July 14, 2013
Rev. John Watts
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO FEAR GOD?
The world was going to hell in a hand basket. I’m not real sure what that means, but I think we can agree it isn’t good. Long accepted standards of right and wrong were being rejected and ignored. The general attitude was that “anything goes”. A social commentator named Paul described all this in some detail and then in a very few words cut right to the root of the problem: “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18).
It was almost 2,000 years ago when Paul wrote those words to the Church atRome. Little has changed. The world is still going to hell in a hand basket. But not many of us would conclude that the problem is that people don’t fear God. If a modern-day Paul were to preach from a street corner that, “There is no fear of God”, we might say, “Good!” “Good riddance!” We might say that a big part of the problem today are the crazies who fear God or maybe Allah too much and act out that fear in bizarre ways. Because for many of us fearing God is a relic of ancient times. To be described as “God-fearing” is no longer a badge of honor. Martina McBride sang that very funny song about what happens when a “God-fearing woman gets the blues”. “There ain’t no slap dab atellin’ what she’s gonna do!” Enlightened Christians no longer fear God. We’ve outgrown that stage in faith development.
And so when we come to a passage like the one we read today, our defenses go up. For one thing, it uses the word “terrible” to describe God (10:17). We would never use that word. Not for God. God is wonderful, not terrible. We said so in this morning’s prayer!
The passage begins, “What does the LORD your God require of you?” You might recognize those introductory words from another part of the Bible. Micah 6:8. “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” That’s one of the Old Testament verses that doesn’t sound like the Old Testament. It sounds like the New Testament. It sounds like Jesus. So we expect to maybe hear an echo of Micah 6:8 right here in Deuteronomy. But that’s not what we get. Here’s what it says: “What does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God?”
There’s that word “fear” again! We can’t get away from it! It’s all through the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament. God and fear are linked more than 300 times. We’ve already seen that Paul told us to fear God. You may be surprised to learn that Jesus did, too. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). That doesn’t sound like Jesus! What’s going on here? Maybe, just maybe, instead of running way from this idea that God is to be feared, or ridiculing it, or dismissing it out of hand, we should take some time to explore it. So today we ask the question: What does it mean to fear God?
A good place to begin is the place where many of us got our first concept of God. At home. So we might ask: What does it mean to fear a parent? Some children are afraid of their parents. Usually, it’s Dad they are afraid of. Dads can have tempers. Dads can hurt you. And I hope we can agree that it is not a healthy thing to live in fear of a parent. Neither is it a healthy thing to live in fear of God in the sense that we are afraid God is going to lose his temper with us and hurt us.
But it is a healthy thing to fear your earthly parents in a different sort of a way. If I may, I’d like to use my own father as an example. I feared my Dad. I feared him when I was a baby. I feared him as I grew up. I feared him the final week of his life. But that doesn’t mean I was afraid of him. I don’t ever remember my dad yelling at me. Very rarely did he spank me (and when he did I’m sure I had it coming). I never once heard him swear. “Doggonnit!” was about as bad as it got for him. He hardly ever raised his voice. He was about as even-tempered, patient, and gentle a man as I have ever known. So why fear someone like that? I feared my dad in the sense that I was afraid of letting him down.
Some boys were trying to encourage a younger boy to join them in doing something they all knew they shouldn’t do. This boy didn’t want to. They teased him. They called him chicken. They said, “Come on, no one will find out!” They kept pressing him for a good reason why he refused to go along. So finally he gave them a good reason. He said, “My dad.”
They laughed it off. “Oh, you’re just afraid that if your dad finds out, he might hurt you.” The boy answered, “No, I’m afraid that if my dad finds out, it might hurt him.”
That’s what I mean when I say I feared my dad. I loved him too much to ever want to let him down. And that’s what I mean when I say I fear God.
But fear of God goes deeper than that. In our Deuteronomy passage it says in verse 20, “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him.” The New International Version which is on the front of your bulletins says, “Hold fast to him.” I prefer “cleave.” Because it calls to mind another verse. Genesis 2:24. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife.” You may have heard this verse used to make the point that success in marriage involves both the leaving and the cleaving. Sometimes problems in marriage can be traced to a failure to leave Mom and Dad. It doesn’t work too well to be married to your parents and to your spouse at the same time. Sometimes problems in marriage can be traced to never really cleaving to your partner. The relationship is shallow. You’ve never really bonded.
But we’re not talking about marriage today. We’re talking about what it means to fear God. And part of what it means is that we leave behind all lesser attractions and loyalties and we cleave to him and to him alone. We might still be married and have other relationships that are important to us. But our relationship with God is primary. It’s like we’re joined to God at the hip.
There’s that saying, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” It’s kind of that way with God. Fearing God is more than just not wanting to let God down. It also means it’s impossible to let God down without also letting yourself down. If God isn’t happy with you, you’re not going to be happy either.
So fearing God also means cleaving to God. Which is a little contrary to what you might expect. Usually when you fear something you want to get as much distance between it and you as possible. With God, it’s just the opposite. Those who most fear God in the Biblical sense of the word are those who most desire to get closer and grow deeper and enter more fully into that relationship.
There’s another dimension to fearing God. Bill Gothard said this: “Fearing God is the conscious awareness that God is watching.”
There is no such thing as doing a thing or even thinking a thought that no one else will ever know about. Because God knows all. That can be a scary thought. But that also can be an incredibly liberating thought. It can free us to give up our game of thinking we can get away with something or pull a fast one and keep it hidden and secret.
