“Fearing God’s Goodness”
February 24, 2008 - Third Sunday in Lent
Another bounce of the ball and they all stopped. One evening thirty-five years ago my church basketball team was practicing in the gym of First Christian Church in Santa Monica. I wasn’t there that night, but I imagine they were running through our usual ragtag, half-hearted drills, tossing in grandstanding lay-ups and firing sloppy passes at each other. It was just an ordinary careless hour of practice, but then John Wooden walked in.
We all knew that Wooden went to that church, but none of us ever expected the legendary coach of the UCLA basketball team to turn up at one of our practices. It was just before he retired, at the height of his glory, with ten national championships and no less than four undefeated seasons behind him, as well as a huge unbroken string of 88 wins in a row. No other basketball coach in history has even come close to that kind of record. Wooden was an incredibly good coach. And standing there, under his scrutiny, our poor team was very aware of just how incredibly bad we were.
Paul Halupa could say better than I, but it seems to me our little band of church hoopsters had the basketball equivalent of coming into the presence of God. Here they were, having fun for sure, but not very talented, definitely not very focused, and certainly not very skilled. They felt ashamed, even frightened to go on playing in front of such a man. That’s just how a number of Bible people felt when they met God.
In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve had sinned, they hid from God. In verse 10 Adam said, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid…” In Genesis 18, when God promised Abraham and Sara a child in their old age, Sarah laughed. When the Lord confronts her with her laughing disbelief we read, “Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, ‘I did not laugh,’” When God comes to call Isaiah in Isaiah 6, the prophet cries out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” As I mentioned two weeks ago, Jesus came upon the disciples in their boat and produced a miraculous catch of fish. In Luke 5:8 Simon Peter fell down on his knees, and begged Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
Fright, denial, despair, flight—those are feelings and reactions that come to sinners who meet the holy God. They are bad, and He is good, absolutely good. And His goodness is terrifying.
The fear of God is our theme for Lent. I argued the first Sunday that it is a theme appearing all through the Bible, from beginning to end. And it is a larger idea than it might seem. Fearing God takes different forms. We fear God for different reasons. Starting today and for the next two weeks, we will look at the fear of God in terms of each of His classical attributes. We fear God because of His goodness, because of His knowledge, and because of His power. In the language of classical theology, He is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. And while those attributes of God may at times feel comforting, they also make Him someone to be feared.
At the same time I’m trying to follow out this theme of fearing God, I feel compelled in Lent to stick to the texts assigned by the lectionary, the list of Sunday readings agreed upon by most major Christian denominations. As we heard this morning the account of the woman at the well, the very same story is being read and heard in the Lutheran churches, the Methodist churches, the Catholic churches, the Presbyterian churches, the Episcopal churches and many others. We celebrate that we are one in Christ by being one in the Word we hear.
The result, though, is that it will feel a little as though I’m shoe-horning my chosen theme of the fear of God into parts of Scripture where it doesn’t fit so well. The Samaritan woman doesn’t seem all that afraid, even though Jesus certainly confronts the badness of her life with His own goodness. Indeed, this text speaks almost as well to fearing God’s knowledge, because in verses 17 and 18, Jesus confronts the woman with His divine knowledge of her marital history. Yet those verses are more importantly a confrontation with her sin. Fairly early on in this conversation, in response to this woman’s first tentative expression of spiritual interest, Jesus showed her He knew what kind of person she was: a veteran of a string of broken marriages, who was now not even bothering with the form of marriage.
In what follows the woman displays perhaps a bit of fear. In verse 17 she tells only half the truth about her sin. In verse 19, she affirms that Jesus’ knowledge of her shows He is at least a prophet, but in verse 20 she then tries to change the subject. From her own life she turns the conversation to a more general religious question about what constitutes proper worship—on the mountain of Samaria or in the temple at Jerusalem?
On my recent flight back from Chicago I sat next to a pilot “deadheading” it home to Vancouver, Washington. He told me about the route he usually flies to Philadelphia and asked me what I do. He listened as I told him I was a pastor and that I had been to a conference, but just as I was about to ask him whether he attended church and maybe start some talk about spiritual life, he picked up the in-flight magazine and started thumbing through it. The conversation was clearly over.
It’s a little like the dentist poking around in your mouth. When she gets near that sensitive tooth, you instinctively shut down, put your tongue over it, move away. That’s what the woman did with Jesus. It’s instinctive. It’s what we’re all inclined to do when spiritual talk gets too close to home. Fear rises and we back away.
Jesus did not let the woman escape that easily, though. He brushed aside questions of spiritual geography and told her in verse 23, “a time is coming when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth…” The implication was clear. Jesus was inviting her to leave behind the kind of life she had been living, the half-truths she was telling about herself, and to be one of God’s true worshipers.
