Who is My Neighbor? – Fear Factor

Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In seeking to meet this challenge, we find obstacles. One of those is fear. We all at some point or another have to face our fears.

Read 1 Kings 17:8-16, Luke 5:27-32 here

Listen here:

What are you afraid of?

Comedian Stephen Wright says, “A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I’m afraid of widths.”[1]

Today is the second week that we are talking about getting to know our neighbors.  Last week we looked at Jesus’ words in Luke 10 where he taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The law teacher asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped to help the injured man.  We learned that everyone is our neighbor, but also that God put us next to our neighbors, so our challenge from last week was to start working on getting to know who our neighbors are.

Layout 1Were you able to fill in any of the blanks in your neighborhood map?

One thing that can get in the way of getting to know our neighbors is fear.

So, what are we afraid of?  A security company came up with a map of our fears (Yikes![2]) using Google search records grouped by location.  It correlates with other research that says our number one fear is spiders. The states in brown all had spiders as the top fear.  As you might expect, fear of people shows up quite a bit as well.  That’s all the light blue states.  Texas is interesting because their top fear is panophobia, the fear that something bad will happen.  It’s a big state, so somewhere something bad IS bound to happen.  According to our Google searches, Kansan’s biggest fear is…can you guess?…I bet you can’t. (You’re going to love this answer!)

phobias-01-2-1Kansan’s biggest fear is lovePhilophobia, the fear of emotional attachment.   I’m not sure what that says about Kansas.  Maybe is just means there are less spiders here.  Or maybe Kansas is a really good place to work on loving our neighbors and overcoming our fears.  Both of our Bible readings today can help us with that.

Both of the stories involve food.  In 1 Kings 17 (8-16), the widow in Zarephath feeds Elijah the prophet, and in Luke 5 (27-32), Levi the tax collector throws a banquet to celebrate his decision to follow Jesus. In both stories, we see people dealing with fear.

The story of the widow is remarkable for several reasons.  This is the chapter where we meet Elijah for the very first time.  Elijah, one of the greatest prophets, comes to challenge King Ahab, one of the worst guys in the Bible.  1 Kings 16 says, Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33)  (That’s an accomplishment!) So along comes Elijah, who immediately makes an enemy of King Ahab by giving him bad news. He says, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (17:1)  This is the beginning of a drought that lasts for three years.

006-ls-elijah-ravensAnd then God tells Elijah to get the heck outta there.  He sends Elijah into the wilderness to hang out by a brook and be fed by the ravens.  After being there awhile, the brook dries up because of the drought, so God tells Elijah to go Zarephath where a widow would feed him, and Elijah went because he was raven-ous.[3]

Elijah does something as soon as he gets to town that we might not consider in thinking about how to meet our neighbors: he asks for help.  When Elijah meets the widow and asks her for food, she tells him that all she has is enough oil and flour for herself and her son to make one last meal, and then they will just be waiting to die.  In other words, only enough for one day.  We find here one of our common fears that can stop us from reaching out to our neighbors, fear of not having enough.

The widow only has enough for one day, and that’s right in line with what we can expect to have.  Jesus taught us to pray the Lord’s Prayer in which we ask God to “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), not our weekly bread or our monthly bread, just today’s bread. And he goes on to say that we shouldn’t be so worried about whether we’ll have enough in the future, saying: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

Elijah knows the widow is afraid, so his response to the widow is one of the most common sentences we find in the Bible: ”Do not be afraid” (1 Kings 17:13) And then he goes on to explain why: “ For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth” (1 Kings 17:14)

So the widow makes some food for Elijah, and still has enough to feed herself and her son, and continues to have enough long after she should have run out, just as Elijah had said.

pot-of-oil-and-flourA bottomless jar of meal and a bottomless jug of oil.  God blessed her trust and her willingness to act on that trust, and God blessed Elijah’s willingness to ask the widow for food.

This isn’t the only place in the Bible where God does something like this.  Later on, in 2 Kings, Elisha, the prophet who came after Elijah, helps another widow.  She came to Elisha because she was out of money and her creditors were about to take her son into slavery.  Elisha asked her what she had left, and she said only one flask of oil.  So he said ask your neighbors for empty jars, and then fill them from the flask of oil.  Her son collected all the jars he could get, and she was able to fill them all and sell the oil to pay her debts. (2 Kings 4:1-7) God blessed her trust and obedience by making that one flask of oil into many jars of oil.

  • God provides in miraculous ways. He sent manna every day for the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years so they wouldn’t go hungry. (Exodus 16, Numbers 11)
  • Jesus fed huge crowds with a few loaves of bread and a few fish. (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14).
  • Have you ever found you had more than you thought when you shared your food and there was enough?

