Overcoming Fear of the Future
December 29, 2002
Listen to this Sermon
Current headlines tell a chilling story:
“Americans Revel Under Watchful Eyes”
“Riots Erupt in Bahrain”
“The High Cost of Peace”
“Thousands of Troops Head for Gulf”
“Terrorism on the High Seas”
“Kuwait Prepares for War”
“Predictions in Perilous Times”
The last headline is arresting, at least for those of us raised on the King James Bible, because it calls to mind a verse many of us heard (and memorized) years ago, “In the last days perilous times shall come” (II Timothy 3:1 KJV). These are indeed “perilous times” in many ways. Columnist George Will suggests that 2003 may usher in a period of history more dangerous than anything the world has known in the last seven centuries (“Danger in the New Year,” January 1, 2003). He frames the issue in these stark terms:
“The clash between science and religion was supposed to be a defining characteristic of the modern age. But today’s distinctive terror is modern science in the service of religious fanatics—or, in North Korea, of fanatics drunk on the dregs of the pseudo religion of scientific socialism imagined by a 19th-century German exile toiling in the British Museum. Talk about globalization.”
The danger of all-out war in the Middle East, the saber-rattling by North Korea, and the continuing threat of bioterrorism combine to make this a dangerous time to be alive, or more accurately, a dangerous time to try to stay alive.
And yet life goes on, a bit uncertainly perhaps, but we all have our business to attend to. There are classes to teach, orders to fill, patients to see, books to write (and read), games to be played (and watched), papers to write, bills to pay, medicine to take, songs to sing, meals to prepare, and beyond that, there are the closer concerns of marriage and children and friends and family members. Many days it is easier to dismiss the larger concerns of the world in favor of wondering how you will spend New Year’s Eve.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I am writing this sermon a few days after I preached it. That’s relevant only because at the end of my sermon I invited people to write down their three biggest worries or concerns or fears for the New Year and then come forward to put them in a “Worry Box,” signifying that they were giving those things to the Lord in an act of faith and surrender to him. That box rests about three feet from me right now. I would estimate that there are a thousand cards in the box. Although I don’t have the time or the desire to read them all, a brief survey reveals that the concerns of the congregation are universal. The very first one I pulled out at random (the cards are unsigned) says simply, “Financial security. Health. Marriage.” Another lists “A place to live.” Another adds, “Walk with God. Loneliness.” Another says simply, “School.” Here’s one that reads: “Healthy family. Money. Faith in God.” A few others: “Dad’s salvation.” “Unable to get pregnant.” “Anxiety level.” “I’m afraid I won’t serve the Lord.” “Future family???” “Job loss.” Who among us could not relate to these concerns? I did find several that mentioned the world situation. One said, “War, of course.” Our people are not unaware of what is happening in the world, but their deepest worries are closer to home.
Someone has said that worry is “the interest paid by those who borrow trouble.” Another person called worry “a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.” According to John Haggai, “In America, worry has become part of our national culture. You could write on countless American gravestones the epitaph: ‘Hurried, Worried, Buried.’”
Perhaps our greatest fear is the fear of death. Hebrews 2:15 tells us that Christ came to deliver those who had been enslaved by the fear of death all their lives. It’s not just the fear of dying that troubles us; it’s the thought of leaving this life with so much left to do. For some people both living and dying can seem equally painful. How can we overcome our fear over what might happen to us in the future? With all that looms before us in 2003, both internationally and personally, how can we move from fear to faith? In order to answer those questions, let’s take a look at the story of a young woman named Esther. Even though the events took place almost 25 centuries ago, the story of her amazing courage points the way to a life free from consuming fear over what might happen tomorrow.
A Man Called Xerxes
The year was 465 B.C. A man named Xerxes was king of Persia. The most powerful man in the world, he ruled an empire even bigger than the empire of Nebuchadnezzar. His empire spread from India in the east to Greece in the west to Africa in the south to Turkey in the north. Our story takes place in one of his capital cities. In those days the Persian Empire had four capital cities. One you’ve heard of—Babylon. Another one called Ecbatana. Another one called Persepolis. And yet a fourth one called Susa. It is in Susa that our story unfolds.
