Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:30-2:12
In today’s sermon, I’m talking, first, about the problem of fear in general. Second, about Paul’s problem with fear. And, third, what God wants to do about it.
First, the problem of fear…
I shared this story a couple of years ago, but it perfectly illustrates an important point I need to make, so I’m sharing it again. Like it or not… Suffer through it! Back in 2012, a friend from seminary, an ordained deacon—I’ll call her Laura—called me out of the blue to tell me about an upcoming mission trip that she was going on with her church. Her church was paying for her to go to Kenya, in East Africa, to teach a group of highly effective, very enthusiastic, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled indigenous United Methodist pastors. She was teaching them crash courses in church history, in United Methodist theology and doctrine, and in liturgy. In fact, she was going to teach them the same curriculum that we teach local lay pastors here in the States. Going to seminary is financially out of reach for most of these men and women, so this would be the next best thing.
And the need is great. Kenya is a place, unlike the U.S., where our United Methodist Church is growing explosively. We haven’t been able start churches fast enough there; we haven’t been able to train and equip pastors fast enough there. So Laura was excited to be involved in this education effort.
She was leaving later that month, but her church, she said, was sponsoring another trip later in the year. She said, “I think you should consider doing it, Brent. In fact I’ll recommend that the church send you next time… that they pay for your trip… because, after all, you’re so brilliant.”
And of course I agreed with her… So she signed me up! I was scheduled to go.
But I was anxious to hear how her trip went when she returned a few weeks later. So I called her up. She said, “Brent, I have never been more afraid in my life! I thought I was going to die!”
I mean, in fairness to Laura, Kenya is a desperately poor third-world country by our standards. Life there is much more rugged than it is here.
But Laura described a few experiences that made her feel deeply uncomfortable… afraid… even afraid for her life. She had a panic attack at one point. Not to mention she was afraid of getting sick from eating or drinking the wrong thing—or getting malaria or yellow fever or some other dread disease.
“It was so bad,” she told me, “that I worried that I would never see my kids again!”
Then she said, in almost the next breath—and I’m not exaggerating—“By the way, I’ve got your airline ticket here, and you’re scheduled to leave in two months.” Uh-oh!
Of course I was thinking, “I don’t want to go now! I don’t want to die!”
Even when I went to get various vaccines and prescriptions from Emory Hospital, the doctor recommended a yellow fever vaccine. He said there are currently no active cases of yellow fever in Kenya, but it would be much better to get one here than to get one there.
I said, “Are there any possible side effects?” He said, “Oh, sure… It’s a live virus vaccine, so there’s a small risk you’ll contract the virus from the shot itself.” And in my mind that’s exactly what was going to happen! My mind immediately went to the worst case scenario. “Just go ahead and reserve me a hospital room now, doc, because I’m sure I’ll be needing one… when I get yellow fever from this vaccine!”
Happily, I didn’t get yellow fever, and I didn’t die in Kenya. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that those two trips were among the best experiences of my life!
And just think: They almost didn’t happen. Because I didn’t want to go. Because I was afraid!
One Bible commentator said, “Jesus often comes to us disguised as the thing we’re afraid of.” Isn’t that great? Jesus often comes to us disguised as the thing we’re afraid of.
Well, needless to say, Jesus showed up for me in Kenya! He was there! He met me when I got off the plane!
In fact, in 39 years of being a mostly fearful disciple of Jesus Christ, I can testify to you that Jesus always, always, always shows up… sooner or later… when I’m afraid. It’s no exaggeration to say that I have rarely if ever grown closer to Jesus without first experiencing fear. Fear has a unique ability of reminding me that I am not ultimately in control of my life… of bringing me to my knees in prayer like nothing else… of forcing me to actually put my faith into practice and trust in Jesus!
So listen, if it takes fear, if it takes worry, if it takes anxiety, to do that for me, so be it. That’s better than nothing, I guess.
But we need to also remember Jesus’ many words about fear, worry, and anxiety while we’re at it. Because fear should not control us; it shouldn’t make us fall apart; it shouldn’t make us sick—the way it so often does today.
Can I just read some of Jesus’ words about fear? If you have your Bibles—and you should—I invite you to follow along with me…
Matthew 6:25: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Besides, Jesus goes on to say, God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the fields beautifully well… and neither the grass nor the birds give it a second thought! And aren’t we much more valuable than they? Verse 33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things”—by which Jesus means the “cares of this world,” the things that so often cause us to worry and be anxious and feel afraid—“all these things will be added to you.”