When we share, God blesses the asking and offering – they go together.  “What if Elijah was unwilling to ask a poor widow for help? What if the woman allowed her poverty to keep her from helping Elijah? Both situations would have the same outcome: she would have walked away and cooked her son’s last meal.”[4]

Fear of having enough is just one of the fears that get in the way of being good neighbors. Whatever the fear is, always pray first. Jesus tells us this in his teaching about prayer in Matthew 6:33. He says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

  • Sometimes as we pray we see the situation differently.
  • Sometimes we’ll see solutions we didn’t see before.
  • Sometimes we’ll find we can stop worrying as we trust God to handle the situation.

One way that helps make our praying more concrete is to write it down, and as we write we are bringing the problem out of the darkness of our minds and into the light of day, which helps us to see it more clearly and perhaps understand better whether this is a rational fear we can take steps to alleviate, or an irrational fear that we need to work on letting go.

Praying about our fears and writing them down is a step in the right direction because it means we are working to feed our faith instead of our fears.

There have been lots of scary things in the news this week.  California had two major news events within 24 hours of each other – a shooting in a night club, and two out-of-control wildfires burning through populated areas.  Rob and I grew up in Southern California in the same area where all this was happening, and Rob’s brother had been scheduled to play in the band at that club the very next night.  We were seeing lots of information on Facebook from our friends who still live there.  Some of the posts were informative and helpful, telling us that people were ok, telling what roads and schools were closed, and some were more speculative as people wondered what might have caused the shooting or the fires.  One of our friends posted her response.

“I found it difficult to adult today so I took a self-care day to reflect on what’s good in the world. With gratitude, I watched the heroic, selfless actions of our first responders. With compassion, I watched community members lending a helping hand. With hope, I watched people coming together to encourage one another. With joy, I watched strangers love one another. Now, I can offer my own response with a renewed purpose.”[5]

She found a way to respond to the scariness of all that was happening with faith.  She fed her faith instead of her fear.

One of the things people commonly say in the midst of difficult situations is that God never gives us more than we can handle.  But that’s not what the Bible says. It’s almost but not quite true.  What God really promises is that we won’t have to handle it without him.  God says in Isaiah:

“’For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.  Do not be afraid, for I myself will help you,’ declares the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel.” ~ Isaiah 41:13-14

He’s holding our hand and walks with us through the scary stuff.  Sometimes he sends us to hold someone else’s hand so they don’t have to walk through it alone, and sometimes we need to be willing to ask for someone to help us.

And God tells us to trust in His strength more than our own.

“My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

God’s grace is very evident in our other Bible reading for today from Luke 5.  Jesus calls Levi the tax collector to follow him.  Tax collectors were not well liked, for obvious reasons.

They LEVIED tax.  His name was LEVI.

In Jesus’ time tax collectors were especially despised because they worked for the Roman government, which to the people of Israel meant they were defectors.[6]  And the way tax collectors made their living was by charging extra so they could keep some for themselves. They became wealthy off of their neighbors.[7] But Levi walked away from that to follow Jesus.

Levi celebrates his changed life and newfound grace by throwing a party for Jesus and inviting all his friends, who are, of course, also tax collectors.  It’s a beautiful thing.  But not to the religious leaders.  To them hanging out with sinners meant accepting their sin.  We might scoff at their fears as being silly and unreasonable, but we too are sometimes afraid of people. People are messy.

The question the religious leaders ask: “Why?” “Why are you eating with these sinners?”  Aren’t you afraid of their sinfulness? Their messy lives?

Jesus says, “No, because this is why I came.”  “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)

We’re all sinners in need of grace.  We all have messiness in our lives in some way.  Sometimes we’re afraid of being judged because our messiness seems bigger in our own eyes than someone else’s, or because we don’t know people well enough to see past the façade we all put up to hide our messes.

God calls us to trust in him and not be afraid, to feed our faith instead of our fears by trusting him enough to take the steps he calls us to take.  To reach out to our neighbors and find ways to get to know them and love them, despite the potential for messiness, despite our concerns about not having enough to share.  Our faith grows as we exercise it.

In anything that God calls us to, there are reasons to be afraid.  We need to feed our faith and not our fears by praying first, identifying our fears so we can know whether there are actions we can take, and we can give thanks to God.

God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid;

For the Lord is my strength and song;

And he has become my salvation. (Isaiah 12:2)

[1] https://ask.metafilter.com/166563/Jokes-about-Fear

[2] https://www.yourlocalsecurity.com/blog/2018/09/27/common-fears-by-state/

[3] Stephen Bramer, The Bible Reader’s Joke Book: A collection of over 2,000 jokes, puns, humorous stories, and funny sayings related to the Bible, 2014.

[4] Craig Groeschel, How to Neighbor, https://my.bible.com/users/mkrabbe/reading-plans/2513-how-to-neighbor/subscription/282117511/day/5/segment/0

[5] From Facebook post on November 9, 2018 of a friend who lives in Simi Valley, California.

[6] Darrel Bock, NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Zondervan) p159-160

[7] http://www.crivoice.org/tax.html

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