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On Fearing God


Matthew 10:24-33      1st Kings 17:8-16      Romans 9:3-8     


What would it be like to read the New Testament fresh, without any of the preconceptions and prejudices that we bring to it unknowingly? What would leap out at us if we came to it without our minds already half made-up or misinformed? When C.S. Lewis moved from unbelief to faith he found out for himself. “The New Testament,” said Lewis, “is a peculiar blend of unimaginable comfort and unspeakable terror.”

Unimaginable comfort and unspeakable terror? Our foreparents spoke much of the fear of God. When someone was described as God-fearing, everyone knew what was meant. The truth is we are to fear God; we are meant to fear God; we are even commanded to fear God. There is enormous blessing in fearing God, for as long as we fear God we shall never have to be afraid of anything or anyone else. To be sure, the command to praise God is the most frequently stated command in scripture, while the command to be holy is the most elemental command. The command to fear God, however, is related to both of these, and in fact we are told that to fear God is to be wise, while not to fear him is to be foolish. John Calvin insisted that anyone who loved God genuinely also feared God appropriately. Calvin was much sounder than the parishioner who smiled at me at the door of the church and attempted to correct the sermon I had just preached. “I don’t fear God,” she said in her groundless superiority, “I love him.” Calvin knew that unless we fear God our love for God, so-called, will be nothing more than sentimental twaddle.

Now to say that we are to fear God isn’t to say that God is a tyrant, comparable to a Latin American or African dictator with malice in his heart and blood on his hands. It isn’t to say that God is monstrous, devouring any and all who irk him. It certainly isn’t to say he resembles the Siberian tigers in the Metro Zoo. A newspaper photograph depicted a Siberian tiger eleven feet long from nose-tip to tail, with its jaws wide open and its four-inch fangs bared. I thought that the animal looked magnificent. I went on to read the caption accompanying the photograph. It informed readers that tigers in the Metro Zoo are fed cattle heads every day. Immediately I was appalled just thinking about the spectacle. Reading about it put me off.

Albert Camus, the French existentialist philosopher and novelist, maintained that the God of whom Jews and Christians speak, the God who towers over the world infinitely can only dwarf and diminish human beings until they are obliterated before him as thoroughly and as thoughtlessly as tigers devour cattle heads unthinkingly.

Camus was a better novelist than he was a theologian, for he didn’t understand why scripture insists that we fear God and what is meant by fearing God. Camus thought that to fear God is to cower before God like a whipped dog, to cower before God in nightmarish horror, to crumble before God in terror. Camus thought that this was all “fear of the Lord” could mean, and for this reason, he said, he was an atheist and rejected every last aspect of biblical faith.

Camus never understood something that biblically informed people know profoundly; namely, there is no possibility of not fearing. Either we fear God and fear nothing else, or we don’t fear God and fear everything else. But in any case there is no possibility of being fear-free. John Wesley found the awakening in 18th Century England surging around him as, in his words, “I offered them Christ,” and despised, degraded men and women enjoyed both a Lord who loved them and a community that cherished them. Wesley found too, and found quickly, that not everyone cherished the awakening. Frequently mobs disrupted his preaching and assaulted his supporters. Wesley knew that only resilient, undiscouragable Christians would continue to hold out Jesus Christ to the needy and continue to hold up those who responded to him. In other words, the awakening would collapse if the mobs cowed Wesley’s people. His plea was both simple and profound: “Give me a dozen people who hate nothing but sin and fear no one but God and we can turn England upside down.” Wesley himself, beaten up more than once, feared no human being; neither magistrate nor bishop nor thug. “Hate only sin,” he said, “fear only God, and you will then fear nothing else.”

Jesus said, “don’t fear those who can kill only the body; fear him (i.e., God) who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Then is God cruel? tyrannical? On the contrary, Jesus adds immediately, “Two sparrows are sold for a penny. Yet God sees them and cares for them. How much more does God care for you. Why, God cares so much for you that even the hairs of your head are numbered.” In Palestine of old sparrows were eaten just as we eat chicken. But since there’s little meat on a sparrow, it takes many sparrows to make a meal. If you bought ten sparrows for a dollar, the bird-seller might just throw in an extra bird, so small and nearly insignificant was it. The point of our Lord’s pronouncement is this: if God cares hugely about the smallest, throwaway sparrow, how much more does he care about us who are made in his image and whom he has named his covenant-partner?

I want to say something more about “the fear of the Lord.” Ninety-eight per cent of the time when the bible speaks of our fearing God it doesn’t mean servile, cowering terror. It means awe, reverence, respect, veneration, obeisance, adoration. Scripture makes it plain that God loves us and wants us to love him. Servile, cowering terror alone would only mean that God was monstrous and couldn’t be loved. Scripture, however, is also aware that you and I are prone to trade on God’s goodness, prone to become presumptuous, prone to regard his mercy as indulgence and his patience as tolerance. For this reason 2% of the time when scripture speaks of fearing God it doesn’t mean awe or reverence or respect; it means plain, simple, ordinary fear.

