The fear of the Lord
Selwyn has been preaching on the Lord’s Prayer and I suspect he has spoken recently about calling God Abba Father…
Today I want us to listen to that phrase, ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It comes at the end of our Psalm for today – a psalm which praises God for loving-kindness and compassion. “The fear of the Lord…”
How do you feel about that thought ‘the fear of the Lord’?
How do you feel about Jesus notion of God as an intimate parent (Abba Father)? I want us to hold those two thoughts together for a moment. Without letting the familiar pat formulas resolve all tension.
If John’s epistle tells us that God is love… and perfect love casts out fear, what does it mean to ‘fear the Lord’?
Oswald Sanders, wrote something which seems to me to help us in the right direction:
The remarkable thing about fear of God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else.
Fear of God is a kind of antidote to all other fears…
One way is to think of it as a bigger fear that dwarfs all other fears – the ultimate big stick. Once you are afraid of God, all other fears pale into insignificance…. According to my dictionary fear is the emotional response to danger… so if God is the biggest danger, we focus on that first and it distracts us from the other dangers, I guess. It’s like if you think you’re being attacked by a dog and a grizzly bear comes into the clearing, you soon forget about the dog. And yet in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ John writes: God is love and perfect love casts out fear…
Is it possible to be afraid of love? To feel that love is a danger… I want to come back to that question?
A Christian writer, Annie Dillard, wrote an oft quoted passage berating contemporary church life:
Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
What I really like about that quotation is the metaphor of the tourist. A tourist is someone who observes reality from a comfortable distance, through the lens of a camera… no fear, no engagement except relatively superficial… one step removed from the hard danger of real life in the places they visit. Tourism is a kind of ultimate consumerism. From one thing to the next … Observers on a packaged tour of the absolute! Something like a theory of immunity comes into play perhaps. If we take a drug in small doses over a long enough period of time our body builds defences. We become immune.
Is Annie Dillard being a bit hard on people in churches? Is our lack of ‘the fear of the Lord’ a result of our ‘tourist’ attitude to God. It’s a good question… But another question I have is….Does she protest too much? …. Sometimes she does remind me a little bit like our old Calvinist forbears, for whom the fear of the Lord was, we sometimes imagine, a bigger fear than all the rest – the grizzly bear theory of the fear of the Lord.
A week or two ago our new Otago Professor of Public theology, Andrew Bradstock, did a seminar on the economic crisis. And in that lecture he wondered whether the crisis might merely reveal that we are ‘too fearful to change our behaviour’. Is fear the ultimate driver? Afterwards it occurred to me that the very thing that seems to be pushing us to change is a ‘greater fear’ – environmental disaster – our grizzly bear. Perhaps it’s only realistic to think that the only solution to our fears is an even greater fear. It’s not perfect love that casts out fear, but perfect fear, like the perfect storm. Is that pessimistic? Or is it just realistic?
This week it occurred to me that there is another way of thinking… another way in which the fear of the Lord is an antidote to all other fears. It is not because it is a greater fear than all other fears…. It’s because it is a different kind of fear than all other fears. It involves a different kind of danger, to all other dangers. Behind it lies a different kind of death.
Normal fear… has the smell of death about it… the thought that I do not even think about… the thought that I might no longer exist – that I might be nothing. The subconscious possibility of nothingness, takes so many forms… pervades every nook and cranny of our thinking and planning. It’s what makes horror movies scary. It’s why we don’t like to imagine the end of the world or even an economic downturn. In the language of the NT, Fear forms an alliance with death, it’s the means whereby death has dominion… it keeps us shopping, it lowers our National emissions targets – reverence for death, deference to death.
In the ancient world life was short…
The gods were agents of death in the cycle of death and life. They consumed sacrifices of life in exchange for new life – it was a cycle of endless repetition. Death was the enemy to be befriended – the machine must be fed. There was no escape, just resignation and making the best of feeding the machine.
And then in the context of an emerging Hebrew consciousness of a God who was completely beyond the world and all its cycles of life and death, among a people who had begun to think differently from all the rest of the ancient Graeco-Roman world … into that world came the claim of resurrection now – the future aeon is present and breaking in – into that world came witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the conquest of death. And the same act, said the witnesses, in which death was conquered and its power undone, was also an act of absolute love, perfect love. The man who gave himself in life as if death were of no consequence, was given back to them in resurrection as forgiveness. And they spoke as if the smell of death were blown away on the wind. Whatever the fear of God meant now, it meant the antidote to all other fears…
And here’s where I think we begin to understand the Psalmist… such love is frightening and awesome… it is unknown to us, it calls us to something different, it threatens us with a loss of control over our own life, it threatens us with transformation into a world we struggle to even imagine. And why is that a threat? Why do we still want control?… because we are still living under the shadow of death, we are still formed by our fears. We don’t instantly gain a new self, or a new identity… But we begin to… This new fear, not bigger fear, but a very different quality of fear, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom… the beginning of a new way which moves towards a life without fear at all… The fear of the Lord is not the end… but it is certainly the beginning. The love of God is not a teddy bear. It’s not a security blanket to shield us from all suffering. To fear the Lord is to have a sense of the awesome difference between God and myself. To fear the Lord is to know that God is not merely a comfort but a threat to all that I am at this point. Which is a good thing but it still feels like a frightening thing. And there’s so much that I think I need, that I will have to let go of. In fact giving and forgiving will become (for those who embark upon the way of wisdom) a new lifestyle, and suffering will be part of the journey…
Is it possible to be afraid of love…? I suspect that sometimes that’s the best way to describe what it feels like to be following Jesus… Like someone standing in the door of a plane high above the world with their parachute on, about to jump… the beginning of wisdom is scarey, but it is precisely that though – the beginning. Ultimately perfect love does cast out anything that we might call fear.
Bruce Hamill (at St Clair on 16.8.09)