Third Sunday after Pentecost
Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him,
on those who wait upon his love.
Psalm 33: 18
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.” (There are contemporary versions of this same kind of end-time prophecy written by Tim LaHaye.) The good news is that you are going to be okay if you get it right, but you are doomed, eternally doomed, if you get it wrong. As a young overly-earnest child, 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,” and, because I was at a very concrete stage of development, I knew I was in particular trouble because my last name begins with “A.” (At school I always had to go first.) Overnight I decided my best friend should be my school classmate named Eddie Zelnio. That’s “Z” as in Zelnio. Eddie always went last. Maybe I could eternally tag along with Eddie. 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 exactly what 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… from that security to a foreboding fear of God, like an eternal insecurity. God was out to get me if I didn’t get it right, which I often knew didn’t. I was afraid of God. …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. When we are born, most of us cry when we emerge from our mother’s womb. 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. The awareness of that need never leaves us, no matter how old we become. We need a kind of higher power, which to the infant is most probably a mother or father figure, but the need never goes away as we grow up. The need just gets transferred in other directions and to other people as we grow us and, 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 and almost-infinite capacity for fear….
In the psalm we have just prayed together, Psalm 33, a particular phrase speaks to this: “Behold the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him…”i That is half-comforting. “Behold the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him…” How wonderful to be in God’s line of vision, under God’s watchful care, but what is this, then, about fearing God? 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 melding of fear and love. 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. Earlier we hear of fear when God’s angel comes to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. 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, as are the wisemen. For all of these people, their first reaction to God’s visitation is fear, even though God’s intention is for love. And then the fear, for what seems so awful, transforms into their experience of love, for what is so awesome.
This theme of fear runs throughout 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 take on a new fear when the storm ceases, even they know they will be safe from drowning, because they see a ghost. No, it’s not a ghost; it’s Jesus coming to them walking on water. How frightful. Jesus actually comes up to the boat… and their fear is love dissipates because of love, Jesus’ love for them.iv
Which brings me back to where I started, years ago fearing that God’s standards were ultimately impossible to meet, and that I was eternally doomed or at least at eternal risk. You may have your own version of that doomed kind of fear. Here’s an answer to that kind of fear. And it’s Jesus’ answer: “Don’t be afraid.” “Don’t be afraid.” The final word is that God loves us, that God loves you. God has created you 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. God’s love is ultimately irresistible. What we see in Jesus is love, a judgment of love. We need to hear today’s particular gospel lesson about judgment in the broader context of God’s judgment, which I would call a judgment of love: “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 about judgment in the Scriptures. If you’re of a mind that there’s a slippery slope to hell and damnation 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 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 conflate.
There are those moments in your life, where you stand in the presence of something that is clearly greater than you. It may be 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, such a wonderful thing?” You may find yourself trembling because it is so awesomely good. Or at other times you may find yourself trembling because of something not good: when you are facing a greater sorrow, a greater suffering, a greater need than you will ever be able to satisfy or solve, and you find your heart trembling with need. Those experiences in life where you witness a greatness – something that is clearly good, and beyond your own making – or when you face something not good in life, where you feel so small and your need is so great, these experiences of life put us in our place: God’s creatures in the presence of our 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 acclaimed in their 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 well. And yet every day they woke up full of fear that this terrible illness could happen again. And though there was every outward sign that they were thriving and clearly successful, they felt crippled inside because of their fear, and also 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 personal coach; I’m not a bartender… I’m a monk.) And they told me that they needed to know from God that this kind of suffering 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 there was a crucifix. 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, “You’re asking for a sign from God. What does that sign promise you?” And they paused a long while, and finally said: “That is a sign of suffering. …I will probably know more suffering in life.” “And death?” I asked. “Yes, death.” They said. And I asked them, “And when will you die?” And they said, “I don’t know.” I went back to my first question, pointing again to the crucifix. “What does that sign ultimately 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 of life and the end of life, before whom we bow, in the presence of such greatness, and such majesty, and such mystery. Not to be taken lightly conveniently, or presumptuously. I’ll call this awareness a good kind a fear, the good kind that often appears in 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 kind of good fear toward God, we need not be afraid of life or death. St. Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”viii – That is true.
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