Let’s think for a moment of the people who know us best yet love us most. Here of course I have to mention my wife. Do I fear her? I don’t fear that she’s going to beat me up. (After all, she weighs only 100 pounds and is anything but confrontational.) Therefore I don’t cower before her. But I do fear her. I fear offending her. I fear wounding her. Above all I fear breaking her heart. That’s it. I fear breaking her heart. And this is what scripture has in mind when it insists we are to fear God: we are so to reverence and adore him as to fear breaking his heart. At least this is what scripture means 98% of the time. The other 2% it means we are to fear him in the ordinary sense of fear lest we become palsy-walsy presumptuous, just as 2% of the time I fear my wife in that I fear behaving in such a way as to cause her to forsake me. And if my fear in this “2% sense” keeps me on the “straight and narrow,” so much the better. I want to be afraid of her if this means I shall avoid alienating her and losing her.

We are to fear God. Inasmuch as we rightly fear him we shan’t have to be afraid of him in the sense of undifferentiated terror. Inasmuch as we fear him we shan’t have to fear anything else or anyone else.

In the time that remains this morning I should like us to look at several instances in scripture where God’s people did indeed fear him, and therefore could hear and obey his command, “Fear not!”, in the midst of life’s turbulence and trial.

I: — The first is from the story of Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet. A drought has dried up the land. People are starving. Elijah asks a widow to make him the smallest piece of baked bread, a bun. She tells him she has only a small jar of cornmeal and a cruse (a small flask) of oil. With the cornmeal and the oil she’s going to prepare a smidgen of food for herself and her son (their last meal), and then mother and son will die together. “Include me in your meal,” says Elijah; “you will have enough. Fear not! The cornmeal and the oil won’t run out until it rains and the drought ends.” Not run out? The resources they need will be supplied?

I used to snicker at this story, since the story seemed to traffic in magic. Then one day an old minister (he also happened to be my first professor of Old Testament, and of course he esteemed the Old Testament prophets); this old minister told me what happened to him years ago. He was a pastor in Scotland. For years he was convinced that pacifism was an implicate of the gospel. One Sunday per year (but one only) he preached on what he deemed to be the Christian duty of pacifism. There was no trouble over this, even though many church folk disagreed with him. Then World War II broke out. Now there was lots of trouble. An elder flayed him because he hadn’t had the congregation sing the national anthem in worship the Sunday war was declared. He went ahead with his customary annual sermon. Trouble in the congregation worsened. Soon the congregation’s treasurer informed him that there was no money with which to pay him, and told him as well that the congregation would fire him post haste. He had seventeen pounds on hand, no other savings. He also had on hand one wife and two children. Henceforth there would be no salary. Almost immediately, however, small contributions found their way to him, frequently accompanied by an encouraging letter. Occasionally near-by congregations used him as pulpit supply. He and his family lived like this, hand-to-mouth, for eight months, at the end of which they possessed exactly seventeen pounds. Then a neighbouring congregation lost its pastor to the Royal Air Force. It called my friend as interim minister. Let him tell you about the entire incident in his own words:

It was literally true that throughout this time we had been anxious for nothing. I do not remember that we ever wondered whence our next meal would come. Our needs were amply met. The flow of mercies never ceased; the cruse of oil never failed.

My friend never maintained that the providence which blessed him and his family “proved” that God endorsed pacifism. In fact he was careful to say that we mustn’t draw such a conclusion. He simply knew that whether he was right or wrong about his pacifism, the widow’s cruse of oil didn’t run out.

After my friend had related this incident to me I found the vocabulary of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus leaping out at me. I noticed that Paul spoke of “the unsearchable riches of Christ”, “the immeasurable riches of God’s grace in kindness,” “the immeasurable love of Christ,” “the greatness of God’s power in believers,” “the many-splendoured wisdom of God” — and all of this from the apostle who spoke of himself as “having nothing, yet possessing everything.” Plainly the apostle is speaking of his own experience. My experience, limited as it is, doesn’t contradict either the work of Elijah or the testimony of Paul or the experience of my friend. To fear God is to fear nothing else, to know that the widow’s cruse won’t fail.

II: — Let’s look at Joseph now. His brothers were jealous of him, abused him and sold him to some travelling merchants. He ended up in Egypt where he became the highest-ranking civil servant. When famine overtook his family and his family was desperate, his brothers travelled to Egypt in hope that Joseph could help them. Joseph could have said, “Sorry fellows, you abused me years ago and I’m not inclined to do anything for you now. In fact this is the moment I’ve waited for for years. You can stew in your own juice.” He could have said this, but instead he cried, “Fear not! What you did to me you certainly meant for evil, but God meant it for good. You will eat.”

