The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 15, 2021
David wrote Psalm 34 in celebration of God’s having saved his life. David connected that act of grace with his living in “the fear of the Lord”. Thus, David wanted to urge everyone to live in the fear of the Lord!
Though Jesus and many scriptures tell us to fear God, it seems a topic we like to avoid. Out of the 853 hymns in our wonderful hymnbook, Glory to God, only one incorporates this common biblical theme.
The Bible does distinguish between a right fear of God and a wrong one. Moses – when he first brought the Ten Commandments to the people – told them both to be afraid of God and not to be afraid of God. In Exodus 20:20 he said, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to…put the fear of Him upon you.”
Musical great Sir Elton John once spoke to NPR’s Terri Gross of his negative feelings about fearing God. When John was rehabbing from drug addiction, he’d almost left the program because of all the “God talk” – for, he said, “‘God’ to me represented punishment. God will punish you for this…and punish you for that. I hated the word ‘God’…I resented it. Then someone asked me, ‘Wait, don’t you believe in something greater than yourself?’ And I said, ‘Of course, I do.’”
John believes in a Higher Power because of his experiences of creative inspiration, of joy relishing a field fragrant with multi-colored flowers, and of receiving wisdom from “beyond” himself. He said he honors whatever or whomever lies behind such gifts. We wish he knew who is, and then feared Him in the right way.
So what does the right fear of God involve? Surely, it involves respecting and revering God, but isn’t there something more to it than that: an awe fraught with fright over a Supreme Being who both delights and disconcerts, who both stirs us and shakes us?
Let me propose three forms of appreciation that develop the right fear of God.
First, the appreciation of God’s transcendent greatness makes us aware of our own smallness, and that gives us an appropriate fear.
I remember reading of a diver who had a close encounter with a 15-ton, 80-foot-long whale. He felt overwhelmed by its size and power, especially after an idle flick of its tail sent him spinning fathoms down. He didn’t think the magnificent beast meant him any harm; but he shook at the thought that, if ever it did, he’d be utterly helpless. It was gloriously fearsome, and he knew he enjoyed its company only at its mercy.
In the same way our appreciation of God’s greatness gives us an exhilarating and terrifying awareness that we enjoy His company only at His mercy. Experiencing His presence is nothing we can presume or make happen. It is a sheer gift of grace, something we can expect only as a gratuitous kindness we have no right to.
Second, the appreciation of God’s righteousness also develops an appropriate fear by giving us a sense of our vulnerability in the court of justice. When we face the reality of God’s unimpeachable integrity, implacable hatred of evil and resolve to judge with perfect fairness, we see that we can’t get away with anything and that we will get our due – unless, out of His great grace, He protects us from the worst consequences of our worst choices. His righteousness makes us aware that, by virtue of our moral record, we have reason to despair and hence no choice but to put all the eggs of our hope in the one basket of His unwarranted and thus unlimited goodness to the unworthy. The bearing in mind of God’s fiery passion for what’s right leads us to what I imagine we’d feel if we were caught in a wildfire and then found a deep, cool cave in which to shelter, safe and secure, from the howling, raging burn around us. As we feel its searing heat penetrate into the cave and tremble at the thought of being exposed to the full, fierce force of its fury, we’d both admire its thrilling, albeit appalling, power and beauty and rest serenely in the protection and peace the cave provides.
Appreciation of God’s righteousness brings home to our heart how frightening is the conflagration of His holiness and how comforting is that cave of grace which Jesus carved out at His tomb.
The third form of appreciation that develops an appropriate fear is an awareness of our own weakness.
When we cherish someone, we want to do justice to what they mean to us and live true to how highly we value the gift of them. But, as we seek to fulfill that holy desire, we grow scared by how easily we can become distracted, insensitive, self-absorbed and faithless to our intent to do right by them.
As we appreciate the lavishness of God’s love, all out of proportion to our deserving, we want to do right by Him. But, as we seek to fulfill that holy desire, we grow scared by how easily we can ignore Him, take Him for granted, or just never get around to showing gratitude in the God-fearing actions this Psalm urges upon us.
But if we trust in God’s grace, our appreciation of His greatness, God’s righteousness and our weakness develops in us an appropriate fear that puts us at peace as we believe what Psalm 147 says: “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him…and hope in his steadfast love.” May we bring God pleasure and abide in His peace!