In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, Don’t be afraid of people who can kill your body. That’s all they can do. Big deal! If you want to fear someone, fear God because he has the power, after we die, to send us to hell. Of course, if we know Jesus we don’t have to worry about hell; that’s not my point. My point is, don’t even be afraid of what most of us consider the worst thing that can happen to us. Don’t even be afraid of people killing us!
He goes on in that chapter to talk about sparrows—which were considered worthless birds. Yet not a single one falls to the ground, Jesus says, “apart from your Father.” And you’re obviously worth more than many sparrows! And you’re so valuable to your Father in heaven that every hair on your head is numbered!
In other words, God is in control of everything. There’s nothing happening to you that your Father doesn’t know about, that he hasn’t planned for, that he isn’t using and transforming and working for his good purposes, and for your good…
Or turn over to Matthew 8: The disciples are worried they’re going to die in a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Before Jesus miraculously calmed the sea, he said, in verse 26: “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Later in Matthew, when Jesus walks on the water, in the midst of another storm on the sea, in Matthew 14:27, Jesus said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
Do we imagine that Christians of our generation—us modern-day disciples of Jesus—have more reason to be afraid than the original twelve disciples? Has our world changed in significant ways that Jesus didn’t anticipate when he told his disciples not to be afraid, not to be anxious, not to worry about anything? Whether big things or small things.
No, the world hasn’t changed that much… and Jesus’ words still apply.
Since that’s the case, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Why am I?
But perhaps we could ask the same question of the apostle Paul in verse 3 of today’s scripture… And this brings us to Point Number Two: Paul’s problem with fear. I believe that Paul’s words in today’s scripture will help us with our problem of fear, of anxiety, of worry.
When I planned this sermon series in 1 Corinthians, I had originally planned on preaching chapter 2, verses 1 to 12, before noticing that chapter 2 begins with a very important word: “And.” Many modern translations leave this word out, because they don’t think it’s important. But people of my generation remember the importance of words like “and”… because “and” is a conjunction, and we remember Saturday morning television; we remember: [sings] “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” So that word “and” connects what Paul has just been saying at the end of chapter 1 to what he’s now saying in chapter 2.
I like the way the NIV translation puts it in verse 1: “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters.” In other words, Paul is going to apply what he’s just been saying about the Corinthians to himself. And what’s he just been saying?
As we saw last week, Paul’s been saying that the members of the Corinthian church—who are starting to be filled with sinful pride and boast about themselves—have no reason to boast: After all, God did not choose them to become his adopted sons and daughters because they were anything special.
That’s not the way God works in the world. As I preached last week, based on worldly standards, the Corinthians are a bunch of nobodies. Nothing about the Corinthians themselves qualified them or made them worthy candidates to become beloved children of God. By all means, God chose them, but God’s choice was based entirely on grace—not on merit.
The Corinthians simply have no reason for sinful pride; they have no reason to boast about themselves. Because it’s all about what God has done for them, not what they themselves have done.
“As it is written,” Paul says in chapter 1, verse 31, “‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
And if that’s true of the Corinthians, guess what, Paul says: It’s also true of Paul himself. It’s as if Paul were saying, “I also have no reason to boast about myself. What on earth would I have to boast about?”
Look at verse 3: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling…”
Does this surprise us about Paul? That Paul was afraid. When we think of Paul, don’t we usually think of someone who’s always supremely confident… bold… fearless…? I do. But when he first came to Corinth, Paul was not that way… And it was so obvious that he was afraid that he knew that the church at Corinth would remember his fear and “much trembling.”
Why was Paul so afraid?
No one knows for sure. But he drops hints in his letters and in the Book of Acts. I’d like to look at a few of these hints. First, let’s turn to Galatians chapter 4, verses 13 and 14: “You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.”
Whatever Paul’s sickness was—he calls it a “bodily ailment” and a “condition”—it apparently required urgent medical attention, which the Galatian believers themselves provided. But in the next verse, verse 15, Paul says they were happy to do so: “For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.”
Hmm… Perhaps it was a medical problem associated with the eyes. Did it temporarily blind him? Could he not see well?
Maybe… because look at what he writes at the end of that same letter, in chapter 6, verse 11. Now, Paul has dictated most of the letter to a scribe who wrote it down for him. But at the end, Paul writes a few words in his own hand. Look what he writes: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”
Again, it suggests, perhaps, that he couldn’t see very well…
And listen to what critics were saying about Paul in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.”
His bodily presence is weak… Likewise, Paul says in verse 3 of today’s scripture that he came to them in weakness. And this weakness, of course, could also be related to Paul’s mysterious “thorn in the flesh,” which he mentions in 2 Corinthians chapter 12.
