surrenders himself to the servants of the king of Gath, does he realize his mistake. He realized that instead of being given political asylum, he might just be executed as a war criminal. In an act of novel, but pure desperation David acts mad as a hatter. He goes pure crazy town, and it works. He is let loose with his freedom and his life.
At this point, David is cut off from family and friends, being innocent and hunted, barely escaping death, still fearing for his life, and completely uncertain what to do next. He is clearly at a low point in his life. While few of us have had to revert to acting insane to save our lives, we can all identify with having low points. Many of us have gone through times where we felt cut off and isolated. Few of us have had someone actively hunting us, but many have had times when a sickness or surgery loomed and there was fear for our lives. Many of us have been in places where, like David, we were completely uncertain what to do next. Our low places might be different, but like David, we have been in low places.
It was while in this low place that David wrote this morning’s scripture, and given that the tone is rather striking. David had narrowly escaped a potentially deadly situation, but he was not out of the woods yet. David still had a lot of reasons to be afraid, but the tone of this letter is not fearful. It is joyous, confident, and hopeful. The tone is not woe is me, the tone of this psalm is “taste and see that the Lord is good!” Instead of seeking help for a multitude of scary things the psalm instead seeks to glorify God and exalt his name together. David declares in this psalm that he is delivered from his fears. It is worth noting that at the time he wrote this, it is not because they had gone away. It is because they no longer scared him. Instead of being characterized by fear David knew blessed is the one who takes refuge in the Lord. David learned that fear is a matter of perspective, and when our focus is on God, then we truly have nothing to fear.
Even though we are separated from David by thousands of years and culture that is still true. How fearful we are as an individual, how much space we allow fear to occupy in our lives, is a lot about perspective. When we keep in mind what God has already saved us from, then much of what scares us pales in comparison. Because of the mighty acts of Jesus Christ we have already been saved from sin and death. Because of God’s love the grave has no victory over us and we will be forever united with God the Father through Jesus Christ. We have spared a fate worse than death: We no longer face an eternity of separation from God and now nothing can separate us from God’s love. It is a matter of perspective because there is nothing we can fear that changes that. As Paul eloquently writes in Romans, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing can separate us from God’s love, and that realization should change everything. As I said Chapman University releases a list of our greatest fears every year, and if we look at the top of the list there is some pretty scary stuff. “Not having enough money for the future” is a scary prospect, but it will not separate us from the love of God. “Widespread civil unrest” is a terrifying possibility but it will not separate us from the love of God. “A diagnosis of a serious illness” is a horror that might keep us up at night, but it will not separate us from the love of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing can make God un-forgive us, and for those who live in the Lord nothing can truly destroy us. As the 34th Psalm promises, “The Lord will rescue his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.” We have been rescued from sin and death, God is for us, so who then shall we fear?
This is not just a hypothetical but it is a reality we should live out. There are many stories from dark places in the world where faithful disciples live out what means to follow Jesus without fear. Once such example is a story that slipped out of North Korea in the 1950’s, where Christianity is illegal. A community of Christians moved into underground caverns and tunnels to avoid the government, but they were found when new roads were being built. Officials threatened and tortured the families to get them to recant their faith. None of them did. Finally, the North Korean officials made their final terrifying offer. The Christians were made to lay down side by side in a line, and a steamroller was brought up next to them. They were offered one final chance to deny Christ or die. Instead, with one voice the Christians sung a hymn. They glorified the Lord and exalted his name together as the terrible machine began to lurch forward.
We may not face fear of death at the hand of persecutors, but we all have fears, we all have things that keep us awake at night. May we not be defined and controlled by the things that scare us. May we be characterized by joy and hope as we glorify the Lord and exalt his name. May we keep the proper perspective. Even when darkness feels like it is closing in, God shines like a great light. Even though something wicked this way may come, our God is greater, our God is stronger, and there is none other. May you not be afraid, because God has already delivered us from the worse of the worst. May you taste and see the Lord is good. May you extol the lord at all times and may his praise always be on your lips.