It is fitting that we should consider a story that took place in Susa for it is not far from the center of action in the Middle East today. In fact the archaeologists dug up Susa about 100 years ago and found the ruins of the palace spoken of in the book of Esther. If you wanted to get to Susa, you could fly into Baghdad and get a bus out of the city and come south toward the mouth of the Persian Gulf. When you got to the mouth of the Persian Gulf you would turn left across the coastlands, cross the disputed border with Iran, and then you would make your way for another 100 miles. You would begin to come north again up into the Plain of Khuzistan and there, by the shores of the Karkheh River, you would see what would appear to be a large mound, flat on top, with some ruins above it. That is all that is left today of the ancient city of Susa.
The King’s Winter Palace
But in 465 B.C. Susa was one of the world’s greatest cities. Darius the Mede, father of King Xerxes, built his winter palace there. Archaeologists discovered a tablet there in the ruins that describes how he built the city of Susa. Darius imported cedar from Lebanon, hard wood from Gandara, gold from Sardis, lapis lazuli from Sogdiana, ebony and silver from Egypt, ivory from Ethiopia and turquoise from Chorsmia. After he died, Xerxes continued the work his father had begun. The real capital was in Babylon. Susa served as the winter palace. It was a place to get away from the pressures of Babylon.
The king of Persia kept his harem in Susa. The harem was a large group of beautiful women who were there at his beck and call to serve him in any way he wished. They were gathered from among the most beautiful women in the empire—both Persian women and women from foreign countries. They had been given a special diet and taught a special way of life and their only calling was to please the king. One after another he would call the women in and they would serve him and do his bidding.
How A Jewish Princess Became A Queen
In the course of time the king, who had become enraged at Queen Vashti for some indiscretions, began to search out his harem to find the most beautiful, most attractive, most desirable woman so that he might make her the new queen. As he searched through the harem in Susa, one after another, he looked at one woman after another. But he could not find what he wanted until at last he came upon a woman whose beauty, character, form and comeliness was such that he was completely taken with her. He said, “I want her to be my queen.” Her name in Hebrew was Hadassah, and in Persian, Esther. She was a Jew. She was of God’s chosen people and without any forewarning, she suddenly becomes the Queen of Persia. She is now the most important woman in the entire realm—a Jewish woman, queen to a Persian king.
Life was good for Esther because she was the king’s chosen one. She was the one on whom his favor rested. For many days, months and years Esther basked in the glory of being the chief woman of the realm and the one to whom everyone else bowed and paid homage.
It came to pass that a certain man named Haman came in to see the king. Esther knew nothing about it because in those days the king kept his business and his women far apart. So while Esther was with the other women, the king saw Haman. Haman came in with a story the king could hardly believe. He said, “Oh, king, there’s a certain people in your realm who are treasonous and seditious against you. They do not follow your law. They do not pay homage to you. They do not respect what you have done. O king, we must do something about these people.” Haman neglected to tell the king that he was talking about the Jews. As a matter of fact, the things he was saying were not true. The Jews were not seditious. They were not treasonous. But Haman, because he was a descendant of the Amalekites, the ancient enemies of the people of God, wanted to stir up trouble against the Jews.
So he said to the king, “We must do something about these people who are polluting your kingdom.” The king asked, “What do you propose?” And Haman answered, “If you will allow me, I will write a decree and have you sign it with your signet ring and we will send a decree out over all the kingdom. The decree will be that on a certain day all the Jews will be put to death.” This is called a pogrom. It is an ancient version of what the Nazis did in World War II. Haman’s idea was to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire on the same day. Don’t miss this one fact. Haman neglected to tell the king that he was talking about the Jews so the king didn’t know. Not that it would have made that much difference to a Persian king anyway. And so the decree was signed and sealed with the signet ring and it began to go out over all the land.