The woman tried to sidestep this invitation one more time. In verse 25 she laid claim to a belief shared in common between Samaritans and Jews. They expected a Messiah who would set everything right and solve all their disputes. And the last thing we hear Jesus say to her is verse 26, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Stepping around all her fears, all her half-truths, all her evasions, Jesus brought the woman at the well to this single most important confrontation. “I am he.” Not what she should do about the man she was living with, not which shrine she would worship at, not what she believed about the end times, but how would she respond to Jesus, to God’s own chosen Messiah, to the Savior of the world? That was the question for her. Would she love Jesus? It’s the question for us. Will we love Jesus?
Of course we will. Sure we love Jesus. That’s as basic as it gets for Christian faith. Of course we love Him. We love Him, like He said, with all hearts and souls and minds. But do we really love Him, love Him enough for it to make a difference in what we do, love Him enough to be afraid of Him?
John didn’t tell us all the rest of Samaritan woman’s story. We don’t know if she went home and straightened out her personal life, either leaving the man she was living with or finally making a lasting marriage commitment. We have no idea what other sins for which she needed to repent, what other growth and transformation needed to take place in her life. All we can say is that, from what we read here, it had to have happened. She had to have become a different person.
Verse 28 says she went back to town in such a hurry that she left her water jar behind. She went to tell everyone about Jesus. No more evasion about her sins. She was completely unembarrassed to tell them that He knew all about her. “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”
A woman who felt like this about Jesus had to have been on her way to becoming a different person. If she was ready to speak with such love and admiration for this man she had met by the well, then she had to have begun to feel something like a holy fear for His goodness. Her life had begun to change.
Karl Barth says, “We must fear Him above all things because we may love Him above all things.” Note the different modalities in that. “We must fear Him… because we may love Him…” It’s precisely because we are free and invited to love the Lord, that it is absolutely necessary for us to fear Him. If we freely choose to love Jesus above everything else, then we are necessarily compelled to fear Him above everything else. We must fear the Lord because He graciously gives us permission and freedom to love Him.
Luther says in his Smaller Catechism that “We should fear and love the Lord.” But Barth says the order needs to be reversed: love first, love and fear the Lord. Holy, true, good fear of God arises out of our love for God. We fear Him, we fear His goodness, because we desire with all our hearts and souls and minds to love God more than anything or anyone else. And that is frightening because we know how far short our love falls. Love God and fear Him, because our love is so weak.
When you truly love someone, you also fear them, as strange as that sounds. Perhaps your greatest fear of the one you really love is that you will disappoint him, or her. Some of us watched “October Sky” Friday night at the VCC Film Club. In that moving story of a boy’s dream of rockets, we saw how Homer Hickam both loved and feared his father. Some of the fear was for human failings, for his father’s nasty temper and vindictive spirit. But in the end, as we discover that his dad was always his hero, we see that Homer’s greatest fear of his father was to lose his approval, to fail to be a son his dad would be proud of.
As we love Christ our Lord, we fear Him because our own sinfulness is held up against His perfect goodness. In true love we also experience the true fear that we will fail our Lord. Remember how bitterly Peter wept after He denied Jesus? He loved Jesus and so his greatest fear was failing Jesus.
So we can be sure that as the Samaritan woman came to love Jesus, she also came to fear Him. Not fear in some cringing, terrified, humiliated sort of way, but a fearful desire that she might be all He wanted her to be.
You may be worried about all this. You may be worrying about that verse in I John 4:18 that says, “perfect love casts out fear.” But Barth explains that it does not cast out the holy fear of God, fear of God’s goodness. When we love God and therefore fear Him, that love casts out every other fear, our fear of people, our fear of poverty, our fear of sickness, our fear of death. Loving God, we fear God, and nothing else.
The love and fear of God made God’s people fearless down through the centuries. Friday afternoon I noticed Hannah was reading a biography of Rosa Parks. It was her love and fear of God that made Rosa, on December 1, 1955, unafraid of the bus driver who tried to make her move to the back, unafraid of the police officer who came to arrest her, and unafraid when she was found guilty of disorderly conduct and violating a civil ordinance. That same love and fear of God filled the African-American churches of this country with people unafraid to challenge the injustice they had experienced all their lives. Some of them, including Martin Luther King, Jr., gave up their lives because they loved God and His kingdom more than feared anything or anyone who might hurt them. And their fearlessness changed our country.
When Jesus met the woman at the well, He gave her the greatest gift and opportunity she would ever receive. He told her who He is, the Messiah. And because she loved and feared Him, she went home and talked about Him, without embarrassment, fearlessly. The last part of the story is how many of her neighbors believed Jesus because of her witness. And even more came to believe after they heard her story and went to meet Jesus for themselves. They didn’t just take her word for it, says verse 42, they met Jesus and heard His love for themselves, so they knew “that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
As Beth prayed earlier, Psalm 31:19 says, “How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you…” We fear God’s goodness, because He shows that goodness to those who fear Him. Let us love and fear the Lord, and become the new people His goodness will make us. Let us love and fear the Lord, and fear nothing else. Let us love and fear the Lord and discover just how good He truly is.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj