Intro: On January 27, 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. received a phone call at his home in Montgomery, Alabama. The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Listen, …, we tired of you and your mess. If you ain’t out of this town in three days, we gonna blow your brains out and blow up your house.”  Then they hung up.
Just a couple months prior, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a Montgomery transit bus for a white person. Although he was the youngest black minister in town, King was elected president of the bus boycott committee and soon became the target of threats, hate mail and obscene phone calls from the White Citizens’ Council which was organized to oppose the boycott.
After the phone call, King was paralyzed with fear and unable to sleep, so he sat at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee and contemplated how he could leave town without looking like a coward, and he prayed. Then he heard a second voice, an inner voice.
“[That inner voice said,] ‘Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ The voice ‘promised never to leave me, … No, never alone. No, never alone…’
King knew that the voice belonged to Jesus, and in that moment his fear disappeared…. For the first time he felt the reality of God with him. King said that the voice convinced him that ‘I can stand up without fear. I can face anything.’”
Four nights later, a bomb went off at King’s house while his wife and infant daughter were home. King, who had been speaking at a rally in support of the boycott, hurried home, made sure that his wife and daughter were okay, and then addressed the boisterous mob that had gathered around his home. They were armed with bats, knives, bottles and guns and getting ready to battle with the several white policemen who were present. After getting the crowd to calm down, King reminded them that “he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” He then went on to say, “’I want you to love your enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them… What we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.’”
Describing this night, Skye Jethani writes:
“One witness said there were many tears on many faces. The weapons were put down and the crowd began singing ‘Amazing Grace.’ King’s wife later said, ‘This could well have been the darkest night in Montgomery’s history, but the Spirit of God was in our hearts.’
The sight of Reverend King, standing on the rubble of his firebombed home and calling the black citizens of Montgomery to love those responsible, changed the course of the civil rights movement. He had preached about love, forgiveness, and non-violence before, said one historian, ‘But now, seeing the idea in action… millions were touched, if not converted.’
The real conversion did not happen on King’s bombed-out porch, but four nights earlier in his tranquil kitchen. There, over a cup of coffee, his fear was replaced by faith in the One who promised to always be with him.”
The hope and prayer that we have at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church is that everyone could experience life with God, that they could know the reality of Jesus’ constant, faithful, loving presence with them, and knowing that God is with them and will never leave them or forsake them, that all their fears anxieties and worries would be dispelled. And in their place would be a steady confidence that somehow, someway, God is going to make everything work out. That is our prayer.
That is why we are having this series called “Life With God” which is based on a book by Skye Jethani titled With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God. In this post, I invite you, dear reader, to reflect with me on how our Life with God is a Life With Faith.
- Fear and Control
Let’s begin with a bit of review. Two weeks ago, we began this series by reflecting on how all human religions share a common starting point, which is fear. (See “Life With God 1: How Do We Relate to God?”) Because we live in a fallen world, there is chaos in the world around us and within us. We experience that chaos as danger and we feel fear in response to the danger. Then we react to our fear by trying using religion to gain control of the chaos that exists around us and in us. I am defining religion here as human activity that is the primary way of relating to God.
And the four religious postures that we looked at were Life Under God, Life Over God, Life From God and Life For God. (To see diagrams explaining the four religious postures, click here.) One of these four postures are found in every human religion and also in Christianity, even though it is not of human origin and it is not a religion because it is based on a relationship, not our human activity. What happens in Christianity is we take a secondary aspect of the Christian faith and make it the main way that we relate to God and then it becomes our religion. So here is what the four religious postures towards God look like. With the Life Under God posture we see God’s capricious will at the center of the universe and we seek to gain control of the chaos by obeying God and living moral lives so that he will bless us and keep disaster away from us. With the Life Over God posture we see natural law or principles at the center of the universe and we seek to control the chaos by discovering those principles and implementing them to navigate our way to safety. With the Life From God posture we see ourselves and our desires at the center of the universe and we seek to gain control by coaxing God to give us lots of possessions and power which we can use to protect ourselves against future calamity. In the Life For God posture we see God’s mission at the center of the universe and we gain worth in God’s eyes, and protection from the chaos, by faithfully engaging in his mission.
We can illustrate this with a simple diagram. We sense danger around us, so we feel fear, then we respond to our fears by striving to gain control. But our efforts to gain control do not keep us safe. First, these religious postures could actually be making our lives more dangerous. People will do horrendous things in the name of God if they think that their neighbor’s bad behavior is preventing the community from being blessed by God. Many of the world’s terrorist acts are undergirded by this kind of thinking and belief. Second, the idea that we can gain control is an illusion. We might think that we have control, but we never really do. And so the cycle continues round and round with no end in sight. But if gaining or having control is an illusion, what alternative is there?
2. Fear and Faith
The Dutch priest, professor and author, Henri Nouwen was amazed as he watched a trapeze troupe, called the Flying Rodleighs, perform in Germany. He was especially impressed when one of the trapeze artists would let go of a swing, fly through the air and then be caught by another trapeze artist called a catcher. After the show, Nouwen even talked the troupe into letting him try it. Rigged up in a special harness to keep him safe, Nouwen laughed and giggled like a little child as he let go of his swing and flew through the air holding his arms out in expectation of being caught by the catcher. The key to the whole process was the skill and the faithfulness of the catcher. Nouwen had to let go of his swing and fly, trusting that the catcher would keep him safe. This experience helped Nouwen to see his life with God in a new way. He said, “If we are to take risks, to be free, in the air, in life, we have to know there’s a catcher. We have to know that when we come down from it all, we’re going to be caught, we’re going to be safe. The great hero is the least visible. Trust the catcher.”