Sackcloth and Ashes
Enter a man by the name of Mordecai, cousin to Queen Esther. He was a Jew serving in the court of King Xerxes. As a cabinet officer, he was deeply involved in the business affairs of the king, a man of good character, a man whom the king greatly respected. When Mordecai heard what wicked Haman had done, which would mean that he and all his relatives would be put to death, he went to the middle of the city and clothed himself with sackcloth and ashes and began mourning and wailing. Word of what Mordecai had done reached the ears of Queen Esther. She had not heard about Haman’s wicked plot and when she heard that Mordecai was in mourning, she sent her messenger to find out what had happened. He gave the messenger a copy of the decree and said, “Go back to the queen and tell her that she is the only one who can save us now. If she does not act we will all die.”
Don’t Call Me, I’ll Call You
We pick up the story in Esther 4:9-11.
Hathach (he’s the messenger from Esther) went back and reported to Esther what Mordecai had said. Then she instructed him to say to Mordecai, “All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death.”
All the monarchs of the ancient Near East were absolute despots. You did not come near them without an invitation. If a man rushed in to see the king and the king was startled and didn’t want to see him, without a word the man would be taken out and put to death. So you had to think and think again before you went in to see the king. “The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life. But thirty days have passed since I was called to go to the king” (4:11b). It’s hard for us to understand that today but you must remember this is an ancient Near East nation where even though she was the queen, she was still part of the harem. During the 30 days the king had not seen Esther.
Counting the Cost
Mordecai is saying, “Esther you’ve got to save us.” Esther is saying, “Mordecai you don’t understand what you’re asking me to do.” She’s not refusing, you understand. She’s not saying, “No, I won’t do it.” She’s just saying, “Before you ask me to do that, you’ve got to understand what the risk is. If I go in there and the king doesn’t want to see me, I will be put to death even though I am the queen. Mordecai, think about what you are asking me to do.” She wasn’t saying no. She was doing what any reasonable individual would do. She was counting the personal cost.
That’s always true any time we’re called to get involved. Anytime the phone rings, anytime there’s an appeal, anytime there’s a great cause put before us, anytime the challenge is great, you have to consider what is involved. Before you take the first step you had better sit down and count the personal cost. That’s a biblical thing to do. Nobody goes to war without counting the soldiers to make sure he’s got enough. Nobody sits down to build a building without making sure he has enough money to finish the job. If you want to be my disciple, Jesus said, you must take up your cross and follow me. It’s going to cost you something.
So Esther is saying, “Mordecai, I want to help you but you’ve got to understand something. I am taking my life in my hands if I’m going to get involved with you.” She was the queen. She had a good life. She had anything she wanted. She would raise her hand and 50 servants would come to her. Just say the word and it was given to her. All those other women would have given anything to be in her position. She had it all, material wealth, fame, popularity, adulation, the approval of her friends. Now Mordecai is saying “Esther, it’s time for you to put it all on the line.”
The messenger goes back and tells Mordecai what Esther had said. Mordecai’s answer is the heart of the book of Esther:
When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (4:12-14).
He makes three appeals to her. The first one is the lowest level appeal. He says, “Esther, you’re the queen, but underneath all that queenly regalia beats a Jewish heart. You’re one of God’s people. Don’t think by remaining silent you can avoid persecution, because you can’t. Once the killing starts it’s going to be mighty hard to stop. Once the crowds start killing the Jews one by one, they’ll start with the common people but, Esther, they’ll wind up on your doorstep and they won’t stop killing until they’ve killed all the Jews including you and your family. Don’t think that your position or privilege exempts you from what is going to happen. Just because you’re the queen, you are not out of trouble. You may be the last to go, but you’re going to go.”
We should learn from this that there is no safety in this world, not even for the rich and powerful. After 9/11 we ought to be fully convinced of this fact. Riches cannot save you from the troubles of the world.
The Unnamed God
Then he said, “If you don’t help us”—if you do remain silent—”relief and deliverance will arise from another place.” This is one of the most amazing statements in all of the Old Testament. It is certainly the most amazing statement in the book of Esther. By the way, let me share a piece of Bible trivia with you. Did you know that Esther is the only book in the Bible in which the name of God is not mentioned? You will never find the words “God” or “Lord” in the Book of Esther. That’s one of the reasons some people have looked at the Book of Esther and have concluded that it’s not important or not inspired or doesn’t belong in the Bible or isn’t worthy of our close study. But I’ll tell you why the name of God is not in there. It’s because the book of Esther is the story of God’s people in a foreign land. It’s the story of God’s people under Gentile domination. It is a real story that serves as a kind of parable to teach us a lesson about how God works through seemingly unconnected circumstances to deliver his people even when they are under Gentile domination. That is why the name God never appears. Esther believed in God. So did Mordecai. So did all the Jews. That’s what made them Jews—they believed in God. But his name is never mentioned because it’s a lesson about the providence and liberating power of God.
So Mordecai is saying, “If you don’t help us, God is able to help us from some other source but you yourself will be destroyed.” Then he says, “Who knows but that you are come to royal position for such a time as this?” Ponder those words for a moment. “Esther, don’t forget where you came from. There was a time when you were lined up with all those other women in the harem. You ate at the same table with them. You dressed the same way they dress. You acted just like them. Nobody knew you were a Jew. Esther, what made the king pick you out? Did you think it was just your good looks? They were all good looking. Do you think it was just your smile? They could all smile. Do you think it was just the way you flirted? They could all flirt.”
Mordecai’s message is crystal-clear: “Esther, you’re sitting here and you’re the queen. You’ve got it all. You’re on top. You’ve got privilege beyond anyone else in the whole kingdom. Do you think that happened by chance? Do you think that’s coincidence? Esther, the reason you’re on top is because God put you there. Do you know why God put you there? He put you there so that at the crucial moment of history you could say the word and you could deliver your people. All of that training and all you went through, it happened so that you would be the instrument God would use to deliver his people.”
If I Perish, I Perish
What a view of history this is. What a way of looking at the circumstances of life. What a way of understanding the work of God. “Esther, who knows but that you were come to royal position for such a time as this?” For this critical moment. For this one moment in history. “Who knows, Esther, but that you are come here for this one thing? All that’s happened to you is preparation for this moment.”
We read Esther’s response in verses 15-16:
Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will fast just as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
Do you get the principle here? Mordecai’s great appeal to Esther was based on a great principle. The greater the privilege the greater the responsibility. The more you have, the more you have to answer for. The more God has given you, the greater your responsibility to use it for his Kingdom.
What does this ancient story teach us about overcoming our own fear of the future? For one thing, we learn that there is no safety in the world. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Sometimes they appear to be “random” acts of tragedy, and sometimes evil people conspire against us. We also learn that there are no coincidences in life. You are where you are because God wants you to be there. You probably aren’t a queen in a foreign court, but wherever you are right now, God had a hand in getting you there. And your highest calling is to use your position in life to support the cause of Christ in the world. In the end we must do what Esther did—fast and pray and seek the Lord so that when the time comes, we can do the right thing, the hard thing, the tough choice that lies along the road of obedience to God, leaving the results with him. That’s the real meaning of, “If I perish, I perish.” Those are solemn words of faith spoken by a woman who has put her life in God’s hands. As I thought about her courage, the Lord put this insight on my heart: There is no one so free as the person who is not afraid to die. If you aren’t afraid to die, then you are free to serve the Lord and do whatever he calls you to do.