Insofar as you and I are determined to fear God, we can then fear not, since whatever evil befalls us God turns to some good, somehow. Hundreds of years ago people were concerned with alchemy. Alchemy attempted to turn base metals (like lead) into gold, a precious metal. No one was ever able to do this. Yet how people tried! They dreamt of how rich they’d be if only they could turn lead into gold. Little did they understand that if they had been able to turn lead into gold, they wouldn’t have been one cent richer. After all, gold is precious precisely because it’s rare. If they had succeeded in turning lead into gold then gold would have been as plentiful as lead, and therefore devalued. Had alchemy “worked” it could only have produced what is worthless anyway.

God is in the business of transmuting what’s base into what’s precious. But what God works in our lives is never cheap, never devalued. God’s work with the raw material available to him, including the evil that befalls us, is work whose worth never decreases.

I’m sure that you can tell me of developments in your life that have confirmed this truth over and over. And because it’s been confirmed in your life and mine so very frequently, we are never going to doubt the force of the command, “Fear not!”

At one point I was junior minister in a congregation where I felt the senior minister victimized me repeatedly. There was no one to whom I could turn for vindication and help. When I was in slight-to-moderate trouble, the senior minister took me to Swiss Chalet for lunch. When I was in big trouble, he took me to the Board of Trade Country Club.

One day the senior lay officer of the congregation, president of a large Canadian corporation, told me where to head in and reminded me that in his corporation the office boy always knew his place. “I am not the office boy here or the equivalent of the office boy,” I fumed, I am the associate minister. He smirked, “You will learn just what you are here regardless of the title on your office door.” I was at the Board of Trade Country Club many times that year.

I wish I could tell you that in all of this I “feared not”, but I have to admit that I did fear. Still, in the years since I have had a fruitful pastoral ministry to people in the very congregation where I had felt like a squashed grape. People there have reached out to me again and again. They have come to me, and still do, in moments of tragedy or anguish or perplexity. Back then I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t fear and couldn’t stop fearing in any case. Now I can see why, and therefore have something to carry forward with me in new situations.

We must fear not, for the evil that befalls us, whether great or little, never handcuffs God. And the “alchemy” that God works in all of this never yields something of diminished value but rather something of genuine worth.

III: — Our final word today comes from Moses: “Fear not! The Egyptians you are seeing today you shall never see again.” The children of Israel are struggling to get away from their Egyptian tormentors. Assaulted time after time, they are being worn down. Discouragement is seeping into them, discouragement that will soon result in paralysis. “Fear not!” cries Moses, “the Egyptians you see today you shall never see again.”

Was this promise made good? Did God keep the promise Moses spoke on God’s behalf? To be sure, those particular Egyptians with all their nastiness were never seen again: they drowned. But what about Israel’s other enemies? What about the Assyrians centuries later, followed by the Persians, and then the Babylonians, and then the Romans, wave upon wave. Was there ever to be deliverance from their enemies, final deliverance?

Will there ever be final deliverance from all that assaults us and threatens us with paralysing discouragement? Yes, there will be. There will be final deliverance from all that afflicts God’s people, for on the Day of our Lord’s appearing all that contradicts our Lord Jesus Christ and his rule will be dispelled.

The minister with the pacifist convictions I mentioned earlier in the sermon; he is Robert Dobbie, and several of his hymns are found in the second last United Church hymnbook. Dobbie himself always spoke so very convincingly, authentically, just because he had proven over and over in his own life that the widow’s cruse of oil didn’t run dry. Dobbie died three years ago, at age ninety-nine. When last I saw him he was ninety-plus, and he behaved like a nine year-old, so very senile was he. He wandered; he babbled; he couldn’t remember where he was or who he was. His wife was worn down running after him. When I last saw him I asked myself, “What is their future?” and asked it only because I already knew the answer: they could fear not and they should fear not just because the harassments dogging them that day they were never going to see again.

The book of Hebrews promises a Sabbath rest for all the people of God. “Sabbath rest” doesn’t mean inactivity, “vegging” as we like to say. Rest, for the Hebrew mind, always has the force of restoration, the restoration of God’s creation. There is a restoration promised; there is a restoration coming; there is a restoration that guarantees the deliverance of all God’s people from everything that afflicts, assaults, threatens, disfigures or warps them. None of God’s people will be left distressed, deranged, or damaged in any way. The “Egyptians” that we see today we shall never see again. Then we may and we must fear not.

John Wesley was right. Either we don’t fear God and find fears without number filling us, or we do fear God and find we have nothing else, no one else, to fear.

King Solomon was right: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It’s also the mid-point of wisdom and the end of wisdom. In fact the fear of the Lord is wisdom itself.

Victor Shepherd   

September 2002