There’s the story about a bowl of apples and a bowl of oranges on a table in a church fellowship hall. There was a sign in front of the bowl of apples. It said, “Take only one. God is watching.” And there was also a sign in front of the bowl of oranges. It said, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”
The problem is, God is not selective in what God sees. God sees all. Which really is not a problem at all. It’s a blessing. It helps us live as we deep, down truly want to live. God’s way is the best way. Fearing God means knowing God knows when we choose another way
It’s one of the saddest commentaries on the state of Christianity inAmericatoday. I keep hearing variations on this same story. People who look for that little fish symbol that identifies a Christian business and once they have found it, they go do business elsewhere. Why? Because in way too many cases, business people who profess to be Christians have ethical standards lower, not higher, than the competition. Not a good way to succeed in business. And an even worse way to succeed in drawing others to Jesus Christ.
I think I know what Paul would say the problem is. “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” In other words, there is no sense that God is watching. Those who think they can keep their business life and their faith life in separate, air-tight compartments are mistaken. God sees all and is sovereign over all.
So let’s review for a quick moment. We’ve seen that fearing God is not so much about being afraid. It’s more about wanting to please God. And we’ve seen that fear of God is a unique kind of fear. It doesn’t drive us away from God. It draws us to God. We cleave to God and the closer that relationship becomes the more we discover that what pleases God pleases us and what hurts God hurts us. Then we talked about this concept of God watching over our lives. If we thought God only knows about us what we want God to know about us, we might be tempted to cut a few moral corners. But this awareness that we cannot hide from God helps us stay true.
So far, we’ve been putting a kinder and gentler spin on this old concept that we must fear God because God is terrible and fearsome. We’ve put a friendlier face on that famous sermon Jonathan Edwards preached with that wonderful title: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” We’ve emphasized the personal and loving side of God. I’ve always felt it’s important to emphasize that side because I know there are plenty of churches that don’t and plenty of people who never experience the warm embrace of God because they think of God as an angry, hateful, frightening old man.
So I hesitate to add what I’m about to add, but I’m afraid if I don’t I will be guilty of not giving you the full picture. And since I know God is watching, I don’t want to take the easy way and end with a cute story that will make you all smile and feel good.
I need to go back to that word in the Deuteronomy passage that is probably not on our list of favorite words we would use to describe God. Terrible. I don’t know about you. I will frequently begin a prayer, “Loving God . . . ” I don’t ever remember beginning a prayer, “Terrible God . . . ” But there’s the word, and I think it’s there for a reason. It’s there to remind us that God is not only personal and loving. God is also holy and just. And to downplay the holy and just side of God is to give an incomplete picture of what it means to fear God.
It says in Proverbs that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10). Why link fear and wisdom? When I was real small, I had very little fear and very little wisdom. One of my earliest memories is seeing a beautiful bumblebee on our lawn. His back looked furry just like the back of my cat. So I petted it. And I learned about bee stings. I learned about pain. I gained a little wisdom and a lot of fear in one brief moment!
Fear can be a good thing. And that’s where fear of God comes in. It’s a wise person who learns that life works best when our lives are lived in harmony with God. When what we are doing in the world is in tune with what God is doing in the world, that is when we have the best chance for a full, abundant, worthwhile life. To state it the other way, when what matters to us is at cross-purposes with what matters to God, it’s not a good thing. Then we should be afraid. If we have no fear, it means we have little wisdom.
Now I’m not saying that the old stereotype of God reaching down from heaven and zapping bad people is the way it works. I don’t think that is the way it works. That is not why we should fear God. Rather, God has placed us in a world where our choices have consequences. God didn’t zap me that day I petted the back of a bumblebee. But something did. There were consequences to suffer. God is not mean. God doesn’t hover over the world waiting for people to do stupid things and then sadistically watching them suffer. God is not like that at all. God is not mean. But God is dangerous.
One of God’s great gifts is electricity. It was there all the time waiting to be discovered, but it’s only been in relatively recent times that it has been harnessed until now we cannot imagine our lives without it. Electricity is not mean. We don’t need to be afraid of it in the sense that we live in mortal fear that any second we might be electrocuted. We are wise around it, those who deliver it to us are wiser than we are, and there are all kinds of precautions and protections that keep electricity a blessing and not a curse. Electricity is not mean. But it certainly is dangerous. We live with it and work with it constantly, but if we are wise we will never lose our respect for what it can do if we are not wise.
It’s kind of like that with God. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” God is personal and loving but God is also holy and just. Even dangerous. Even terrible.
I love the way C.S. Lewis introduced this side of God in The Chronicles of Narnia. God is represented by the most terrible, most dangerous of all the wild beasts. God is a lion. His name is the Turkish name for lion: Aslan. You can’t read the series without falling in love with Aslan. But you never get entirely comfortable with Aslan either. He’s a lion, after all. There’s a refrain that runs through the series. “He is not a tame lion. But he is good.” Here is a short clip to introduce you to Aslan, but first to a brave little girl named Lucy. This is from Prince Caspian.
(Youtube video: “Lucy Finds Aslan”)
The Creator of the heavens and the earth and of you and of me is not a tame God. But he is good. And if we are wise, we will fear him, with a fear that truly is the highest form of love.
Terrible God, Loving God, God beyond our feeble attempts at description, we are thankful that you have come to us to make yourself known to us. You have come to us in scripture, in Jesus, and also in our hearts as you cleave to us and we to you. Save us from the opposite errors of being so chummy with you that we miss your glory, or so afraid of you that we miss your grace. As we fear you, may we discover that wonderful paradox of a fear that doesn’t not scare us away but rather draws us in to your wonderful embrace. Through Christ we pray, Amen.