February 10, 2008 - First Sunday in Lent
Most of you know that about 4 a.m. last Sunday morning, while I was away in Chicago, a car came roaring down Bailey Hill Road from the north. Just south of 18th Street it seems to have veered to the left, leaped over the curb onto our church property, just slipping between a bus sign and a tree, and then ploughed into our stone, concrete and wood driveway sign. At this point the car became airborne, or at least flipped over, and landed upside down on the other side of the driveway and crashing into our neighbor’s fence.
Some of you who saw the wreck later told me how amazed you were that the four intoxicated young people riding in the car were able to crawl out of it alive. Only one was seriously injured, with some facial fractures, and all are now out of the hospital. You and I might say God was watching over them.
Some of us also might say, to use an old expression, that perhaps the accident “put the fear of God” into those kids. We would like to think their frightful encounter with severe injury or even death made them a little more thoughtful, a little wiser, a little more cautious the next time they get behind the wheel of a car. We hope they recall every now and then the emotions they experienced as their car tumbled through the air. More fear might be a good thing in those young lives.
You understand, then, how the great theme of Proverbs still fits our lives. Chapter 9, verse 10, repeats a thought stated at the start in Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” “the beginning of wisdom,” as it says in our text. “Fear of the Lord” is mentioned eleven times in the book of Proverbs. The simple command “Fear the Lord,” is given four times. In a book for instructing young people, offering a path to wisdom, holy fear is the key. “The fear of the Lord adds length to life” (Proverbs 10:27). “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27). “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than wealth and great turmoil” (Proverbs 15:16). “Humility and fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4). It’s repeated over and over. If you want to have a good, abundant, productive life, fear the Lord.
Yet we generally do not regard fear as a salutary emotion or experience. We would cast sidelong glances at any mother who asserted that one of her goals as a parent was to instill fear in her children. We would worry for the son or daughter who claimed to be afraid of their father. So we are naturally a bit ambivalent about this idea of fearing God.
Doesn’t true religion, true Christian faith, dispense with fear? Aren’t the angels that show up as messengers of God always saying, “Don’t be afraid”? Doesn’t Jesus Himself, on Easter morning, risen from the dead, tell the women who meet Him and fall down trembling, “Don’t be afraid”? Doesn’t I John 4:18 say, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear”?
That’s all true. The goal and end of our faith is living with God and enjoying His love perfectly, without fear. But this season of Lent is a reminder that Jesus Himself did not get an “Advance to Go,” card allowing Him to skip over all the trials and pitfalls of temptation, suffering and even the fear of death. Like Jesus, you and I don’t get to skip to a fearless Easter without enduring the fears of this life. Nor do we get to bypass the fear of God aiming straight for the friendship and love of God. If we try, we will wind up with a faith that may be very positive, very happy, even very fun, but it will not be true faith.
The Bible talks about the “fear of God,” from Genesis to Revelation. In Genesis 22:12, God praises Abraham for offering up Isaac saying, “Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Then in a very strange couple of verses in Genesis 31, Jacob names God, “the Fear of his father Isaac.”
Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy all speak of fearing God. Deuteronomy mentions it as often as Proverbs does. In fact, as Jesus answered Satan’s final temptation in our Gospel lesson, in Matthew 4:10, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only,” He quoted Deuteronomy 6:13 which literally reads, “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only…”
Joshua told Israel to fear God. So did Samuel. King Jehoshaphat warned the Levites and priests to fear God. Nehemiah said it, Isaiah said it, Jeremiah said it. The Psalms sing about it. Hop over just one from our Psalm this morning and you find Psalm 33:8 proclaiming, “Let all the earth fear the Lord!” Even as Job suffers the loss of his family, his health, his home, he says it in Job 28:28, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.”
Turn to the New Testament and right away in Matthew 10:28 you find Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In other words, be afraid of God.
In Acts 9:31 we see the early church enjoying a time of peace, “It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.” In II Corinthians 5:11, Paul says knowing what it is to fear the Lord is the motivation for his mission. In Philippians 2:12 we find his familiar words, “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” I Peter 2:17 sums up Christian duty to others as “Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”
And even as the whole story of salvation and this world is coming to a close in Revelation 19:5, we read, “Then a voice came from the throne, saying:
‘Praise our God all you his servants,
you who fear him, both small and great!’”
If it was only in Proverbs, we might safely tuck “the fear of the Lord” away in some back closet of theology and ignore it. But fearing God permeates the Scriptures. It’s an essential emotion for God’s people. We are supposed to fear God. If we quit fearing God, that’s when we really ought to become afraid.
