Yeah, right. Good advice. Unrealistic expectation. There is simply too much of which we are and, really, should be afraid. Even with God around. It is easy to check, you know. One needs neither Greek nor Hebrew. A quick search of a good English translation of the Old and New Testaments suffices. In the NRSV, “fear” erupts some 303 times. The people who populate God’s narratives are “afraid”189 more times. And 51 additional times they are flat out terrified.
One might expect a little less courage in the Old Testament, given all the wars and conquests and enslavements and plagues and catastrophes, institutional and personal, and the distance from which God observes it all. God’s voice makes occasional appearances, and God’s prophets make potent points, but God operates remotely. The things that cause us to fear operate up close and personal.
In the New Testament, though, God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, steps across the transcendent divide and takes up residence in human history. Because he is right here with us, Immanuel, one would think that fear would be overwhelmed by faith. Nothing doing. From the very opening moment of the Jesus story, the Incarnation, fear not only exists but is ratcheted up. Joseph is afraid. Zechariah is afraid. Zechariah’s neighbors are afraid. Shepherds in the fields, routinely keeping watch over their flocks by night, are afraid. Even Mary is afraid. Life, and the circumstances that attend it—the presence of God notwithstanding, apparently, even biblically—make(s) us afraid. Harboring fear, or perhaps better said, being harbored by fear is apparently a natural part of what it is to be a human person, even a person of faith.
We should therefore not be surprised that in Isaiah 44 the people of God are frightened. Neither, I suppose, given the frightful context of Mark 4:35-41, should we be shocked that the twelve men Jesus chose to be closest to him are afraid. Isaiah’s people fear the loss of national identity; Jesus’ men fear the loss of their individual lives. In both cases, the fearful are told to fear not. In Isaiah, God tells them through the prophet; in the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells them directly.
The problem—the reason why, when each reading ends, I get the feeling that the people of Israel and the disciples of Jesus are still afraid—is that God wants us to focus on God, and we are determined to focus on us. Jacob, God’s collective servant, should not be afraid of the horrendous historical circumstances, because God is God and God has proclaimed from of old that God will provide for, protect, and prosper God’s people. In this time of difficulty, though, with God so distant and the problems so immediate, the people lose focus on what God has promised and fixate on what history is unleashing. Driven by fear, they craft idol gods whom they hope can remedy the historical situation from which the transcendent God appears too distant. No wonder God, through the prophet, is forced to remind the people that there is no other god. There is one rock that provides stability in time of storm. It is upon this rock that Jacob should stand his ground.
In the same way, Jesus’ disciples should not be afraid of the storm that comes upon them suddenly and threatens to swamp and ultimately drown them—because Jesus, who has healed and exorcised with a power that emanates directly from God, is immediately present with them. Driven by fear, though, they lash out at him, frightened that they will soon die outside the orbit of his concern. No wonder Jesus speaks so sternly to them. This man who calms wind and wave is the same one who called them into his service and promises, through their participation in that service, to bring them closer to the in-breaking reign of God.
As we gather in Baltimore at the dawn of a new year, we, like the people of Israel and the disciples of Jesus, will be called, in the midst of the challenges that confront APCE and the difficulties that beset the role and function of Christian Education, to focus on God rather than on us. God has both purpose and power. We are called to be faithful to that purpose and to trust in God’s power to accomplish that purpose. Should we refuse to look to God—as the people of Israel chose to look to strategic devices of their own making and the disciples chose to look to the wind and the waves—we will know and perhaps even become incapacitated by fear.
We will challenge each other to look instead to the Rock, who is the God of Jacob, and to the Son, who holds the Father’s power to flatten wave and hush wind. It is only when we are rightly focused, on God and God with Us, that, when confronted by a situation of alarm and dread, instead of snickering in derision, we can nod with resolute determination when we hear the words, “Fear not.”
Brian K. Blount is President and Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, VA, and Charlotte, NC. He was called to this position in 2007, after serving for 15 years as the Richard J. Dearborn Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Professor Blount’s primary work has been in the Gospel of Mark, the Book of Revelation, and in the area of cultural studies and hermeneutics. He is the author of six books.