Back in the 1960s, as a young boy, I attended a series of services at a church. It was a called a ‘prophecy conference,’and I knew I was doomed. The conference focused on a certain interpretation of the last book of the Bible, The Book of Revelation, drawing especially on the teaching of a popular Dallas-based preacher named Hal Lindsey. He had just published a fascinating and terrifying book entitled “The Late Great Planet Earth.” The good news was that you were going to be okay if you got it right, but you were doomed, eternally doomed, if you got it wrong. And I knew I was in trouble. I was having my private problems with dirty words and dirty thoughts; I occasionally told fibs. I had learned at this conference that Jesus demanded, “the last shall be first and the first, last.” My last name begins with “A.” (At school I always had to go first.) Overnight my best friend became Eddie Zelnio. (And yet, I knew that wasn’t enough.) To my horror, I had learned at this conference that there was something called the “unforgivable sin.” I didn’t understand what exactly the “unforgivable sin” was, but the whole thought of its possibility was like a landmine. And what if I died before I made my confession, and would it matter, anyway? Overnight I went from a notion of Jesus in the manger, meek and mild, Jesus my shepherd and I the sheep. I had gone from that security to a foreboding fear of God, an eternal in security. God was out to get me if I didn’t get it right, which I often didn’t. …Some of you may have your own version of learning about the fear of God.
We have an innate capacity to fear because we’ve been created with an infinite need for help. The story has it that most of us cry when we emerge from our mother’s womb. And the infantile terror of discovering that we are alive and terribly vulnerable, that fear is only quelled when we know a stronger presence there to hold us, and feed us, and heal us, forever. It’s an innate need within our body and soul for something More than we can muster alone, and at any age. We need a kind of higher power, which to the infant is most immediately the mother, probably, but the need never goes away as we grow up; it just gets transferred in other directions and to other people and, one way or another, to God. I suppose it’s significant that the scriptures consistently refer to people, no matter their age, as “children of God” (not adults of God, but children of God) because of our abject state of dependence and our innate need for something More in life. Which I’m also saying is also an innate capacity for fear… because we soon discover that those things that are bigger in life (which we need) also beyond our control (which includes God).
A phrase from the Psalm 33, appointed for today, speaks to this: “Behold the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him…” [i] which may only seem half-comforting. How wonderful to be in God’s eye; but are we hearing that the condition for being in God’s eye, for being “the apple of God’s eye” is that we have to fear God? How frightening that would be. But I don’t think that’s the point. This Psalm verse actually reads, “Behold the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear [God], on those who wait upon his love…” which is a curious conflation that runs throughout the Old and New Testaments, this blending of fear and love
It begins in the Book of Genesis, the story from the Garden of Eden. The angel of God comes to Adam and Eve, and they are terrified. [ii] We see this much later in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where the women come to anoint Jesus’ body, and once more the angel of the Lord comes present, and the women are terrified. We hear of fear when this angel of the Lord comes to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will bear a child, and Mary’s immediate reaction: fear. And fear when God visits Joseph with similar news. He is terrified. And the reaction of Elizabeth and Zechariah that they, too, will miraculously give birth to a child, is the same. They are afraid. The shepherds on hearing the good news are also filled with fear.
This theme of fear runs through the scriptures. Sometimes when people are actually meeting God, the fear of the presence of the Lord fills them. Sometimes we hear of fear in the seeming- absence of God. The psalmist writes, “Do not fear, though the earth should change, the mountains tremble and shake in the heart of the sea, fear not.” [iii] Sometimes the fear is about the unknown; sometimes the fear is about what is known all-too-well. You may know the Gospel story where there is a storm on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples in the boat are terrified, imagining that they will be washed overboard and drowned… and then they are afraid when the storm ceases, when they know they will be safe from drowning… because they see a ghost, no, it’s Jesus coming to them in a way which they could not have imagined (walking on water). And only then is their fear allayed by love. [iv]
Which brings me back to where I started, fearing that God’s standards were ultimately impossible to meet, and that I was eternally doomed. I don’t believe that. I think that the final word is that God loves us. God has created us for the love of it, out of love, to be loved, to live in God’s love and radiate God’s love, to belong in God’s love forever. And that God’s love is ultimately irresistible. What we see in the face in form of Jesus is love, a judgment of love. It’s what we hear in today’s Gospel lesson, “Indeed, God did not send the Son [Jesus] into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [v] I’m not saying that there aren’t other ways to read the Scriptures. If you’re of a mind that hell and damnation is down a slippery slope for most people of this world – past, present, future – you can “proof text” that in a lot of places in the Scriptures. But I would rather err on the side of love, and presume that love, not damnation, will win out. The final chapter of the Scriptures, and the final chapter of life, is about love. Which is where fear and love can gracefully conflate. At those moments in your life, where you stand in the presence of something that is clearly greater than you – whether it is a greater good in something or someone around you, or even in yourself – and you find yourself saying, “From where has this come? How can this be?” You find yourself trembling because it is so awesome. Or when you find yourself trembling because of something so awful: when you are facing a greater sorrow, a greater suffering, a greater need than you sense you will ever be able to satisfy or solve, and find your heart trembling with need. Those experiences in life where we witness a greatness – something in someone else or in ourselves that is clearly beyond one’s own making – or when we face those experiences in life where we feel so small and our need is so great, I think these experiences if life put us in our place: creature in the presence of the Creator.
A week or so ago I was sharing a conversation with someone who had come to talk about their life. A person highly trained, highly successful, highly recognized in their “helping profession,” and also highly afraid. They had suffered a mysterious and debilitating illness ten or so years earlier, and after an intense period of help and healing, over the span of several years, were well again. Amazingly. And yet every day they woke up full of fear that it could happen again. And though there was every outward sign that they were thriving and clearly successful, they were crippled inside because of their fear, and ashamed about it. I asked them why they were telling me this? (I’m a monk. I’m not a therapist; I’m not a life coach; I’m not a bartender… I’m a monk.) And they told me that they needed to know from God that this would never happen again. Tears. More words. More tears. They said again that they needed to know from God that it would never happen again. Across the room from us was a crucifix. And I simply pointed to the crucifix. And this person stared at it for a long while, transfixed, in silence. And I finally asked them, pointing to the crucifix, “What does that sign promise you?” And they waited, and finally said, “suffering, probably more suffering.” “And death?” I asked. “Death.” They said. And I asked them, “And when will you die?” And they said, “Don’t know.” I went back to my first question, pointing again to the crucifix. “What does that sign promise you?” And they said, “That God is with me.” And I think that’s it. Beyond that, we can’t say.
God is God. God is not a pet rock whom we can tame, determine, control, or predict. God is God: holy and awesome. The Creator of all. The beginning; the end, before whom we bow, in the presence of such greatness, and such majesty, such mystery. Not to be taken lightly conveniently, or presumptuously. So, there is this posture of “holy fear” in the sense of the psalmist’s words:
“Happy are they all who fear the Lord, and who follow in his ways!” [vi]
“The merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him.” [vii]
And because of that “right posture” toward God, we need not be afraid of life or death. In the words of the prophecy of Isaiah: “Fear not, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” [viii]
[i] Psalm 33:18.
[ii] Genesis 1-3.
[iii] Psalm 46:2-3.
[iv] Matthew 14:22-27; Mark 6:47-52.
[v] John 3:17.
[vi] Psalm 128:1.
[vii] Psalm 103:17.
[viii] Isaiah 41:10.
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