I had decided to do a sermon series on fear, starting today. It happened that a blog post by John Pavlovitz published this week also looked at fear. He began, “It must be awful to go through life terrified; to believe that your are perpetually in danger, to always be threatened by encroaching predators lurking in the shadows and around the corners and beneath the bed. What a drag it has to be to walk through every day looking over your shoulder, certain that attack is inevitable and you are soon to be overtaken. And yet, this is the experience of far too many Christians in this country; people who have been a people weaned since birth on a faith of fear.” He goes on to name some of those fears: fear of hell, fear of immigrants, fear of refugees, fear of transgender people lurking in bathrooms, fear of atheists…. The list is long! It has produced what he calls a “monstrous, Frankensteined faith that has turned on them…[faith] has been reduced to a sanctified burglar alarm, forever forecasting doom, forever inciting panic, forever triggering outrage.”
He goes on to declare that the most common command in the Bible is “Do not fear!” Yes. It is a common refrain. It is also common to speak of faith as “The fear of the Lord.”
How do we reconcile the “fear nots” command with the “fear the Lord” command?
Today’s gospel lesson tells us that Peter, James and John had an experience we cannot begin to imagine. Peter’s first response was to offer to make dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. It’s an odd response. Anna Carter Florence says that he’s like an emergency responder – keeping his cool and acting in response to the unimaginable. She wonders, “Is it nerves that prompt Peter to rush in with wrongheaded blueprints? Is it impatience? Is it plain old ignorance? Yes, yes, and yes. All three ring true to me. But the real issue, I think, has to do with our human response to divine encounter.”
Our human response to divine encounter… Moments later, when the cloud overshadowed them and the voice spoke, Peter, James and John “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” And, when the cloud was gone, Jesus told them to get up and “not be afraid.”
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible notes that the concept of fear is “related to a wide range of emotions, extending from simple apprehensiveness to utter terror or dread, caused by the suspicion of an impending peril.” It goes on to say that “the fear of God” suggests “an emotional experience of a complex nature which is connected with the perception or the awareness of the holy and which produces the concomitant reactions of repulsion, attraction, fascination, awe, reverence, love, trust, faith, worship and adoration.”
I had chosen fear as the theme of a sermon series because of those fears that Pavlovitz had identified – those fears that are used in manipulative ways and those fears that inhibit our ability to live into our identity and call to be the Body of Christ in our world today. What I quickly discovered was that one can’t simply declare “do not be afraid” and be faithful to the Biblical tradition – and the idea that faith is, in some ways, “the fear of the Lord.”
The transfiguration in Matthew and the related story from Exodus are good starting places for considering the place of the fear of God in our lives.
Our Biblical translations tend to translate multiple words as “fear.” So, when we look for a message, we might miss the nuances that would have been evident in the original texts. For example, a particular Hebrew word that meant fear was sometimes translated into the early Greek texts as fear (phobia), but more often, and perhaps more appropriately as reverence, respect and piety.
“Reverence, respect and piety” might help us understand the “fear” in the gospel lesson this morning. The Bible Dictionary says that the Old Testament refers to fear in “the context of divine revelation.” There is a mystery in the Divine Holiness – something that cannot be contained or explained. When human beings encounter this mystery, they cannot help but be overcome with awe, with reverence and with piety that brings them to their knees or fully to the ground. Yet, this fear is not a fully negative fear! It’s not negative! It often leads to joy! The fear of the Lord is not of destruction – but of the power of God and God’s love and care revealed. It is awe and respect for God who is beyond all human and worldly constraints.
Years ago, I heard a minister challenge the Presbyterians who had gathered for a meeting. She challenged us because we were, in her estimation, pretty self-satisfied in our worship of God. “We ought to have callouses on our knees!” she thundered. “Why do we never kneel?”
Well, awe can shatter us. It shakes us up. It challenges our assumptions and rattles our constructs of faith. We might be able to let the hymns touch us emotionally. Yet, it’s easy to get a little suspicious about faith or worship that seems to be little more than a feel good emoji. So, our heritage is carefully thought out, reasoned out explorations of what God has done and what that might mean for us in our faith today. The Presbyterian tradition has long valued and demanded a rational approach to faith – one that is based on depth of scholarship. So, clergy have advanced degrees. They are expected to know Greek and Hebrew (or at least to have studied it), biblical content, theological and worship traditions and the reasons they exist. It is a worthy approach to leadership and to the life of faith. It keeps us from a faith that is constantly in search of an emotional high. It keeps us from faith that is self-centered.
But, maybe it is, too often, missing awe! “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” Peter said. “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Instead of awe, Peter looked for a way of managing, of controlling, of containing the encounter with Moses and Elijah. He was rational. He, to use Carter Florence’s words, kept his cool. Do we not try to do the same? We explain God to ourselves and others. We expect that God will continue to act in ways that we can understand and predict. God is “safe” because we know what to expect. We have built the dwellings and expect God to occupy them happily.
I was thinking about “awe” in relationship to the earthquake beneath the Christian Church these days. Maybe we have inhabited our carefully constructed dwelling places for too long. We have been comfortable with a world and a faith that meets our expectations – whatever those are! Our response to the crumbling of what we have known is fear – anxiety. We don’t know what the future holds. We see old ways, familiar ways failing, at best, totally disappearing, at worst.
Perhaps our response should be fear – but not anxious fear. Our response should be the “drive us to our knees” response of awe! God is at work. God is bringing something new to this world – a new way for the Body of Christ to be present. If we are merely anxious because we are more comfortable in our old “dwellings,” we are in danger of missing the “awe” inspiring work of God in our midst.
I looked at the titles of some of the books on my shelves – books having to do with church life these days. Culture Shift, Moving Off the Map; From Nomads to Pilgrims; Changing the Conversation; Transforming Congregational Culture; Transforming Congregations for the Future; Unbinding Your Church; those are a few of the titles. They acknowledge the earthquake beneath us. And, perhaps, in some ways they acknowledge our fears.
But, no dwelling place – tradition, theological construct, worship style, denominational division – no dwelling place can contain God. We need to let the fear of God – of God’s otherness, of God’s transcendence, of God’s holiness, draw us in and remind us of our limitedness, of our earthli-ness, of our humanity. We are not God – thanks be to God! Furthermore, God has not left us on our own, to live within the careful dwellings that divide us from one another and limit our vision. This is the God of majesty – the God who is immortal, invisible –and yet, who sees us, knows us, and loves us. This is the God who is present in this beloved creation, calling it always toward the new creation that more fully resembles God’s good intent.
The fear of God confronts, challenges and conquers our worldly fears. It challenges our worldly fears. It reminds us that the world doesn’t have the last word. “Get up and do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Peter, James, and John. Pavlovitz concluded, “I wonder how those who profess faith in Jesus, yet preach a gospel of terror would respond to such a [statement]? (Get up and do not be afraid!) I wonder how their hearts might be renovated if their religion became a source of security rather than fuel for generating fear. I wonder how differently they might respond to the real pain and despair around them. I keep waiting for the people of God to act as if they believe that God is God. Fear is a powerful drug. It’s a fantastic political tactic. It’s a wonderful manipulator. It’s en effective motivator. But it’s a really lousy religion. May more Christians in America come to believe that the sky is not falling, because they know the One who holds up the sky.”
“I keep waiting for the people of God to act as if they believe that God is God.” That is the fear of God! We tremble, not because we are anxious, but because the magnitude of God’s glorious love overwhelms us.