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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No Turning Back


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 14:5-22, 1 John 1:1-7, John 14:1-7

Pharaoh quickly regretted his decision to free Israel and sent his army to bring them back. When Israel saw the approaching army, the people were frightened and declared it was better to live in servitude than to die in the wilderness. Moses assured them the Lord would save them if they stood firm.The Lord parted the Red Sea so Israel could pass through it, then He closed it over the Egyptian army of soldiers and chariots.

We often choose servitude when we should be trusting the Lord to lead us  through the wilderness. Maybe it’s the servitude of acceptance; we hide our true selves – the people God created us to be – when we fear the wilderness of judgment. Then there’s the servitude of success. Our culture tells us bigger (homes, cars, etc) equals better quality of life. How many of us would seriously consider scaling back our standard of living to find peace – or follow Christ? Servitude to safety is also common. Maybe we would die for our right to be Christians, but would we put ourselves in danger to actually follow the teachings of Christ?

Most of us are comfortable briefly venturing into the wilderness of hunger, poverty, and sickness like tourists being led on a soup-kitchen safari, but – citing common sense and a need for security – we let others do the dangerous work of exploring that terrain and creating safe outposts for us to visit. We can strike a balance; because Jesus knew he was dispatching the apostles into unfriendly territory, he sent them in pairs … but he still sent them.

Facing an uncertain future, Israel quickly began to look back on centuries of slavery as “the good old days.” When we pine for the “simplicity” of the past, we tend to gloss over the bad parts like slavery, genocide, racism, sexism, disease, violence, and lack of indoor plumbing. Perhaps that’s because we are in the servitude of denial that all these things are still problems today.

Faith calls us to the wilderness. Fear tells us to turn back. Only one of those directions leads to the promised land.

Comfort: The future may seem uncertain to you, but it is all in God’s hands.

Challenge: God not promise us lives of ease or comfort.

Prayer: God of justice, help me embrace your freedom even when it frightens me. Thank you for leading me through the wilderness. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you feel drawn, but afraid, to serve?

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