Sunday Before Theophany
We are reminded of the brief message John the Baptist delivers as he preaches in the wilderness, Reform your lives. The kingdom of God is at hand Matthew 3: 2. He is speaking of changing, understanding in an new, different and better way.
How can we walk and live in fear of God in the midst of a no-fear culture that pervades and has infiltrated not only our general society but also so many of our churches? We begin with the one who has been given the responsibility of leading the only group in the world that lives with a cultural mandate from its One and only Creator and who is controlling it all. We must begin with the New Testament Church. When we in the Church have a healthy concept of the fear of the Lord, it then becomes and remains the salt and light of its community. Then we read from God's revelation to us that our spirituality, our religious life will be multiplied Acts of the Apostles 9: 31, like the Jerusalem church. We make certain our parishioners are faithful believers and then we begin to engage our culture and surrounding people with whom we come into contact. We raise the high standard of righteousness which is the only encouragement we can offer that truly exalts a people and the nation.
In order to maintain a wholesome and healthy fear of the Lord, we must recapture the concept of the seriousness of sin. Tolerance is not only the buzzword for our secular society but for many church goers as well. Many people simply ignore the seriousness of sin. Some simply laugh it off as though it were of their small vices. Others excuse it by insisting that everyone else is doing it, and that it is just a part of living in the twentyfirst century world. Still others minimize it by convincing themselves that their sin is not as bad as some things others are doing.
But the very plain message of our God is that He would destroy man because of his unrepented sin. Yes, He waits with great mercy and patience for the sinner to repent, but in the absence of repentance, our heavenly Father will ultimately destroy the sin and the sinner with it. He is serious about sin, so serious that He sent his Son into the world, as only recently we celebrated. It led his Son to a Roman cross. Satan, unquestionably is at work in our world to destroy everyone_ When we live with no fear of God, we play right into the hands of Satan.
So where do we begin to recover this vital concept of walking in fear of the Lord? We begin with God's revelation to us, made plain by the teaching authority of his Body, our blessed Church. Before the Israelites entered the land of promise, our heavenly Father instructed Moses to gather the people and read to them the law ...that they may hear and that they may learn fear of the Lord .. and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess Deuteronomy 31: 12, 13. Our spiritual ancestors made their conquest of the land by learning to walk in fear of the Lord and they learned it by hearing the Word of the Lord explained to them.
The main reason walking in fear of the Lord is a lost concept in the contemporary Church is that exposition of the word, the wishes, the eagerness of our Creator for us, is not a high priority. Many modern day gurus say the people cannot grasp what God is saying, so that only a minimal word of encouragement should be offered, that is not even prepared, but offered spontaneously to accommodate the limited attention spans of those who find and make time to come to church. This, of course, raises another generation who knows little of the challenges and mandates our God created us to assume seriously. Fear of the Lord is embedded in us only by planting the word of God, encouraging it to grow in atmosphere of worship and glorification. Only God's grace can cause it to take root and if we absent ourselves from the opportunities for God's grace and blessing to take place and flourish, we slowly begin to wilt on the vine and secularism takes place to fill the empty void we create.
How do we learn to fear the Lord? We hide and submerse the word of God in our hearts and souls even as we do attend worship habitually and ignore it by submersing it, drowning it. Moses recounts for us how our heavenly Father instructed him to ...gather the people to me and I will let them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me Deuteronomy 4: 10. It is only by hearing the words of God, by listening to them in the praise of worship, by participating in glorifying his name that slowly, but inevitably we are overwhelmed by the majesty and splendor of our Creator and respectful fear becomes part and parcel of our faith response to his first shown concerned love. Obviously not enough sharing God's message takes place. Not enough doctrinal explanation, not enough of the liturgical practices of the Bride of Christ are made known. Not enough of how we are to appropriately respond to the embrace of God the Father, his divine Son and the Holy Spirit in daily living.
Walking in fear of the Lord is a choice. Solomon tells of people who ...did not choose fear of the Lord Proverbs 1: 29. It is a choice. We must make a decision to fear our God, to have such utmost love, respect and devotion that we never want to lose it. Fear of the Lord exalts the believer and emphasizes the direct and proper relationship between creature and Creator. Otherwise when the Word of God brings us to a crisis decision in living, a choice between right and wrong, good and evil, we will not be equipped to bear it, to uprightly hold our baptized dignity and remain faithful.
Children must be taught to respect the authority of their parents. What they must really fear is that, after both parents sacrifice so much for the child, all they do in a thousand ways to show and express particular love for the child, that the child might disappoint or dishonor the parents.
This is the kind of fear and reverence characterized the early Church. It was more a fear of disappointing the God who created, who sustains and encourages us and provides all the details of life for us, ends up disappointed because we recognize and return so very little. Their passion and purpose was not so much to be made what we call happy in his sight, but to become holy. For them walking in fear of the Lord was a conscious choice that abounded in comforting and abiding love, knowledge of what He expected of them and a deep appreciation for God's sacrifice of his own Son on the Cross for us.
Fear of the Lord is not an unhealthy fear of retribution. As parents, we already see we do not get very far raising our children in that way. An atmosphere where one dodges in fear of a slap every time milk is spilled is far from what kind of relationship our God desires with us. We fear what brings about dishonor on the name we carry as baptized in his name or disappointing the God whose love sustains us so much that He created us and wants us to share his love in this limited world.
The two extremes that have often been utilized by inadequate messengers need to be avoided. One extreme develops in the heart and soul an attitude of easy-going tolerance and outright permissiveness so that "anything goes." This extreme makes a mockery of God's holiness and judgment. The other extreme overemphasizes the fire and brimstone revealed to us in God's Word and knows little of the tender mercies and loving kindness that characterize our Maker. This can develop into a psychosis of fear that has no room for compassion and grace from heaven.
The uplifting good news is that our God loves us so much He understands our limitations, our brokenness, our fragility and has provided a way for us to obtain forgiveness. We do not have to pay the penalty for the offensive sins we have committed. The sacrificial, atoning death of the Lord has covered our sins. God has already done all He can do. Thus, we do not live in fear of God in the sense of being condemned. He provides forgiveness in the sacramental Mystery of Reconciliation, if we but cooperate with his grace and excite a penitential spirit within ourselves.
Yes, we do walk in daily fear of the Lord, thinking enough of ourselves in relationship to him that we have a sense of acknowledging his worth and refusing likewise to say or do or think anything that might disappoint or dishonor him, that we act inappropriately for our created dignity in his image and likeness.
The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes sums it up beautifully in the conclusion of his book. Solomon expresses our entire upright being in relation to our Creator: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter; Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man Ecclesiastes 12: 13.