Sermon Illustrations on uncertainty
Fear of the Lord: Comfort in Uncertain Times
We’re afraid when we’re suddenly caught off our guard and don’t know what to do. We’re afraid when our presuppositions and assumptions no longer account for what we’re up against, and we don’t know what will happen to us. We’re afraid when reality, without warning, is shown to be either more or other than we thought it was. …
In the Hebrew culture and the Hebrew Scriptures … the word *fear* is frequently used in a way that means far more than simply being scared. … *Fear-of-the-Lord* is the stock biblical term for this either sudden or cultivated awareness that the presence or revelation of God introduces into our lives. We are not the center of our existence. We are not the sum total of what matters.
We don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Fear-of-the-Lord keeps us on our toes with our eyes open. Something is going on around here, and we don’t want to miss it. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from thinking that we know it all. And it therefore prevents us from closing off our minds or our perceptions from what is new. Fear-of-the-Lord prevents us from acting presumptuously and therefore destroying or violating some aspect of beauty, truth, or goodness that we don’t recognize or don’t understand.
Fear-of-the-Lord is fear with the scary element deleted.
Void for Vagueness
In his 2008 book, Just Courage, Gary Haugen, a lawyer by training, describes an interesting legal precedent known as “void for vaugeness.” Haugen used the precedent to illustrate how vague ideas of Biblical justice can be, and thus why many Christians struggle to know how to apply principles of Biblical justice in their own lives. However, the principle for preacher/teachers is helpful for any topic that suffers from a lack of clarity: if we don’t understand something, we are likely to avoid it.
In law school they taught us that certain laws could be declared “void for vagueness.” This is the eminently reasonable idea that a citizen cannot be expected to obey laws that are too vague to understand. In other words, a legal requirement can be rendered void if “persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application.”
Accordingly, if I got hauled into traffic court for having violated the road sign that said “Drive Appropriately,” I might argue that the posted regulation was simply too vague to be fairly enforced.
Taken from Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, by Gary A..Haugen. ©2008. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
You’ll Get Through This.
You fear you won’t. We all do. We fear that the depression will never lift, the yelling will never stop, the pain will never leave…We wonder: Will this gray sky ever brighten? This load ever lighten? We feel stuck, trapped, locked in. Predestined for failure. Will we ever exit this pit?
Deliverance is to the Bible what jazz music is to Mardi Gras—bold, brassy, and everywhere.
out of the lion’s den for Daniel,
the prison for Peter,
the whale’s belly for Jonah,
Goliath’s shadow for David,
the storm for the disciples,
disease for the lepers,
doubt for Thomas,
the grave for Lazarus,
and the shackles for Paul.
God carries us through stuff:
through the Red Sea onto dry ground (Exodus 14:22),
through the wilderness (Deuteronomy 29:5),
through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4),
and through the deep sea (Psalm 77:19).
Through is a favorite word of God’s:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, Nor shall the flame scorch you.” (Isaiah 43:2 NKJV)
Farewell to the Known and Dear
St. Columba was an Irish monk and abbot, who is largely responsible for the evangelization of Scotland. He founded the monastery at Iona, which became a training ground and launching point for further missionary activity into Scotland. While most folks associate him with his adopted country of Scotland, it’s easy to forget that leaving his homeland-Ireland, was quite difficult for him. After once seeing the distant shore of his beloved Antirim coast, Columba had to steel himself to complete the work he had vowed he would to God. This included bringing the gospel to the Picts, a notoriously difficult and hard-edged people. To keep his vow, Columba prayed this prayer:
Cul ri Erin, the back turned towards Ireland;
Farewell to the known and dear,
Advance to the unknown,
With it’s formidable hazards,
Its sharp demands.
All of us are not called to leave a known land to plant the gospel. But we are all called to have courage to face the unknown and the uncertain faithfully. Perhaps we can draw some inspiration from St. Columba and this prayer.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Celtic Daily Prayer, Harper Collins.
Living in Transition
I became interested in the subject of transition outer changes around 1970 when I was going through some difficult inner and outer changes. Although I gave up my teaching career because of those changes, I found myself teaching a seminar called “Being in Transition.” (Rule number one: When you’re in transition, you find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities.)
The twenty-five adults who showed up tor that course were in various states of confusion and crisis, and I was a bit at sea myself. I had, after all, left my career and moved my family to the country…I had imagined, I think, that the seminar would attract mostly other exurbanites and that together we could puzzle out this difficult transition. A few of these new country folk were in the class, but the mix was far richer than that…
There was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time. She was appalled to find that the rest of us, her elders, didn’t have our lives in better shape. “Its OK to be messing around when you’re twenty-three,” she said, “but I plan to get it all together by the time I’m your age.” (We all nodded sheepishly and admitted we had planned it that way, too.)
Pursuing Uncertainty through Pilgrimage
Allow the presence of God to be the bridge through your uncertainty. The axis of uncertainty is disorientation, and let’s face it, who wants to be spinning in all directions while in transition? Research tells us it is more settling for us to prepare for a bad outcome than not having a clue about where we will end up. But what if the axis of uncertainty is a reorientation back to God’s love—stable, steadfast, and secure—preparing you to receive his promises?
Could you wander with him if fulfilling purpose and claiming abundance is the point of the journey through uncertainty? In the ninth century, three Irishmen declared, “Yes!” They boarded coracles—small, lightweight, roundish boats consisting of a simple basket frame, seat, waterproof cover—and courageously drifted over the sea from Ireland for seven days without oars. Can you imagine?! Coming ashore in Cornwall, they were brought to the court of King Alfred. When the king interrogated the three Irish teachers about their obscure journey, they replied that they “stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where.”
