“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
-Luke 12:4-7 (NIV)
Every time I walk by the big bowl of candy sitting on my kitchen counter and eat a bite-sized Milky Way or Three Musketeers, I’m reminded that another Halloween has come and gone. The folks in my neighborhood will take the spooky graveyards and Grim Reapers out of their front lawns this weekend. Our decorations will be put away until next year. The candy’s still there, what the kids who came to our church’s “Trunk or Treat” and our door didn’t get, but eventually that will be gone, too.
The name “Halloween” is an abbreviation of All Hallows Eve, of course – the night before All Saints’ Day. It also coincides with an ancient Gaelic festival, Samhain, in which the world of the dead was said for one night to sort of seep out into the world of the living. The dead could walk the earth, and caused all sorts of havoc if people didn’t wear scary costumes to mimic them and drive them off. Somewhere all that turned into kids going door-to-door in fun costumes, asking for candy.
But Halloween always reminds me of the ways we deal with the things that scare us. I heard this year about a haunted house operating in the Chicago area that offered a monetary prize for people who made it all the way to the top floor. The catch is that you have to sign a release before you go in that allows the “spooks” to touch you. Some of us, at least, like the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping fright we get from people dressed up in scary costumes at an elaborate haunted house. We’ll pay for that. But the real frights, the things that really scare us: well, that kind of fear we don’t need. It’s one thing to be frightened by a pretend vampire jumping out of a dark corner at you. It’s another thing entirely to face, say, the loss of someone you love or your own mortality.
At their heart, aren’t most of our fears connected to pain: the pain of illness or injury, the pain of grief, the pain of having something you value taken away, the pain of being laughed at? We fear the things that we perceive can make us suffer, in one way or another. And that’s normal, of course. Healthy, even. The problem with fear, though, is that it can drastically warp our perspective. Fear can easily become so overpowering, so strong, that everything we do becomes about avoiding the things we’re afraid of.
At first glance, what Jesus says about not being afraid doesn’t seem awfully comforting. “Afraid of a little persecution?” he asks his disciples. “Afraid of physical pain? Of death? Let me suggest to you guys that who you should really be afraid of isn’t so much the person who can kill you as it is God, who can throw you into hell after you’re dead.” I can imagine a lot of silence after that, a lot of shuffling feet and cleared throats and chewed fingernails. “Uuuummm, o-kay. Thanks, Jesus. That, uhhh….helps.”
Something tells me that you don’t like to think of God in those terms, either. Hell just isn’t an idea we spend much time considering. Most of the time we avoid talking about it entirely in our church, and quite possibly that’s true in your church, too. Maybe there are some good reasons for that – hell has at times in church history probably been overused as a motivational tool.
Still, Jesus is right. Fear can make you do crazy things, and fearing the wrong things can make you do crazy things for all the wrong reasons. Fear can lead you into addiction to whatever you think will ease your fear. It can lead to abuse and even violence. It can lead you to make some decisions out of self-interest that needed to be made self-sacrificially. By reminding us to be afraid of the God who can throw us into hell, he helps us to realign our priorities. There are worse things than difficulty, pain, loss -- worse things even than death. The worst that can happen to you, Jesus says, is not your worst fears coming true. The worst that can happen is that you might sidestep all your worst fears but find yourself estranged from God and recipient to his terrible justice.
But as quick as he says that, Jesus reminds us that the God he’s talking about doesn’t make throwing people into hell his primary agenda. God takes care of the dime-a-dozen sparrows – surely Jesus said that with a smile. “Not one of them is forgotten by God.” God knows you intimately, right down to the number of hairs on your head. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “You’re worth more than many sparrows.
So which is it, Jesus? Do we fear God as the One who can throw us into hell, or trust him as the one who knows how many hairs there are on our heads? The only answer, I think, is the one that’s inevitable: yes. Yes, God has the authority to throw us into hell. And yes, he chooses instead to come to us through Jesus, to remember us with love and grace and forgiveness.
Most of what we fear is the equivalent of people dressed up in scary costumes; it can’t do any real damage. Especially not when there’s a God in heaven who keeps track of birds and hairs on human heads. Especially when Jesus Christ came into the world and faced his own fears.
As Halloween comes to a close, I hope you’ll think about what you’re afraid of. What’s going to happen at work? How a medical test will go? That your children will be hurt? That you’ll hurt, or die? Instead of living scared, live in faith and trust and reverence. Fear God, as you’d fear anything or anyone that’s completely beyond you and above you. And love him as your Creator who knows every hair on your head and who loves you enough to carry a cross for you.
Watch him unmask everything that’s ever frightened you as just another costumed pretender.