When we live with one of the four religious postures, our faith is in ourselves. Somewhere deep down in our soul, we believe that we will be able to keep ourselves safe if only we can gain enough control of our situation, and we are willing to use God to get it. But Nouwen’s trapeze illustration points to a different kind of faith, where we abandon all faith in ourselves and trust in the skill and faithfulness of God to give us a safe landing in the end. As Henri Nouwen wrote, “I can only fly freely when I know there is a catcher to catch me.” 
3. Safe With the Good Shepherd
Throughout the Bible, human beings are often described as sheep. This is not only because raising sheep was common in ancient time in that area, and still is today, so people would get the illustration because they were familiar with it. It is also because we human beings are very much like sheep in many ways. Sheep are by far the most defenseless of all the four-legged farm animals. A horse, cow, pig or goat can use its head or its feet its mouth, perhaps, as weapons against a predator. But a sheep can only run, and its speed is always slower than the things that want to eat it.
Not only are sheep helpless, they are also not very bright. They tend to wander away from the protection of their shepherd and the rest of the flock, making it easy for a predator to pick them off. They will imitate whatever hair-brained thing the sheep in front of them does, even if there is no rhyme or reason for doing it. A sheep will literally run off the edge of a cliff if all his buddies do it. That is exactly what happened in 2005 in Turkey when some shepherds left their sheep to go eat some breakfast. While they were gone, first, one sheep jumped over a nearby cliff, then another, and another. When the shepherds returned from their breakfast, they found that 450 sheep had been killed by this poorly thought out game of follow-the-leader.
Now it may seem insulting to us to be classified as a sheep, but when it comes to the really big things in life, like death, we are just as defenseless as they are. Also, like sheep, we tend to follow people without checking thoroughly where they might be leading us. This happened with tragic consequences in Jonestown in 1978. And we tend to wander off and try to live life on our own terms with one of these four religious postures, again, just like sheep tend to wander off.
The answer to our sheep-like dilemma we find ourselves in is God. The biblical pictures of people as sheep are usually paired with a parallel picture of God as shepherd. In one of the most famous passages in the Bible, David wrote these words which we know as Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2 He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
3 He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever. (Psalm 23:1-6 NKJV)
David knew what it was like to be a shepherd caring for defenseless sheep because that is what he did when he was a boy. But David also knew what it was like to be a sheep that was cared for by God the Good Shepherd. David knew that it was God who protected him when Saul was trying to hunt him down like a wild animal. David knew that it was God who brought him back to green pastures of forgiveness when David had wandered into adultery and murder. David knew it was God who comforted and encouraged him through all the bloodshed and family dysfunction of his life. And David knew that it was God who would always be with him even through the valley of the shadow of death, so David did not need to fear any evil. As Jethani writes, “The assurance that God was with him removed David’s fears—even his fear of death. He knew that his shepherd would not let him go; he could release control, fly through the air, and trust that he would be caught.”
Jesus also describes himself as a Shepherd. In John, chapter 10, we read: 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, 15 just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep….27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, 29 for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.” (John 10:14-15, 27-30)
Do you see how Jesus intertwines relationship into his promises of Good Shepherd love—relationship between Jesus and his Father, relationship between Jesus and us. We can surrender our striving for control because we know that God is a relational God, we know that relationship is at the center of the universe, and we know that God’s passionate desire is to have a relationship with each and every one of us. God the Father sent his Son Jesus into the world as his exact representative, his perfect image, so that we could get to know, fall in love with and treasure God above everything else in our lives. Jesus willingly went to the cross to pay the full cost of forgiveness for all our sins so that we could be united with God in an unconditional relationship of unending love. Because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day that followed, we can trust that we truly are forever safe in Jesus’ loving arms and that: No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)
Martin Luther King Jr. knew that his Lord was with him and that experiential knowledge did more than reduce his fear, it took it away. Now you might be thinking, “But wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated? How did living life with God help him then?” The answer becomes clear when we remember two key aspects of life with God. First, it is based upon treasuring God above all else. If we treasure a long and comfortable life in this world, then we are not living life with God. This is why John warns us, “Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you.” (1 John 2:15)
Second, life with God begins now and never ends, it is unending union with God. Jesus has promised to prepare us a place for us in heaven while we wait for the resurrection to come. And Jesus’ resurrection in the past is our guarantee of our resurrection in the future. So when Jesus said, “I am with you always” (Mt. 28:20), he really meant it. Jethani writes, “These two truths, treasuring God and eternal life with him, take away the most powerful fear we face—the fear of death. If what we treasure most can never be taken away from us, and if in our treasure is the source of life itself, then what have we to fear?”
Conclusion: Dear friend, I want to encourage you to surrender your life into the loving care of your Good Shepherd. You can trust that he will take care of you, that he will bring you to the green pastures and quiet waters that you need for food and drink. But there is something exponentially more significant that happens when you are in the arms of the One who loves you unconditionally and is with you infinitely. You will find that he will restore your soul. He will unwind that twisted cycle of danger, fear and control that we have inside of us and give you a new cycle of surrender, safety and faith. He will walk with you through every dark valley you face, his presence dispelling all your fears and he will bring you into his house to live forever. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on June 16, 2019. For more info about WGLC, go to wglc.org)
 Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 128.
 Jethani, 129.
 Jethani, 130.
 Jethani, 130-131.
 Jethani, 119-120.
 Jethani, 119-120.
 “450 Turkish Sheep Leap to Their Deaths,” (Internet; available at: https://www.foxnews.com/story/450-turkish-sheep-leap-to-their-deaths; accessed June 5, 2019).
 Jethani, 123.
 Jethani, 132.