January 22, 2017

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Exodus 20:18-20
Psalm 111
Matthew 10:26-33

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“The Fear of the Lord”

One of the significant themes in the Book of Proverbs is the “Fear of the Lord,” so I thought it would be a good topic for a sermon during our series on “Pondering Proverbs.” As you pondered some proverbs over the last week, perhaps you came across some of the ones that argue that a healthy fear of God is the proper attitude for human beings.

Of course, there is the famous one from Proverbs 9:10 that is matched by the final line in this morning’s Psalm 111: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In a book absolutely brimming with wise words and insightful advice, it suggests that the first place to start in growing in wisdom in our lives is with a proper attitude towards God and God’s commands.

From other verses in the book we learn that fearing God means hating evil, pride, and arrogance (Pr. 8:13). Indeed, fearing God will help us to avoid evil (Pr. 16:6). We are told that the fear of the Lord prolongs life (Pr. 10:27), that it is a fountain of life (Pr. 14:27) that it gives us strong confidence (Pr. 14:26), and allows us to rest secure and suffer no harm (Pr. 19:23). And in another verse, we learn that the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life (Pr. 22:4).

Although the authors of the proverbs are in favour of “God-fearing,” the suggestion that our faith responses might be motivated by fear doesn’t sound too good to our contemporary ears. We’ve left behind the days when the preacher might have pounded on the pulpit and harshly warned us to turn away from sinful lifestyles or else risk the hell fires of damnation.

And when our non-Christian neighbours or friends assume that going to church means subjecting ourselves to constant scoldings and warnings of God’s judgment and power to punish us, we are quick to assure them that our faith is rooted in God’s love and grace, in the promise of hope and healing, and in receiving God’s gracious blessing and resolving to make our lives a blessing to others as well.

We may be afraid of criminals and terrorists. We may be afraid of illness and infirmity. We may be afraid of failure and loss. But we’re not afraid of God, our loving parent, faithful friend, and gracious Spirit.

A number of years ago, I noticed something when we were conducting interviews for summer staff and counsellors for our Synod camp, Camp Christopher. We were asking church-going teenagers about their experience working with children, their qualifications as leaders, and their understanding of and relationship with God.

In a list of questions that we asked of each and every young adult, we included one that invited them to describe God in three words. They said things like “loving,” “forgiving,” “faithful,” and “creative.” Wonderful! These young people had been listening in church and church school over the years, and most of them could easily share a favourite biblical story and what it taught them about God as well.

But what I noticed during that series of interviews was how many of them added, “doesn’t judge” to their list of characteristics for God. “Doesn’t judge.” Hmmm…

I think I know how they got that idea. They probably remembered something Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” (Mt. 7:1). In that passage, he challenges us not to focus on the speck in our neighbour’s eye, when in fact we have a log in our own eye (Mt. 7:3).

So, it is clear that “not judging others” is a good characteristic. “Not judging others” is how Jesus teaches us to live. But that’s for us humans! We’re not equipped to judge one another because we’re not God!

God, on the other hand, is the ultimate judge of all of us. As we profess in the Apostles’ Creed, God is the judge of the living and the dead. Or think of that wonderful passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus describes the end of time when all the people of the world will stand before him and he’ll divide the people into two groups like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Those who have cared for the least and the lost will join him in the kingdom of heaven, while those who have ignored the needs of the hungry, poor, sick, and foreigner will be sent away into eternal fire and punishment.

We cannot read either the Old or New Testament of the Bible and miss the clear message that God has high standards for our behaviour, and that God will judge us when we ignore what God wants.

Think of the commandments, and God’s harsh responses when the People of Israel worshipped idols and did other wrong things. Think of the prophets calling God’s people back to justice, fairness, kindness, and peace. Think of Jesus, not only quietly teaching on the hillsides, healing and helping people, and telling stories about God’s forgiveness and love… but remember him marching into the temple to topple the tables of the money-changers, sending coins and animals flying, and judging that what was happening there was a corruption of that holy place intended for prayer.

If we believe that God is powerful, and we believe that God is just, then we should fear God… because we know that we have so often failed in our attempts to be the good people God intended us to be. In another place in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount he says, “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Mt. 5:48) and we have certainly not managed that.

There is an old expression that we sometimes still hear used today. We give someone high praise if we describe him as a “God-fearing man.” And what do we mean by that? Well, a God-fearing person doesn’t think of herself more highly than she ought. She remembers that she is human, and that only God is God. A God-fearing person believes that God’s commandments carry greater authority than any rules or demands set up by people.

I caught part of the television show “Blue Bloods” the other day. And on it, the police commissioner showed what it looks like to be “God-fearing.” There was a case where a foreign diplomat living in the U.S. was beating his son. And the rule was that this man had diplomatic immunity, so he couldn’t be arrested and charged with assault, with child abuse, or with anything else.

But rather than just accepting the law, bowing down to the political authorities telling him that there was absolutely nothing that he could do about it… the police commissioner got social services to apprehend the child and get him to a safe place. Even if he couldn’t arrest the father, even if he would get a lot of flack for upsetting a diplomat and potentially causing strife between the countries, he did what he knew was right. Maybe he was bending, or even breaking the law of the land, but he had to do what was right in the eyes of God and protect that child.

If you’ve been pondering the Book of Proverbs, you may have noticed that the proverbs often teach us by showing us what is good and wise, but also by showing us the opposite – what is foolish and stupid and evil.

And I can’t help but think that we have a perfect example of the opposite of “God-fearing” taking centre stage in our world today in the person of Donald Trump. I went to a presbytery meeting on Friday rather than watching his inauguration, so I can’t commiserate with you about the terrible things that he said in his speech. But let me just say that we have in Trump the ultimate example not to follow.

Not only is he selfish, rude, and offensive in so many ways. But he lives as if there are no consequences for his bad behaviour. He sees himself as above the law when it comes to paying taxes, illegal business practices, and even assaulting women.

I mentioned once before that Trump had claimed to be a Presbyterian, and I was horrified to hear that. But what he has shown again and again is that he has such a high estimation of his own power and importance that he neither fears other people and the community at large that might call him to account. Nor does he fear God, to whom he will ultimately be accountable for the way that he has lived in this world.

Trump should be afraid. He should be very afraid. And we should be praying for him, for the conversion of his heart, not only for the good of the people of his country and of the world, but for the salvation of his soul.

In the Book of Exodus, just after God gives the ten commandments to Moses and the Hebrew People wandering in the wilderness, we read that the people “were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance.” Having witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were terribly frightened to hear from God directly.

And Moses understood. I expect he felt the same fear that they did, as he stood vulnerably in the presence of the great “I am” to receive God’s commandments. But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid.” Those same words of assurance that we hear throughout the Scriptures, spoken by God, by angels, and by Jesus on several occasions. Moses says, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”

So, we’re not talking about a God who randomly smites people. We’re not talking about a God who is cruel, or unpredictable, or unjust. In fact, as the Hebrew People discover, their God is kind, generous, merciful, and faithful to them even when they fail to be faithful to God. But God’s greatest desire is for his children to be a perfect reflection of God’s own image – kind, generous, merciful, and faithful.

So, God gives us high standards. And God promises to judge us. And God holds us accountable. Like my very strict grade eight French teacher that I talked about with the children this morning, God loves us, and God wants us to do well, so God is firm, and strict, and even somewhat fear-inducing.

As we continue to ponder the proverbs and read and reflect on God’s Word, may we develop a healthy “fear of the Lord” even as we are assured of the ultimate love and grace of God for us, his children. As Jesus promises us in Matthew’s Gospel: “Not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”