It would be hard to find a more moving passage from the Scriptures than the one we heard in our Old Testament lesson. Israel had been overrun by the armies of Babylon, and its leaders—frightened and overwhelmed—had been carried into exile. But now, after seventy years, God is opening the way for them to go home.

Imagine a time when your life has seemed entirely overwhelmed, when things were out of your control and you were frightened, when it seemed impossible to imagine a hopeful future. And then imagine hearing God say this:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God…
Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you….

“Do not fear,” God says. What a hard thing to expect from people who have been beaten down for so long. And for that matter, what a hard thing to ask of people like us, who find ourselves living more and more in a culture of fear.

I read recently that the first words uttered by the last two popes, one in 1978 and one in 2005, were “Do not be afraid.” Of all the urgent things that needed to be said to the world, that seemed most urgent.

And it couldn’t be more true today. The world seems more riddled by fear than ever. Have you heard enough about the Christmas Day bomber yet? The efforts of a single terrorist to smuggle onto a plane and ignite enough explosives to blow it up have received massive attention. It feeds every fear that we are vulnerable—not just on airplanes, but in trains, in cities, and just about everywhere.

Since 9/11, in effect, we have been awash in a sea of fear. That was the day when all of a sudden nothing felt safe any more, and that fear propelled us into two wars, into widespread arrests, often with little or no evidence, into long lines for security checks in airports, and into an irrational distrust of Muslims, immigrants, and foreigners of all sorts.

My hunch is that the near riots in August about death panels in health care and the “tea party” uprising about the power of big government all suggest a panicky sense of fear.

In fact, in subtle ways we are constantly being taught to fear. For one thing, it’s good for the news business, according to theologian Scott Bader-Saye. Newsweek, for example, published a health article entitled, “That Little Freckle Could Be a Time Bomb,” which nicely boosted the anxiety level to buy the magazine, and local news will run a lead to a story that says, “Why drinking too much water could send you to the emergency room.” They are playing on fear to make sure you tune in.

Bader-Saye shows that fear-mongering on the news follows a distinctive pattern. First they present a hyped-up teaser with this “what you don’t know might kill you” approach. “Coming up next, the story of a man who…” and then they fill in the act of violence or catastrophe. Then they say, “Find out how you can avoid being the next victim.” Or they report on a real-life catastrophe which they re-enact for you, discuss it with a few “specialists,” and end with some helpful “tips” about how to avoid that particular fate. Fear will keep you tuned in.

A plane crash or a shooting on the streets ups our anxieties and gives us the sense that things are going from bad to worse, when in fact this country is no more dangerous and a good deal healthier than it has ever been.

George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania says we are developing a “mean world syndrome.” He has found a direct link between watching TV violence and an exaggerated fearfulness. Because people watch so many brutal acts they come to believe the world is a scary and threatening place.

Of course politicians have been brilliant at playing on people’s fears. They know that fear is one of our basic instincts, reaching down into the primitive reptilian part of the brain where we make fight-or-flight decisions when threatened. Fear is a powerful motivator that sells security systems and car alarms, and increasingly it sells guns.

Fear of failing prevents many people from taking risks and trying new things. Fear of rejection keeps many from opening themselves to close friendship and intimacy. In fact preacher Peter Gomes says that fear, not sin, is the curse on human life that cripples us and keeps us living timid lives.

“Do not fear,” God says to Israel. In Hebrew and Christian faith, fear is the opposite of faith. At virtually every key moment in the Jewish and Christian stories, God speaks these identical words, “Fear not.” When Moses hesitates about leading his people out of slavery, God says, “Fear not, I will be with you.” To the broken nation we see in our Old Testament lesson, God said, “Do not fear.” When the Christmas angels appear to the shepherds they say, “Fear not.” And on Easter morning an angel declares to the terrified disciples, “Fear not. He is not here. He is risen.”

The only answer to the overwhelming presence of fear in our lives is another kind of overwhelming. And that’s what we get in our lesson from Isaiah today. God does not say, “Stop being afraid,” as if someone can be ordered to stop feeling the vulnerability of their lives. Instead God overwhelms them with a sense of strength and fullness of life that comes from knowing and trusting God.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. Out of the depths of the universe comes a declaration of unstoppable strength. The Source of all that is, the Creator God, calls us by name and promises to go through everything, absolutely everything with us. And because of this, we can choose not to be governed by our fear.

As writer Anne Lamott puts it, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” We can deal with the overwhelmings of a frightening world by opening them up to God. Of course, that doesn’t automatically mean that our fears will disappear. It just means that we can be free of fear’s power. It means going ahead and living your life and doing what you need to do—loving, risking, facing into the challenges your days bring, in spite of your fear—because you have been claimed by an overwhelming love that puts that fear in its place.

And if we Christians can trust this love, we can be forces for hope and calm. We can push for a more hospitable spirit toward strangers and outcasts, for a more peaceful world at home and abroad, and for a more generous spirit—because we don’t need to clutch, oppose, and rage at what is happening.

Trusting this love can be hard, though, because it’s not something you can easily touch or see. We so easily think of God as out there, beyond us, unconnected to our lives. But the whole Christmas season we just finished declares that God is utterly close. God is the One who holds all things in being. God is at the center of my deepest self and yours. We are in God as fish are in water. Our lives are pervaded with God’s presence so much that we miss God everywhere.

We can glimpse this presence in contemplative moments—when we are still enough to be bowled over by the deep red-orange sun as it first begins to climb into sight in the morning, when a piece of music or a talk with a friend gives us a sense of an all-rightness that undergirds everything, when we allow ourselves at day’s end to think back over the day and look for where God was in the day’s key moments.

Sometimes God’s presence is palpably real. “I was going into surgery,” a friend said to me a few years ago, “and all I knew was that God was there with me.”

When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

The promise of God is not that we will be protected from bad things happening. In a world like ours sometimes they will. But the promise is that God will go through it with us, and that ultimately there will be hope and healing for us all. Fear not.

Margaret Spufford, an English scholar, mother, and person of profound faith wrote a book called Celebrations about the ways she has dealt with remarkable suffering in her life. After having two children she was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis that often has had her bedridden and in danger of multiple bone fractures, and her second child was born with a rare and terrible blood disease that has had her in constant pain and in and out of hospitals for most of her twenty years.

Spufford wrestles with the “why” questions. Why was she faced with all this? Did God intend the genetic malfunction that made her daughter’s life one of unending suffering? Where is God?

She says, though, that explanations never came, and that ultimately she has to live with the mystery. But what did happen for her was that she experienced an overwhelming certainty that God was involved in their suffering with them. That’s the huge claim at the center of Christian faith—that God has entered into our lives. “When you pass through the waters I will be with you.”

Spufford faces honestly the agony of so much of her life, but also acknowledges what a gift her daughter has been, and how much she herself has learned of God’s love through her own illness.

Then she says, “On those terrible children’s wards I could neither have worshipped nor respected any God who had not himself cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Only because it was so, only because the Creator loved His creation enough to become helpless with it and suffer in it, totally overwhelmed by the pain of it, I found there was still hope.”

There is an answer to the overwhelmings of our fear-driven world. And that is to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the God we meet here today, the God who spoke to Jesus in our gospel lesson saying, “You are my son, my Beloved; in you I am well pleased.” Maybe this is the year for you to steep yourself in this love.

I have an assignment for you today. I want you to memorize one simple line. “Fear
not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine.” When things get hard, I hope you will say that to yourself as if God is speaking it to you, because God is. Right there, in the midst of your fears. That is the best antidote I know to the fear swirling around us.

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine.”

[Thanks for substantial help from Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear by Scott Bader-Sayre.]