Sleepwalking in a Dark Wood
For many of us, life can easily become disorienting and discouraging. Existential questions often emerge that never have before. As stressful as modern life can be, it is somewhat comforting to know that we are not the only ones who have experienced the bewildering nature of life itself. The thirteenth-century poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri experienced the messiness of life more than most, and when he sat down to write his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, this is how he began:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense
the very thought of it renews my panic.
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.
But to rehearse the good it also brought me
I will speak about the other things I saw there.
How I got into it I cannot clearly say
for I was moving like a sleepwalker
Dante Alighieri, Dante’s Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets, ed. Daniel Halpern, Translated by Seamus Heaney, Ecco Press, 1993.
Stories We Tell Ourselves
A man named Jack was driving on a dark country road one night when he got a flat tire. He saw a cabin in the woods and began to walk towards it. He told himself that the person who answered the door would be angry and irritated for the interruption. In fact, the person would probably harm him. He was probably a truly terrible person. Who else would live out in the woods away from people? Jack convinced himself that the person who lived in the cabin was a menace to society, so when the door opened, Jack punched the man in the nose and ran away.
Surprising Peace in Times of Crisis
In his book, Running Scared, Pychologist Edward Welch illustrates how the fear of an event is often worse than the event itself. To demonstrate this, he provides two examples of people whose lives are seemingly about to end, and the peace that they experience in the moment actually enables them to survive:
A skier in search of a thrill pushes off and drops forty feet to the steep, powdered slope below. He loses his balance on impact and begins careening out of control into either a stand of trees or a field of boulders. Whatever he hits, he knows the impact will kill him. But he is surprisingly objective about it. He wonders if the impending crash will hurt. He wonders about life after death.
He wonders about the bill on his desk that remains unpaid. And he muses about all this without any alarm. Somehow he avoids both trees and rocks and walks away unscathed. A twelve-year-old girl, who was always scared of the water and never learned to swim, is beckoned by friends to cool off in a relatively shallow area of a bay. Reluctantly, clutching a boogie board, she ventures out. All is well until she loses her grip on the board and slips into a small hollow on the water’s bottom. As she sinks beneath the surface she experiences a surprising calm.
Here she is facing her worst fear and it seems peaceful. When she looks up, she notices two white pillars above her. They are the legs of a friend who doesn’t even know she is drowning. The drowning girl gets her hand on one leg and pulls herself up to the surface…The hard part is the night before…Anxiety about the future event is usually worse than the event itself.
What Sort of a Tale Have We Fallen Into?
“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam. “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it.
“I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
“I wonder,” replied Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind, of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
Change Happens Fast These Days
Does it ever seem like the world around us is changing at breakneck speed? Well, it turns out, you’re right. A team of researchers have concluded that the Western world’s “environment and social order have changed more in the last thirty years than they have in the previous three hundred”!
Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Edmund J. Bourne, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 5th ed. (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2010)
Between the Probable and Proved
Between the probable and proved there yawns A gap.
Afraid to jump, we stand absurd, Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse, Our very standpoint crumbling.
Desperate dawns Our only hope: to leap into the Word That opens up the shuttered universe.
The Essential Preparation of Wintering
We may not see tangible evidence of where we are going, what God is doing, or how we are growing, but wintering is essential preparation for life to flourish. Uncertainty, like winter, clears the landscape of familiarity so we can see ourselves clearly as Christ’s masterpiece, bringing value and beauty into the world.
Renewal is the outcome of trust in God’s hidden work within us. And my heart is renewed by stilling images from the Exodus story. Before Moses was tasked with leading the Israelites out of Egypt, his leadership experience on a résumé could have read: tended borrowed sheep on land owned by his wife’s father; isolated in a strange place for forty years.
And the Israelites weren’t equipped with prior experience or familiar maps on making the transition from enslavement to freedom either. Everything about the Exodus journey was new, unfamiliar, and rife with uncertainty.
The Land of What-Ifs
The Land of What-Ifs is a tempting place to dwell. It is also a dangerous place to be. And chances are, if you flipped to this page, you’re stepping foot into its territory. Before you even pull the covers back, your mind is racing with questions. What if I choke up during the meeting tomorrow? What if my child is diagnosed with learning disabilities? What if the test result comes back positive? What if I don’t get the job? There are countless “what-if” scenarios, both big and small. But they have one thing in common: they don’t help. While you’re lying in bed, trying to gear down for the day, your mind is whirring, spinning every possible negative scenario into a sticky, all-consuming web.
You get trapped in it, and spend hours burrowing deeper and deeper—with nothing positive to show for it. In fact, you are so imprisoned in this web that you’re paralyzed with fear, anxiety, and panic, all because of two simple words: what if. The Land of What-Ifs is tempting—but it is also trouble. It’s living out anxiety in our minds, hyping ourselves up to frightening, stressful scenarios that may never come true.
It places ourselves in the role of God—and relegates the Lord elsewhere. In short, it’s a place that Christians need to fight against.
Obeying Even When It is Difficult
Fishermen with any experience on the Sea of Galilee knew that the optimal time to catch fish was during the night in shallow water. During the day, the fish dove deep, where it was far more difficult to successfully sink nets to catch them. However, when Jesus instructed Peter to fish during the day, he obeyed—even though he was tired and not completely certain Jesus knew what He was asking.
Perhaps you remember a time when God asked you to do something beyond what you thought reasonable. You did not know if what you were hearing was the right thing to do because it appeared so counterintuitive. Maybe you are in such a season right now. Understand without a shadow of doubt that you will never go wrong obeying God. Peter did as Jesus asked and pulled in so many fish that his nets began to break. The same will be true in your situation. You may not know exactly why God is calling you to do as He instructs, but you can be sure that when you do as He says, you will experience a blessing beyond your imagination.