To Fear Or Not To Fear?

Did anyone else catch the sunset today?

Gorgeous.

Here’s my sermon from this morning!

Psalm 34:9-14

To Fear Or Not To Fear?

One afternoon a little boy was playing outside in his backyard. He was using his mother’s broom as a horse and had a wonderful time playing until nightfall. The little boy was afraid of the dark, so when it got dark he dropped the broom on the back porch and ran inside.

Later on that evening the little boy’s mother was cleaning up the kitchen and realized that her broom was missing. She asked him if he knew where it was and he told her that it was on the back porch.

She asked him if he could please go get it. He told her that he couldn’t; he was afraid of the dark and did not want to go outside again until the morning.

The little boy’s mother smiled and said, “Do not be afraid, the Lord is out there too.”

The little boy was a little bit skeptical and still afraid. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes,” his mother said. “The Lord is out there. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“Okay,” he said a little bit warily.

So the little boy walked across the kitchen, cracked opened the back door the tiniest bit and said, “Lord if you’re out there, can you please hand me the broom?”

***

I do not like this scripture.

“O fear the LORD, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.”

“Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.”

Fear the Lord? What a positively awful way to start off a psalm! What happened to, “trust in the Lord,” “feel protected by the Lord,” or “know that the Lord is always with you”? Are we not assured of God’s love and grace week after week? “One fact remains that does not change: God has loved you, loves you now and will love you always.” I know we do not get to pick and choose the parts of the bible that we “buy into” but I really do not like passages that seem to lend themselves to me turning into some sort of fire and brimstone preacher. I do not want anyone to ever fear God – I want people to feel protected by God!

The Book of Psalms is such a finicky part of the Old Testament. Psalm 23 opens with one of the most well-known passages of scripture, “The LORD is my Shepherd,” and now here we are a mere pages later being told to “fear the LORD.”

So – to fear or not to fear? That is the question that I asked myself as I was thinking about this sermon.

Have you ever looked up the definition of the word, “fear”? I have always thought it was one of those “no explanation necessary” kind of words, but as I was staring at a blinking cursor this week trying to turn jumbled thoughts of fearing God into a cohesive sermon, I thought it might not be a bad idea.

As it turns out, there are roughly five ways to define the word fear.

Number 1: Fear – A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid. Synonyms: foreboding, apprehension, consternation, dismay, dread, terror, fright, panic, horror, trepidation, qualm.

Hmm – a distressing emotion. Have I ever told you about the time we lived in Atlanta, Bruce was working late and I decided to watch the movie Silence of the Lambs, thinking it was some quirky silent movie? To say I experienced “fear” that evening is a gross understatement.

Number 2: Fear – A specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling: an abnormal fear of heights. Synonyms: phobia, aversion; bête noire.

Okay – phobias. I can understand that analogy. I have, after all, been known to shriek, jump up and down and run into the house when I encounter a snake in the garden.

Number 3: Fear – Concern or anxiety; solicitude: a fear for someone’s safety.

Every week we pray for safety and protection for those in our communities and around the world who are in harm’s way. I think to love someone means to understand that kind of fear.

Number 4: Fear – Something that causes feelings of dread or apprehension; something a person is afraid of.

I experienced fear the day I defended my ordination papers. Many people experience fear before they have to speak in public, get on an airplane or move to a new place.

So far none of these fears are ones that I would want to attribute to the image I have of a God of love. But there is one more definition.

And Number 5: Fear – Reverential awe, especially toward God: the fear of God. Synonyms: awe, respect, reverence, veneration.

Oh well, now that is interesting. Maybe we are supposed to fear God – just not in a way that we typically think about the definition of the word “fear”.

The Feasting On The Word commentary series that I often use in sermon writing has four different perspective of looking at the lectionary texts each week: A theological perspective, a pastoral perspective, an exegetical perspective and a homiletical perspective. The homiletical perspective always reads as somewhat of a stream of consciousness; it looks at different ways the preacher could approach the text in a sermon.

The homiletical perspective for this morning’s psalm talked about what it means to fear God. “At any given moment in a congregation’s life,” it said, “The preacher is speaking to people who are afraid.” That is true, right? Whether you are experiencing a fear that is large or small, significant or insignificant, I am sure that you have sat in church one Sunday morning with that all-too-familiar pit in your stomach.

“For those of us in fear,” the article says, “the words of Scripture that are more familiar to us might be, “Do not be afraid.” The article references God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis, which reads, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” (Genesis 15:1) We also see the notion of “Do not be afraid” in the Gospels: The angel appears to Mary in Luke and says to here, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” (Luke 1:30) Even in Revelation we are assured of God’s grace. “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last.’” (Revelation 1:17) God was not trying to avoid sounding like a broken record when he used the phrase, “Do not be afraid.”

The author of this article, Sam Candler, goes on to say the following:

Thus, the natural question arising from [this scripture] is: “Why are we also told to fear?” One strain of Christianity, not a very healthy one, grows by highlighting a negative fear of the Lord. Negative fear emphasizes judgment and terror. That fear sets a deep guilt into our souls, and it tends to feed on itself; thus the virus spreads.

Candler is right to caution preachers who are looking at this text. I do not want to guilt people into coming to church. I do not want to scare people into giving money to this church. I do not want to instill fear into people in order for them to be active in this church. A church community should be about love, not about fear. Faith should be about an individual journey, not about fear. Salvation should be about grace, not about fear.

But what about that last definition of fear? Fear – Reverential awe, especially toward God: the fear of God. Synonyms: awe, respect, reverence, veneration.

Candler goes on to talk about the fact that fearing God can also be a way of experiencing God, of seeking out a deeper relationship with God.

But there is a “fear of the Lord” related to the positive force of God; it is respect for the positive mystery of God. This is the fear that Psalm 34 discusses. Rudolf Otto declared famously that the definition of the religious experience was mysterium tremendum et fascinans (roughly translated as a “tremendous and fascinating mystery”). To experience God is to be in touch with a tremendous mystery that does not drive us away, but fascinates and attracts us. This attractive fascination is awe and wonder.

This positive fear of the Lord does not focus on scarcity. This positive fear knows no limit to the grace of God. Those who seek the Lord “lack no good thing” (v. 10). Psalm 34:10 suggests that this “fear” is related to seeking; part of respect for the Lord is to seek after the Lord.

What does it mean to seek God? Candler suggests that “seeking is actually the process that respects God.” Seeking God means that we have the courage to move further, to push harder and to look beyond our realm of understanding. Seeking God means that we are asking questions, seeing people in need, keeping an open mind and reaching out our able hands to help someone.

If we say that we fear God, are we merely saying that we are seeking out God? If we say that we fear God, are we merely expressing our reverence and awe of God? If we say that we fear God, are we just acknowledging the responsibilities that we have on this earth?

Let’s go back to my initial question – to fear or not to fear? Should we fear God?

Well, what if the Psalm sounded like this?

O have reverential awe of the LORD, you his holy ones,
For those who respect him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
But those who seek the LORD have good things.

Come, O Children, listen to me;
I will teach you how to venerate the LORD.
Which of you desires life,
And covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
And your lips from speaking deceits.
Depart from evil, and do good;
Seek peace, and pursue it.

Maybe we do have a thing or two to learn from fear. Maybe we can grow from fear. May we can be drawn closer to God with fear.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!

I invite you to open up your hearts, your minds and your lives to a new definition of fear, one that does not carry with it negative connotation of guilty and anxiety. But rather, one that does carry with it positive tones of respect, of seeking relationships and growing faith. Yes, we are called to fear God. But through that fear we will be touched, be strengthened, be loved and find grace.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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