This is the winning entry in the Sermon of the Year competition held by Preach Magazine and London School of Theology.
I'm yet to meet a person who has never felt even the smallest momentary flicker of fear in their life. Everyone has a fear of something. It could be spiders, small spaces, public speaking – any fear is possible. It's normal to feel fear from time to time and sometimes it's pretty useful to feel afraid – your body prepares you to either fight or leg it. But what about when, instead of fear lasting a few moments, it unpacks its bags and settles in for the long haul? What about when it starts to dictate how you live your life?
Fear has the potential to hold us captive and stop us living in the fullness of life that Christ called us to. Fear came straight in after the fall – Adam told God he was afraid because he was naked. Yet the Bible is constantly telling us not to be afraid – 365 times to be exact. God doesn't want us to live a life of fear – he wants us to be set free.
I want to look at how we can be set free from living a life of fear and live a life of fullness. This has been a journey I've been on (and still am on) and I'm going to share some of my own story and look at a story in the Bible to help us unpack what we should do in the face of fear so that we might be set free.
One of my favourite Bible stories is in Matthew 8, where Jesus is on a boat with his disciples. After a day's preaching, Jesus falls asleep, and then a huge unexpected storm blows up around the boat, and the disciples are terrified. Many of them were fishermen, they must have sailed in all sorts of conditions, but this storm scared them, which tells us how extreme it was. They panicked and they woke up Jesus, yelling 'We're all going to die!' Jesus then asks them the question 'Why are you afraid?'
This seems to me a rather ridiculous question. It must have been obvious why they were afraid. In fact, I expect Jesus had to roar the question over the sound of the wind howling, whilst trying not to fall over from the waves rocking the boat so violently. But he still asks them why they are afraid. To me, their fear seemed completely rational – they were facing death by shipwreck. But look at who they were on the boat with. The creator – the one who has authority over the whole earth, he was on board! You would think me ridiculous if I was going to tea at Mary Berry's house and I packed my own sandwiches and cake – there would be no need. The creator was on the boat with them in the storm – there was no need to be afraid.
Then he tells the waves to be still and tells the wind to shut up, and the disciples are left amazed wondering what kind of a man they were sharing a boat with. By calming the storm, Jesus gives them a glimpse of who he is. The significance of the storm pales in comparison to the significance of who Jesus is. The problem with fear is that we focus so much on the fear, and we lose sight of Jesus and what he has the power to do. This happened in my life and I'm going to share a bit of that with you now.
When I was younger, I was an avid Famous Five reader. And I longed to go on adventures, and find secret passages and piles of gold and apprehend criminals. I wanted to be like George, the fierce tomboy who wasn't afraid of anything. I even begged to have my hair cut as short as possible in order to be just like her, and unfortunately we still have photographic evidence of this. But as I grew older, the more I realised that I was not like George. An adventure weekend when I was 10 soon confirmed this, as in the morning I froze whilst abseiling and had to be hoisted back up, and in the afternoon got three steps into a pothole before turning on my heel and bolting back to the safety of the outside. I began to realise that I was an Anne, rather than a George. I was more likely to run away from any sort of adventure than I was to embrace it.
The older I got, the more anxious I became. When I was 17, my anxieties suddenly spiralled right out of control. I would wake up feeling sick, with awful pains in my stomach. Leaving the house became a daily battle, one which I was regularly defeated by. I developed obsessive compulsive disorder as a coping strategy, trying desperately to claw back some control over my life. I was a mess.
I've been a Christian from a very young age and at this point, that hadn't changed. I still went to church (when I could manage to leave the house), I still prayed, I still knew Jesus had died for me. But I certainly wasn't living my life in the fullness of freedom God had called me to. Galatians 5:1 says 'It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.' I was literally a slave to fear. Yet Christ calls us into freedom through his death and resurrection. I really wanted to be set free – I didn't want to live my life in this way.
In the story of Jesus calming the storm, the key moment for me is not when Jesus calms the storm or when the storm blows up, but the moment where the disciples go and wake Jesus up. In their hour of need, they turned to the one who they believed could save them.
That's exactly what I did the night before an A-Level module exam. I was in meltdown mode, and I couldn't stop washing my hands. I hated how anxious I was and I cried out to God. I didn't cry out for healing, what I cried out for was that God would tell me if it was OK to stop washing my hands. I was frightened to fight against the obsession, so in that moment that was my prayer. Tell me if I can stop. I went downstairs and into the kitchen and the first thing my eye fell on was a box of Persil washing powder stood on the side and on the front of the box, in huge red letters read the slogan 'Dirt is good.' At that very moment, God answered my specific prayer. He spoke into my situation.
Jesus never pushes in. He stayed asleep so the disciples had the choice to wake him up or not. Revelation 3:20 says this 'Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.' Jesus isn't one for pushing in uninvited. He waited for the disciples to ask. He waits for us to ask. He waits for us to choose him.
After Jesus calms the storm, the disciples aren't left saying 'What a terrible storm,' they are left saying 'What a man – creation obeys him!' When we turn to Jesus in the midst of our storms, our focus shifts from staring at the storm to staring at God. If we are looking at him, then we aren't looking at the storm. If we are overwhelmed by His perfect love, which in 1 John 4 promises to cast out all fear, then we stop being overwhelmed by the storm. As the song goes 'Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.'
After the Persil box revelation, I wasn't suddenly healed. I still washed my hands far too often, I still worried and I still felt sick. But my focus was no longer on the storm, it was on the God who was with me in it. And bit by bit I began to recover. I still have my anxious spells but I know that God is with me in the boat, and I make sure that I turn my eyes upon him, rather than staring out at the storm. It's in doing that that we can be set free from our fears, as the troubles around us grow dim in comparison to the glory of the one who made us, the one who loves us and the one who promises to never leave us. Only through looking at him can we be set free from fear.
Lydia Lee is a former primary teacher who now works for her local church.
The 10 best entries in the Sermon of the Year competition have been printed in a book, 'Be Set Free', available from CPO.