Fear of the Fear of the Lord


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 14:21-31, 1 Peter 1:1-12, John (14:1-7) 8-17

After God parted the Red Sea so Israel could flee Pharaoh’s advancing army, God closed it again over the soldiers and the chariots and drowned them all. Afterward “the people [of Israel] feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” Psalms and Proverbs tell us “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but modern Christians, particularly more progressive ones, aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a God we should fear. After all, doesn’t Jesus tell us repeatedly: “Be not afraid?”

After four centuries in slavery, the Israelites were not at all convinced the Lord was either powerful or on their side. As the story of Exodus unfolds, their lack of faith surfaces again and again, but the demonstration of power at the Red Sea must have been unimaginably (if temporarily) sobering. This God they didn’t think much of – and practically mocked – could wipe out armies at will. Serving such a God had to be at least a little intimidating.

The most commonly used Hebrew word for this type of fear is yirah, which can mean anything from an anticipation of pain or danger to a sense of reverence, awe, or wonder. We like to emphasize that second part more than the first, but straight-on fear is a healthy part of our emotional makeup.

Even loving parents know fear is sometimes a necessary element of teaching children; a one-year old can’t be reasoned out of touching a hot stove. Throughout childhood they force us to do things for our own good. As we mature, that fear evolves into more of a healthy respect. Don’t many of us, on some level, well into adulthood, retain a fear of disappointing our parents not because we think they will punish us or withdraw their love, but because that relationship means so much to us? In a similar manner, hopefully our childish notion of a God waiting to smite sinners eventually gives way to understanding the God described to us by Christ. Fear of God may be the beginning of wisdom, but it is never the end.

Comfort: Our understanding of God and relationship with God are always evolving. It is OK to feel many ways about God, from fearful to playful, as long as we maintain respect.

Challenge:  Meditate on how fear might be masking other feelings.

Prayer: Grant me the courage, O Lord, to follow you wherever you would lead me. It is in your service that I find freedom. Amen.

Discussion: What is something you fear? What other emotions are entangled in that fear? Respect? Shame? Confusion?

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Healthy Fear


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 22; 148, Genesis 43:1-15, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Mark 4:35-41

What words describe your feelings about Jesus? Awe? Love? Gratitude? Comfort? How about… fear? The Bible uses the phrase “fear of God” or “fear of the Lord” to describe the proper reverence we owe God, but Jesus is generally portrayed as more immediate, more understanding, more human. His disciples found him sufficiently charismatic to leave behind jobs, homes, and families and follow him far and wide. He persuaded people through love, not fear. But is there a fearful side to Jesus?

One day Jesus and the disciples were on a boat after a long day of preaching to large crowds when a storm rose. Jesus might have slept right through it, but the disciples were afraid and woke him. He “rebuked the wind, and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still! ‘ Then the wind died down, and it was completely calm.” Afterward the terrified disciples asked each other who this person was, that he commanded nature herself. We might assume such a display would be inspiring, but when someone you think you know turns out to be entirely more powerful than you can understand, it is unsettling. Jesus changed from magnetic preacher to unknown quantity in a heartbeat.

Some disciples must have doubted the safety of continuing to follow this powerful figure. When we study Jesus, do we settle for “Jesus 101” – the introductory course with a benign, almost chummy Jesus? Or do we go for the advanced study: a Jesus who can be intimidating and demanding, but who offers a much richer life? Maybe we can synthesize the two: a Jesus who upends our expectations and draw us into new – sometimes frightening – lives, but loves and supports us through the demands of the new life he offers. When the Jesus who calmed the storm washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, he taught us true power bends itself toward service. How can we not be humbled? Remembering Jesus is more than a companion who walks and talks with us “in the garden” helps us realize the deep reality of who Christ is – and who we can become in him.

Comfort: Jesus is with us to ride out life’s storms.

Challenge: When you are in trouble and it seems Jesus may be “in the stern, asleep on the cushion,” trust he is still faithful to you.

Prayer: God of power and majesty, I am your humble servant. Give me the courage to serve as Jesus served. Amen.

Discussion: When has following Jesus been scary?

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Open Wide and Say “Awe!”

psalm 104

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 104; 149, Numbers 13:31-14:25, Romans 3:9-20, Matthew 19:1-12

A sense of awe is a natural reaction to the miracle of creation. Non-theists, especially those involved in the sciences, frequently cite a sense of wonder as central to their spirituality. People of faith, like the author of Psalm 104, attribute the beauty and complexity of the universe to the divine purpose behind it all. People who find time spent in nature helps them feel closer to God are attuned to this sense of wonder. If we spend a lot of time studying scripture and trying to wrap our brains around God, we may find it more difficult – or frivolous – to appreciate unexamined awe. Yet this is a legitimate way of apprehending God. As we seek to deepen our relationship with God, let’s take an occasional break from “head” space to dwell in “heart” space where that sense of awe can reach us best.

Busy people may need to intentionally slow down to notice everyday wonders. Do we ever think of the sky as being stretched out as the tent of God’s dwelling place, or of the winds as God’s messengers? These poetic images do not need to be literal to reveal truth to us. The psalmist finds wonder in springs gushing forth to satisfy every wild animal, in food springing from the earth, in trees and mountains, darkness and light, predator and prey. If we ever have trouble feeling our connection to a sense of wonder, Psalm 104 is an amazing resource for reestablishing it.

Let’s commit to being aware of the sources of awe in our own lives. The diverse beauty of a garden or a wild meadow. The complexity of our own bodies, even when they can no longer serve us well. The grace of hundreds of birds swooping in unison. The power of a storm extending farther than we can comprehend. Awe can inspire and terrify us at the same time. What it cannot be is analyzed, for then it ceases to be awe. Let us simply dwell in the presence of the Lord and for a while let awe crowd out everything else. It blesses a soul.

Comfort: Faith isn’t just about what you can figure out. Maybe it never is.

Challenge: At least once a week, find some time to simply be – t0 be in the presence of God without expectation and open to possibility.

Prayer: God of all creation, thank you for the beauty that surrounds me. Even on the days I can’t see it, maybe especially on those days, humble me with your wonder. Amen.

Discussion: Where or how do you find it easiest to experience God?

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