• Psalm 33:18 • John 4:7-21 • John 15:9-17
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. I knew I was in trouble. I was having my private problems with dirty words and dirty thoughts; I occasionally told fibs. To my horror, I 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 had repented, 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… to a foreboding fear of God: eternal insecurity. God was out to get me if I didn’t get it right. …Some of you may have your own version of learning about this kind of fear of God.
We have an innate capacity to fear because we’ve been created with an infinite need for help. When a newborn emerges from his or her mother’s womb, the infant normally cries. Our infantile terror of discovering that we are alive and terribly vulnerable, that fear is only quelled when we know a stronger presence is there to hold us and help us and feed us. It’s our innate need (within both body and soul) for something More, more than we can muster alone, and at any age. We need a kind of higher power, which to the infant is probably in the hands of their mother. The need never goes away as we grow up; it just gets transferred in other directions and to other people and, for many, 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… because life is so big, and we are so small, and the awareness of that reality can make us tremble.
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 coalescence 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 appears 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. The tells Moses: “…You shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”iii 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.”iv 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. The storm ceases – they are safe – and then they are afraid because they see a ghost, no, it’s Jesus coming to them in a way which they could not have imagined. (He’s walking on water.) Only then is their fear allayed by Jesus’ love for them.v
Which brings me back to where I started, fearing that God’s standards were ultimately impossible to meet, and that I was eternally doomed. (Maybe you’ve had a similar story?) 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 and form of Jesus is love, a judgment of love. In the gospel lesson appointed for today, we hear Jesus say, “You did not choose me but I chose you.”vi Jesus knows whereof he chooses. What we see in the face in form of Jesus is love, a judgment of love; you are judged lovable, you are judged beloved. I’m not saying that there aren’t other ways to read judgment seen in 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 mercy, which abounds throughout the scriptures and on Jesus’ own lips. Presume that God’s 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 coincide.
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 you experience in something or someone around you, or even in yourself – and you find yourself saying, “From where has this amazing thing 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 endure 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 in life put us in our place: creature in the presence of the Creator.
Not long ago I was sharing a conversation with someone who had come to talk about their life. This person was 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, they were well again. Amazingly. And yet every day they woke up full of fear that this debilitating illness could happen again. Though there was every outward sign that they were thriving and clearly successful, they were crippled inside because of their fear, and embarrassed, even 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 this kind of suffering would never happen to them 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, “I don’t know.” “But you will die?” I asked. “Yes, clearly,” they said. I went back to my first question, pointing again to the crucifix. “What does that sign promise you?” And they said, “That Jesus is with me, and that Jesus loves me.” And I think that’s it. Beyond that, we can’t say so much more than that. God is God: holy and awesome, not to be taken lightly conveniently, or presumptuously. God is not a pet rock whom we can tame, determine, control, or predict. God is beyond us. And, at the same time, we see God revealed in the face and form of Jesus, God among us and abiding with us. In Jesus we see God whose essence is love and whose love is irresistible.
I’m mindful of the great German theologian Rudolf Otto speaking of the mysterium tremendum, the mystery of God that both causes us to tremble and attracts us.vii Or do you remember the scenes, in C. S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, of the great lion named Aslan? Aslan’s ferocious roar is both awful and awesome, and his disarming love is tremendously tender. So we hear the psalmist say: “Happy are they all who fear the Lord, and who follow in his ways!”viii and, “The merciful goodness of the Lord endures for ever on those who fear him.”ix
If you know fear in your relationship to God, that may not be a bad thing. That may actually be a good thing, a good place to start, where God has started with you. You may well be in touch with something of the majesty and magnificence, the omnipotence, the untamable mystery of God Almighty. But don’t stop there. Your fear of God, rather than repelling you is attracting you. Beyond that façade of fear is God’s love, ultimately irresistible, love which you need. Perhaps the fear is creating the space for the love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear….”x God loves you.
i Psalm 33:18.
ii Genesis 1-3.
iii Leviticus19:14; 25:17.
iv Psalm 46:2-3.
v Matthew 14:22-27; Mark 6:47-52.
vi John 15:16.
vii Rudolf Otto (1869–1937) speaking of God as mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“the mystery that repels and attracts”). In The Idea of the Holy, published in 1917, Otto described ‘the holy’ as the numinous, a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.”
viii Psalm 128:1.
ix Psalm 103:17.
x 1 John 4:18-19. We also hear of this conversion of fear in the prophecy of Isaiah (41:10): “Do not fear, 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.”
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