After the first service on Sunday, I spent a few minutes with a woman who is dying of cancer. She and her husband were in the service together. He stood up to greet me but she was so weak she couldn’t stand. When I asked her if she loved Jesus, with a weak voice she replied, “Yes, I do.” I was told it might be the last Sunday she had the strength to come to church. The ordeal she had been through was written in the lines on her face. As we talked, I realized that not long from now she will be in heaven. It’s probably only a matter of a few days. “I don’t know much about death,” I told her, “but I do know this much. When the time comes that you close your eyes on earth, you will open them the very next moment in heaven. And when you take your final breath on earth, your very next breath will be in the celestial air of heaven. Don’t be afraid when that time comes. The Lord himself will come to greet you. The angels of God will escort you to your new home.” Then I quoted the familiar words of the Apostle Paul—to live is Christ but to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). And I reminded her of the words of Jesus to the dying thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). “You’re going to go to heaven and when you do, you’ll see Jesus face to face.” Finally I reminded her of the promise of Christ himself from John 14:2-3, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” When I finished, there was a tear rolling down her cheek. Then she did something that surprised me. Although she was very weak and frail, she pulled herself up from the pew, reached over and wrapped her thin arms around my neck and hugged me. “Don’t worry about anything,” I told her. “You’re going to be all right because you know the Lord.” I firmly believe what I said. Our people die well. If you know the Lord, then you don’t have to fear death. If you don’t fear death, you’re truly free and the devil has lost his greatest weapon against you.
Four Truths for the New Year
As we look ahead to the year that stretches before, here are four truths that ought to encourage us in 2003:
1. God is already there because he is the God who goes before his people.
2. God promises to be with you no matter what happens to you this year.
3. If you know the Lord, the worst thing that can happen is that you will go to heaven this year, which is also the best thing that can happen to you this year.
4. You will have all the time you need this year to do everything God wants you to do.
In some ways, that last point is the most important one because many of us enter the New Year feeling a bit rushed and harried and hurried. We feel like we’re behind the eight ball, so to speak, before the game even begins. No matter what else happens in the next 12 months, rest assured that you will have all the time, all the strength, and all the wisdom you need to do everything God wants you to do. That principle should not be stretched to mean that you are guaranteed to accomplish all your goals or that every one of your dreams will come true. We still live in a fallen world where things break down and nothing works quite right. But given that limitation, we can have confidence that God will supply all that we truly need, when we need it, so that we can do his will in 2003.
No one can say with certainty what the New Year will bring. None of us knows if we will even be here 12 months from now. But that thought should not alarm us in any way. To all our fears the Lord says quite simply: “Fear not.”
Will things get worse? Fear not.
Will I lose my health? Fear not.
Will I get cancer? Fear not.
Will I keep my job? Fear not.
Will my loved ones struggle? Fear not.
Will my investments collapse? Fear not.
Will I run out of money this year? Fear not.
Will tragedy strike in my family? Fear not.
Will my children disappoint me? Fear not.
Will others ridicule my faith? Fear not.
Will my plans come to nothing? Fear not.
Will my dreams turn to ashes? Fear not.
Will I face death this year? Fear not.
Any of those things might happen to us; indeed, some of them are bound to happen to us eventually. But the word of the Lord remains. Fear not. The Lord himself is with us today and he will be with us tomorrow. We of all people ought to be optimistic as we face a new year. We have a great future because we have a great God. So chin up, child of God. Stop staring in the soup. Pull those shoulders back. Put a smile on your face. Take your troubles, wrap them up, and give them all to the Lord. Folks, I have a feeling in my heart that 2003 is going to be a great year for us. Not without troubles, not without heartache, not without difficulty, not without opposition. We’ll have our share of hard times, but overriding it all is the promise of God who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
On Christmas Day 1939, King George VI of England gave a brief radio address to his troubled nation. England was already at war with Germany. Soon all of Europe would be plunged into the horror of brutal, unrestrained warfare. Hoping to calm the troubled hearts of his countrymen, the king offered words of encouragement as the storm clouds gathered overhead. He ended his remarks by quoting a hitherto unknown poem by Louise Haskins, “The Gate of Year.” It has since become known around the world:
“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown!’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”
What a word that is for us today. No one but God knows what the future holds. Let us do as the poet suggested and place our hands in the hand of Almighty God. And let us go out into the unknown future with confidence, knowing that if God go with us, we need not fear the future. To walk with the Lord is the greatest of all joys, and it is indeed safer than a known way. Amen.