But putting all these things together, it seems likely that Paul had some conspicuous, obvious physical disease or disability or disfigurement, something other people could notice about Paul—and it might have related to his eyes, something that affected his vision. One theory that I’ve read from doctors today is that Paul had Graves’ Disease. It’s treatable today—and some of you might have it for all I know. But if left untreated, it can cause one’s eyes to swell and bulge out. There was a comedic actor named Marty Feldman, who starred in that movie Young Frankenstein… He suffered from Graves’ Disease.
We don’t know what Paul suffered from… But we know that just in terms of Paul’s physical appearance, the way he looked, the way he carried himself, his physical demeanor, or even physical health… no one would look at Paul and vote him “Most Likely to Succeed” as an apostle of Jesus Christ—much less the “most effective” preacher, missionary, and evangelist the world had ever seen! The apostle without whom you and I may not even be here this morning—because we wouldn’t be Christians at all, because we wouldn’t have even heard the gospel!
So… perhaps it was because of this physical condition that Paul says in verse 3 that he was with them “in fear and much trembling.”Or he could have just been afraid for his life. In Acts 18, Paul’s enemies in Corinth haul him before a Roman tribunal. They would have been happy to get Paul locked up or even executed.
Remember I said earlier that Jesus often comes disguised as the thing we’re afraid of? It’s true for Paul in an almost literal way! Because Luke records another interesting detail when describing Paul’s eighteen months in Corinth: In Acts 18:9 and 10, the Lord appears to Paul in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you.” 1
Paul was so afraid he needed the Lord to reassure him! Just like he often needs to reassure me—and probably you, too… and maybe that’s what he’s doing by having me preach on the topic!
Maybe because I’m such a scaredy-cat, I identify with a hero of the faith, Gideon, whose story is recounted in Judges chapter 6 and 7. God calls Gideon to lead Israel in battle against the Midianites. The story of the fleece comes from Gideon. But in Judges chapter 6, Gideon keeps testing God: “If you really want me to do this, please give me a sign… Now give me another sign… and another.” And God is very patient with him. After Gideon finally answers the call in chapter 7, and assembles an army to take on the Midianites, God tells him: “You’ve got too many people in your army to go to war against Midian. You have to get rid of some of them. So God has Gideon say to his men: “Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.” At that point, 22,000 troops leave the army and go home. There are only 10,000 left. But God says that’s still too many! So God devised another test, until there were only 300 men left. From 22,000 down to 300. And God says, “That’s just enough!” And those 300 defeat the Midianites.
Why does God do that? Because of what God tells Gideon in Judges 7:2: “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’” In other words, “If you had 22,000 men, or even 10,000, you’d be tempted to think, ‘Look what we accomplished? Aren’t we awesome?’ But if you’ve only got 300 men against an army of tens of thousands, well… It will be clear who’s responsible for the victory… It will be clear who’s responsible for your success. It’s not you—or your 22,000 men, or your particular gifts or skills or resources or money. None of those things will make you successful.” 2
No… God wants Gideon to know that it’s not ultimately up to him or his army to bring the victory… It will be abundantly clear to everyone that God has brought the victory! Or in the words of today’s scripture, if Gideon is tempted to boast, he will boast only in the Lord! Because he’ll know that 300 men should not have been able to win a military victory over tens of thousands!
In the same way, God needs Paul to know and the Corinthians to know that the victories that they win in their lives and ministries are not ultimately up to them!
If Paul didn’t know that before he got to Corinth—and maybe that’s why he was so afraid… well, he certainly knew it by the time he left Corinth eighteen months later!
“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
This is the very meaning of verse 4: Paul has already said that there is nothing about his physical presence that’s impressive—he was weak, afraid, and trembling. And… instead of manipulating his audience with flowery speech and oratorical tricks and clever rhetorical devices—which is what the “wisdom of the world” told him to do—Paul stubbornly insisted on talking mostly about one topic: the cross of Christ—and to say the least, the cross was not jewelry people wore around their necks back then; it wasn’t something you put on church signs, or wore on T-shirts or advertised on billboards: crucifixion was not something you discussed in polite company at all!
It was considered so shameful, no one talked about it! And the idea of a crucified Messiah—much less a crucified God—was beyond disgraceful for most people.
Yet that’s just about the only thing Paul wanted to talk about! This was not a popular message designed to win friends and influence people.
Which means that if pagan Corinthians were persuaded to become Christians based on a seemingly shameful message about a cross, communicated by a completely inadequate messenger like Paul, then obviously something supernatural and miraculous must be happening in order for Paul to succeed in his mission!
