“Whom Shall I Fear?” A Reflection on Psalm 27

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Psalm 27: 1-2

It’s a good question? Whom shall I fear? Of whom (or what) shall I be afraid?

Here in Psalm 27 the Psalmist, who from now on I will call “David,” moves back and forth from declarations of great confidence like these opening words, to lists of all the many things he has every right to be afraid of.

And I really like this, because I believe that faith lives in the midst of our fears.

John Calvin writes about this passage: “When David declares, “My heart shall not fear,’ this does not imply that he would be entirely devoid of fear, — for that would have been more worthy of the name of insensibility than of virtue.”

In other words, David had every right be afraid of the army encamped about him. Imagine it. He sees their campfires every night, he can hear their trumpets, and he knows they can attack him at any time. I’d be afraid, too.

And Calvin goes on to say: “Under the terms, camps and armies, [David] includes whatever is most formidable in the world.”

So though the names and faces of the powerful people and things who hold the world in thrall will change, the truth of the Psalm remains: “Although all men should conspire for my destruction, I will disregard their violence, because the power of God, which I know is on my side, is far above theirs.”

The Good News here is that the principalities and powers of this age, and any age, are ultimately subordinate to the power of God, though as the rest of Psalm 27 amply shows, they manage through their subordinates (in this case “the army encamped about David”) to give both David and, with the necessary changes, us, plenty about which to be afraid, at least in the short run.

This faith in the power of God, as Calvin writes, is not the complete absence of fear, as in a more Eastern religious calm through meditation and detachment. No, the fears are quite real.

So. faith always lives in the midst of our fears, but it is that same faith that knows “when the trial comes, our faith will prove invincible, because it relies on the power of God.”

And the final power of God will finally be made manifest in weakness, on a Roman cross. This Jesus knows, and this is why he must go to Jerusalem.

So. there are two kinds of fears, and they are quite different, though it is often hard to distinguish between them, because they get all wrapped up in each other.

First, there are the real fears, as when David has an enemy encamped around him, or when you are in the midst of a pandemic. These are real fears.

But there is also a kind of fear that is not real. It holds some kind of power over us, and it is not attached to a specific threat. This kind of generalized fear is not good for us. It makes us less than who God wants us to be. It robs us of dignity and courage, and makes us act in ways that are not worthy of us.

And I am convinced that some of the nastiness in our public discourse right now is based on exactly that kind of fear. What we are going through is something that none of us have ever known in our lifetime. It has stirred up a lot of the second kind of fear, the unnamed and unknown fears about our future, and the future of our country. It is true that there are real things to fear from it, not only about becoming infected, but real fears about losing our jobs or our homes or our pensions. That is real fear,

But the second kind is different; the general pervasive kind of fear that takes on a larger life of its own. It begins to eat us up, and attaches itself to every part of life. I call it “4 o’clock in the morning fear.”

Do you know what I am talking about? Do you know that kind of fear? I suspect you do.

I know I do. I know it all too well. And there is just enough reality in our fears to give them some credibility, but their power over us is larger than they deserve.

And I know that these are the kind of fears that can debilitate one’s life, and in some real way, they are the very opposite of faith, and so they must be dealt with.

So here we are in Lent, the season of self-examination and repentance.

My Lenten admonition to you all is to figure out those fears that keep you from being who God has made you to be. Identify them, name them, and call their bluff, because they really have no actual power over you that you don’t give them.

That is the Good News on which we can stand secure. Because in that final trip to Jerusalem that Jesus was waiting to make, and ultimately did make, he defeated the powers that threaten us, including our unreal fears, along with some other big things “that go bump in the night,” like death and sin.

Oh, we still sin, and we still die, and we will still be afraid, but the power has gone out of them. Because Jesus took them all to the cross with him, and there they died with him. And believing that is a good part of what makes us Christians.

For the real power in the world is the power of the living God, that we are called to live out of day by day, even in those fearful times when we can’t see it or feel it.

“The LORD is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The LORD is the stronghold of my life;

of whom shall I be afraid?” Amen.

(This is excerpted and adapted from a sermon entitled “Whom Shall I Fear?” that I preached at Charlemont Federated Church, Charlemont, MA, on February 27, 2010. Photo: “Onota Lake” by R.L. Floyd.)

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