17th Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon on the Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Last week I was at a small clergy retreat where the topic of our discussion was fear. Fear is no small thing. In a lot of ways, our fears shape the way we live our daily lives.
This is especially true today, in this uncertain time of pandemic. What are we afraid of these days? Death? Taxes? Inflation? Truth? Lies? Coronavirus? Any other virus? Unmasked or masked people? Vaccinated or unvaccinated people? Spiders? Darkness?
Our fears shape our daily lives.
At the retreat we also talked about the fear of God. This phrase is often mentioned in the Bible, in our prayers and services, but what exactly does it mean?
We quickly came to realize that this phrase may not mean what we think it might mean. In other words, the fear of God does not necessarily mean being scared of God.
Being afraid of God is definitely implied in the phrase. But is this fear similar to the fear a bug might have of a shoe that is about to step on it? Is this the kind of fear a robber experiences when he is caught by the police? Is this a fear a child has before an abusive parent?
We did not come to a conclusion what exactly the fear of God means. However, all over the Bible, we find very clear commandments and advice calling us to “fear God” (Deuteronomy 10:12, Ecclesiastes 12:13, Isaiah 8:13, Matthew 10:28, 1 Peter 2:17).
So, what is the fear of God? Why are we called to fear God? And how do we properly fear Him? There is definitely the right way and the wrong way to fear God.
The phrase the fear of God or the fear of the Lord appears over a hundred times in the Bible. Here are just a few of them, “The fear of the Lord is wisdom” (Job 28:28), “is pure” (Psalm 19:9), “is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10), “is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), “is hatred of evil” (Proverbs 8:13), “is life” (Proverbs 19:23).
None of these things are scary, right? Unless one is afraid of wisdom, knowledge, and life.
So as I was thinking about the meaning of the fear of God, I saw that today’s Epistle reading concludes with these words from Saint Paul to the Corinthians, “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.”
Making holiness perfect in the fear of God.
It had to be some kind of a sign that I had to explore this subject a bit more. So I will present to you some of my thoughts, imperfect as they are, based on a little research I’ve done, on what the fear of God might mean.
First, the fear of God is not an emotion. It has very little to do with our feelings. The fear of God involves specific actions on our part, not emotions.
As I said, the fear of God does not mean being scared of God. It may be a part of it, but a very small part. Through this concept, however, we do come to learn how we relate to God and how God teaches us to behave towards Him.
The word “fear” has the obvious meanings of terror and dread, but also of reverence and awe, and it has been used to indicate greatness, hierarchy, and specific patterns of behavior.
When the Bible says God is fearful, it means He is awesome and great. When it says God is to be feared, it shows His supremacy over other gods, “He is to be feared above all gods” (Psalm 96:4-5). And it also shows that reverence (same word as fear) is to be showed only to God, Who is above all other gods (Psalm 89:6-7). And it’s not because other gods are not real, but because other gods are inferior to the One True God Who created everyone and everything.
Fear is how we behave towards God. And we do that in worship and in instruction.
In worship because the fear of God provokes specific actions, namely walking in His ways, loving Him, serving Him with all our heart and soul, and keeping His commandments (Deuteronomy 10:12).
One of the meanings of fear is reverence. We show reverence only to one God, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to no other god. Much less any other person. We worship only Him. We bow down and kneel only before God, and no one and nothing else.
The fear of the Lord is wisdom and knowledge…wisdom and knowledge to know when and before Whom we bow down.
And the fear of God is taught. We have to learn it, because it is possible to fear Him the wrong way. Such as thinking that God is an angry being, Who looks to punish us and make us suffer to save us.
That’s not Who God is and that’s not what the fear of God is about.
We learn the fear of God from our pious and God-fearing parents; and we learn it in the church community that knows the fear of the Lord. In other words, we need to surround ourselves with God-fearing people to know what the right fear of God is.
Again, fear of the Lord is wisdom, knowledge, life. We learn and grow in these things; we are not born with wisdom, knowledge, and life.
At the end of his life, Moses instructed the people of Israel to teach their descendants the fear of God, “Assemble the people, so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this Law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 31:12-13).
How does each generation know the fear of God? They learn it from the older generations. They see it in the lives of their communities.
So a very important question we need to ask ourselves – do we provide the necessary example and environment for the younger generations to learn the fear of God?
If not, what’s stopping us? Persecutions? Tyrannical dictators? Natural disasters?
We should not be surprised that our society is going down to hell in a hand basket. We’ve lost the fear of God, and we have become incapable of passing it down to our children…
So, fear is not an emotional response to God, because emotions are spontaneous and unpredictable. The fear of God involves specific actions of worship and instruction.
Our fears shape our lives. Does the fear of God shape our daily life? Does it lead us to walk in His ways, to love Him, to serve Him with all our heart and soul, to keep His commandments?
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge, and life.
In Christ our God we find the fullness of wisdom, knowledge, and life. Therefore, Him alone we fear, and to Him alone we give all worship, honor, and glory, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.