In fact, that’s Paul’s point in verse 4: “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” In other words, Paul says, “Based on worldly standards, and worldly wisdom, there is no reason at all that I should be successful as a missionary: I don’t look the part; I don’t sound the part; I’m not saying the right kinds of things in the right ways, yet the very fact you’re here—the fact that dozens or hundreds of you are no longer pagans worshiping idols, no longer lost in your sins, no longer bound for hell—the fact that you have eternal life, that you’re part of God’s family forever, that you’re part of this church—that this church exists at all—is a testament not to me and my skills and my intelligence and my hard work: it’s a testament to the power of God poured out through the Holy Spirit! Period.”
Brothers and sisters, what is it that you’re afraid of right now?
I can probably guess some things… Some of you are worried about your children: Are they on the right path? Will they turn out okay? Can I keep them out of trouble? Some of you are worried about your marriage… Can I solve these problems? Can I keep it from falling apart… Some of you are worried about making ends meet, about finances, about inflation, about job security, about paying the bills. Will I be able to keep my business afloat? Will I be able to keep this roof over my head? Some of you are worried about your health… or the health of someone you love… Some of you are worried about making good grades, about getting into the right college, about getting the right kind of job. Some of you are lonely, some are depressed, some are addicted. Some of you are even worried about denomination, and what’s going to happen to our church—if we remain UMC, or if we leave the UMC, or what if we’re unable to leave?
Listen: Let me tell you the truth… If the answers to these questions depend on you… or me… we have every reason to be afraid… every reason to feel anxious… every reason to worry… about every single one of these things!
I’m not preaching the power of positive thinking… Rather, I am preaching the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ to bring us victory!
That’s what Paul means in verse 4 when he talks about their seeing a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
Why do we so easily forget that we have the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit living within us and working through us?
Speaking of which, there are some people right now in Wilmore, Kentucky, who will not soon forget! This past week, students, faculty, and people living around Asbury University and Asbury Seminary, in Wilmore, Kentucky, have experienced the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Listen to what a reporter for the student newspaper wrote last Wednesday night:
I have been in Hughes Auditorium for almost twelve hours now without an intent to leave anytime soon.
Peers, professors, local church leaders and seminary students surround me—all of them praying, worshipping, and praising God together. Voices are ringing out. People are bowing at the altar, arms stretched wide. A pair of friends cling to each other in a hug, one with tears in her eyes. A diverse group of individuals crowd the piano and flawlessly switch from song to song. Some even sit like me, with laptops open. No one wants to leave.
No one even expected this to happen. Not on a random Wednesday for sure. Yet, we sit and sing about God’s love pouring out and His goodness.
As a senior, I have never witnessed anything like this. I’ve heard about it from alumni, especially those who have come to chapel and spoken about their experience with the Revival of 1970. December graduate Elle Hooper agrees with me.
“I am one of many who have been praying for this since my freshman year,” Hooper said. “To be here and witness to this is life-giving.” 3
No one was leaving, she said. The campus minister and others brought in “pizza, snacks, water and coffee.” As of Friday morning, this “random Wednesday” chapel worship service had been going on for 48 hours.
Like Paul and the Corinthians, the people at Asbury are seeing a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
Let us at Toccoa First see a demonstration of the Spirit and of power… He’s the only way we’ll have victory in our lives, in our families, in our churches!
And when he gives us the victory, we will say with Paul, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
I invite you to consider this, brothers and sisters: Most of y’all right now are worried about something, are afraid of something, are anxious about something… or many things…
Tell yourself something like this: “I can’t fix this problem. I can’t solve it. I’m powerless over it. It’s too big, too daunting… If it’s up to me to fix it, I’m dead… I’m hopeless… And I’m afraid…
“But you know what? The Word of God says, ‘God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” The Word of God says, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?‘ The Word of God says, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ 4
“Therefore, with all this in mind”—tell yourself this—“Therefore… everything I’m afraid of right now, at this moment, will become, through the power of the Holy Spirit, an opportunity in the future for me to boast in the Lord.”
“Everything I’m worried about right now, everything I’m afraid of, everything I’m anxious about… will become—through the power of the Holy Spirit, not through my own power… will become an opportunity for me to boast in the Lord… to say, ‘Look what Jesus did to fix this problem! Look what he did to fix me! Look what Jesus did to set me free from this fear, this worry, this anxiety! Look what he did! Praise God!Can you believe it? Isn’t the Lord amazing?”
“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”