Yet we are so often unafraid. We come, and I include myself, to church blithely, carelessly, unprepared and without any caution. We toss off our prayers casually, not really attending to the One we are addressing. We read the Bible like we might read the newspaper, seeking out the comics and the sports page, skipping over depressing stories and editorials that generate a little worry. We hang the Cross on our ears and around our necks and on our walls, forgetting what a terrible and frightening truth that symbol conveys.
Annie Dillard puts it this way:
Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? …Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up batches of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. Teaching a Stone to Talk (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 40.
Culture is so ready to take offense at God, but we need to feel again this deep fear that He might take offense at us. Let’s worry, at least for a minute, that an angry Lord might walk among us and turn over the tables of our lives. Let’s tremble, at least for a second, at the prospect that one of us might touch this altar and be struck down. At least for an eye blink, let’s fear the possibility that the words we carry in flowered Bible covers might catch flame in our hands and burn us. The holy God, who sets off supernovas for His own amusement, is among us. Let us be, at least, at least, just a little afraid.
We do not fear God for His sake. God is no bully or a sadist who delights in watching helpless victims cringe trembling before the hurt He dishes out. God asks us to fear Him for our own sake. Such fear is the beginning of wisdom. It adds years to your life, the next verse says. It’s the root and soul of an attitude that saves you from all kinds of foolishness and failure. To fear God is to put yourself in touch with His awesome, incredible, incomprehensible power, and to begin to experience that power in your own life.
Why do we seek out fear? Why do we go to horror films or read thrillers by Stephen King? Why do leap from the high dive or drive cars too fast or dangle from hang gliders? Why do we gamble everything on a risky investment or back-talk the traffic cop or the boss? We experience something in the fear of those moments, something that feels missing from our lives. A surge of adrenalin, a feeling of enormous strength, an exhilarating thrill of living on the edge. It’s intoxicating, it’s empowering, it’s energizing.
That thrill of fear is so much better when what we fear is truly worth fearing. To fear God is to experience real power, real life, real strength. I Peter 3:14, the apostle tells Christians, “Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” We’re not to fear what everyone else fears, not sickness, not loss of a job, not terrorists, not economic recession. Those aren’t worth fearing. Peter goes on, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” Fear the Lord. That’s the true thrill, the true energizing fear that makes life sing.
I remember standing one afternoon under a tarp in the mountains of New Mexico as rain pelted down like gravel from a dump truck in the sky. Lightning was leaping to the hills and to the trees all around us. Thunder rolled over us like an endless freight train. I was cold, I was wet, and I was really frightened. We were miles from any shelter, from any help. If the lightening struck a tree by us we might be fried. If it cracked one, we might be crushed. I was as scared as I’ve ever been in my life, but I was also coming alive. I sensed the power of God was in that storm. I was afraid, but I was filled with a terrible and terrific sense of being in His hands, of being completely and gladly at the mercy of the Lord.
When the last crack of thunder rolled away, and the rain drops turned to mere dripping from branches above us, I walked away as alive and as energized and as hopeful as I’ve ever been. I set foot up the trail with a fresh and wonderful strength and confidence in the power and, yes, the love of God.
We can’t conjure up a thunderstorm so you can have that sort of experience with God in worship this morning. But come to the Table this morning with a refreshed sense that you are in God’s presence and yes, it’s a bit perilous. As you receive the Body and Blood of Christ, remembering that He died for you, ask yourself what kind of death Jesus might want you to confront for Him. As you stand eating and drinking in fellowship with other believers, remember Paul in I Corinthians 11 says coming to this Table but failing to respect your sister or brother in Christ can be as dangerous as eating poisonous Japanese fugu fish. Put out your hand for the bread or the cup with trembling and in that fear experience the dreadful and delightful power of God in your own life.
During Lent, let’s make a new beginning of fearing God. Like Peter meeting Jesus for the first time, fall on your knees and confess your sin, so afraid that you almost want Him to go away. Like Abraham offering up his son Isaac, fear the Lord enough to give up something precious for His sake. Like the writer of Proverbs seeking wisdom and knowledge, open up the Scriptures every day and read them as a guide to safe living. And like Jacob and Hannah and David and Mary and Paul, bow before God in devotion and worship in a saving, energizing blend of fear and love.
Come back today to the Lord who is, as C. S. Lewis wrote about Aslan the Lion, not safe. Like Aslan, God is not safe at all, but He is good. Amen.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj