“Love Drives Out Fear”
1 John 4:7-8, 13-19 (4:18) – September 16, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid
When I was in grade school, I remember a story I read where a boy was punished very severely. He was beaten, and sent to the barn without any supper. I don’t remember where the story was from (probably in one of my textbooks), but I do remember my gut reaction to the moving and evocative words that described the boy and his situation. Sullen, lonely, filled with anger, but at the same time torn with some remains of love for the brutal father who had beaten him and turned him out of the clapboard house on the frontier into the cold night.
What kinds of fear do you remember? If not fear that you experienced, fear and anxiety of someone close to you? Those feelings, emotions and experiences can be so traumatic. I know, because I dealt with many painful, fearful, anxious situations while a hospital chaplain. And, sometimes, I was completely helpless to do anything to lend a hand.
Is there some fear or anxiety that even now surfaces from deep within? If so, I am so sorry to remind you of that painful experience. Except—in this sermon, in this scripture reading today, the apostle John deals with God’s love, and with personal fear and punishment. We can relate to John’s moving words.
To back up, in this letter John talks a great deal about love. God is love. Love is of God. We love, because God first loved us. Simple words, yet profound ideas. In our reading today, John continues with more of the same: “7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Yet, you and I know that we cannot love all the time. Because, we are human. We get angry, and lonely, and fearful. Sometimes we back away, isolate, or even snap back at others. All of us do at times. Mile-deep emotions and mile-wide feelings come upon so many as we live our day-to-day lives—in the first century, as well as the twenty-first. Awkward situations and traumatic experiences choke out the joy and delight of living in community, of life in the family of God. What can we do about these complications of living, and of loving?
The apostle John knew very well about this dilemma. He was the youngest of the disciples. He was identified as “the disciple Jesus loved.” He lived the longest of just about any of the direct witnesses to Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. He wrote this letter late in his long life, a life full of hardship and trauma, full of persecution and anxiety. Yet—he was able to write moving words such as these: “Dear friends, let us love one another.” Matter-of-fact presentation of a simple yet profound concept.
John communicates God’s unconditional love to us in this letter, even in difficult circumstances. He shows us Jesus and His love through these simple words.
John understood very well what kinds of horrible things the persecutors could (and probably would) do to any Christians they got in their clutches. From the writings and letters of the second century, we know that John had personal experience with the persecutions. He was finally exiled to a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea called Patmos.
So, what does John have to say about fear? We are talking about gut-wrenching fear. Remember, he was well-acquainted with fear, and its close cousin anxiety. Verse 18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
The word for “fear” John uses here is the Greek word phobo, or the run-of-the-mill word that is found in the suffix “-phobia.” Many of us are familiar with all kinds of phobias, from fear of heights or enclosed spaces, to fear of spiders or snakes, to fear of the dark. Could I remind us of a certain phobia that Charlie Brown had, in the Charlie Brown Christmas special? He was frightened of everything. He had “pantaphobia.”
Perhaps the apostle John “does mean something closer to Charlie Brown’s depression-inducing pantaphobia in which fear becomes a general way to go at life. John yokes this fear that has no place in perfect love specifically with a fear ‘of punishment,’ which may be an indication that what he is talking about is the fear of still being punished for our sins.” 
What a fear, indeed! Being afraid that God probably will not forgive me, no matter how much I do, no matter how hard I try to gain God’s acceptance. That unfeeling, unforgiving attitude from God would break my heart. Sort of like the attitude of an uncaring, unfeeling, even brutal parent. Not at all like Jesus, like the God whom John knew personally.
After this life is done, we move into the life to come. Common questions many would ask: “’How can I be sure I did enough for God to love me? What if God plays all the sins of my life on some giant screen for all to see? How will I ever live down the humiliation of that? How do I know there is grace sufficient for even me?’ This is clearly the kind of fear of punishment John is pointing to. And it is a miserable thing to have dangling over your head” 
Again, we get full assurance from John. And, John intimately knows Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the Messiah, the creator of all the universe, the Logos, the Word. John is the beloved disciple, the one close to Jesus’s heart. John lets us know that “perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Yet, what are the next words from John? “We love, because He first loved us.” John circles back to this simple yet profound truth.
Commentator Judith Jones says, “God made love real and present by sending Jesus to live among us and to die for us. God continues to show us love through Jesus’ life-giving presence among us.”  That is the presence John is a witness to. That is the presence John is willing to suffer for. John loves, and through extension, we all love, because Jesus loves us. Unconditionally, fully, and with all His heart. Jesus loves us. Period.
So, it does not matter what our creaturely, very human selves tell us about phobias. It does not matter what Charlie Brown and his fear of everything whispers to our insides. John’s witness is that Jesus loves us, period. Jesus’s perfect, unconditional love drives out fear. Not only fear about everything on the outside, about fighting, hardship, and persecution, but about illness, loneliness, and sorrow.
Most importantly, His perfect unconditional love drives out the fear that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be able to do enough, be enough for Jesus. We love, because He first loved us. Period. John is a faithful and true witness to Jesus and His perfect, unconditional love.
Do you believe that? “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” John tells us so, right here in this reading today. Receive the Good News of the Gospel. Jesus came to save sinners, of which I am chief.
Fear is done with, banished, gone. Jesus came into the world to love us, unconditionally. That is truly Good News.
The Center for Excellence in Preaching, Stan Mast, resources from Calvin Theological Seminary: Comments & Observations, Textual Points, illustration ideas, 2015.
Commentary, 1 John 4:7-21, Judith Jones, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.