August 7, 2016 Various scripture passages
Genesis 3: 8-10: They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
Deuteronomy 10: 12-13: So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well being.
Psalm 23: 4: Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff -- they comfort me.
Luke 1: 11-13a: Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.
Mark 4:35-41: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
It started in the garden back in Genesis with a fearful couple hiding from God in the bushes. And that was only the beginning.
When you were a child, what were you afraid of? (solicit responses) How many of you have some of those same fears today? (show of hands) How many of you have new ones?
More than 50% of children under the age of 18 experience what are referred to as normal phobias - fear of a specific object. Fear is a universal experience. Even the smallest insect feels it.
I have a phobia of snakes. As a child, whenever the babysitter came, I can remember my younger siblings chasing me around the house with the Encyclopedia Britannica opened to the colored pictures of pythons and boa constrictors. I would lock myself in the bathroom. Fear of snakes is considered a normal phobia. After all, some of them can hurt you. Fear of pictures of snakes is probably something else.
When I googled the word “fear” I got 227,000,000 entries. ”Fear of God” turned up 9,500,000. I wonder how God feels about that? Four definitions of fear were given.
# 1: a feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger. I was sleeping four floors up when the Northridge Earthquake hit. I woke up at 4 a.m. in pitch blackness, my condo moving about a foot, horizontally and vertically simultaneously. Imagine yourself trapped in a washing machine and you get the picture.
Part B of that definition read “a state or condition marked by this feeling. We lived for days - weeks - with the continual fear of aftershocks.
# 2: a feeling of disquiet or apprehension. I thought of the mother whose seven year old son’s body was found drowned at day camp. She waited for hours, hoping beyond hope that it was not her son who they found. On a more personal note, I thought of many of us in this country, on both sides of the aisle, living in apprehension of what will happen in November.
# 3: Extreme reverence or awe, as toward a supreme power. This was the definition that took me by surprise. It is the definition of “fear” most frequently used in the Bible to describe our relationship to God. We are told over and over again, “You shall fear your God.” They’re not referring to God as a boogyman you should be afraid of. Instead, God is a supreme being you should be in awe of. It is often used interchangeably with the word “awe.”
Think of someone you idolize or look up to - someone you would like to emulate. That is how the writers are using the word fear in relation to God. It’s not the connotation we’re familiar with today. That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t give us plenty of reason to be afraid of God. “Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled.” (Ps. 2:11)
# 4: a reason for dread or apprehension. There are Christians today who would say “The wrath of God is my greatest fear.”
There are approximately 550 verses in our Bible containing the word “fear” or “feared”. And almost the same number with the word “love”.
Fear of God (and I don’t mean ‘awe’) was instilled in me as a child growing up in the church. God is all loving and forgiving I was told, but watch your step, be careful what you do and say. Here are the rules (many of them man made of course), Obey them. If you don’t, God is sending you to purgatory, or if you’re really bad, to hell. There’s a lot of that preaching still going on today, not so much in the Catholic Church, but in the more fundamentalist ones. Fear, fear, be afraid!
In other passages, though, God is presented as the good shepherd, who is always with us, guiding and supporting us in difficult times. And then there are those angels appearing to frightened people. What do they tell then? - “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.” God is with us. Jesus tells his disciples over and over again, in different situations, “Do not be afraid.”
Who are we to believe? How does one love a God you’re afraid of? Should we? Love - fear - they’re incompatible. I think the writer of 1st John got it right: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18)
Marinne Williamson has an interesting take on this issue: “All images of fear” she says, “are images of punishment. We created an image of a punishing God, not because God is a punishing God, but because we believe we deserve to be punished. We projected this image onto God.” The writers of the scriptures were doing this all along. And the images of God keep changing as their perceptions of God changed.
Compared to our knowledge of the sciences, the writers were a primitive people, trying to understand the workings of nature and disease and misfortune and invading armies. Earlier cultures assigned a different god to just about everything, but the Jews accredited all the workings of this world to a monotheistic God who was watching our every move and doling out the rewards and punishments appropriately.
But that didn’t always make sense, because they could see that bad things happen to good people. The writers of the Book of Job argue back and forth trying to come up with answers. We’re still searching. We know more today about how the world operates - learning more each day, but God still remains a mystery.
I can just hear God “out there” or “in here” shouting “Wait a minute! You’ve got me all wrong! I’m still talking to you. Are you listening? That’s not who I am.”
Let’s face it, we all live with fears - day in and day out - little ones and all consuming ones. Our media today, and some of our politicians, are constantly fear mongering. It gets them ratings - and votes.
Fears are normal and can be a good thing: warning us to be on our guard - to keep a distance from something that could harm us - giving us that shot of adrenaline we need to escape from a harrowing situation.
But fear can also paralyze us, prevent us from thinking clearly, hold us in bondage, create disease in our bodies: physical, mental and emotional; fester hatred and distrust of others; and most importantly, fear separates us from God, from that perfection in love we are all trying to attain. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
So, you might ask, “How are we going to cast out fear?” It will always be there. Life is challenging. Bad stuff happens, even to God fearing people. What’s going to determine our peace, our survival, our ability to love, is not what happens, but how we respond.
How often do you hear stories of someone killing an innocent family member who they mistake for an intruder? or countries retaliating against perceived as well as real threats, leaving innocent victims in the wake?
How often do we act without knowing the whole picture? How often do we project our own fears, prejudice and hatred on others, making them the feared enemy in need of punishment.
What is the opposite of fear? Courage? That’s what I kept reading. But I propose that it’s faith. It’s faith that gives us hope and gives us the courage, enabling us to act out of love in the face of fear.
I hold up Peter as an example of someone in Jesus’ entourage with a difficult learning curve here. He exhibited those moments of faith: “This shall never happen to you.” he says to Jesus who had just told him he was about to die. (Matt. 16:22) And when faced with that very real possibility, with his own life hanging in the balance, he betrays Jesus three times. “Woman, I don’t know him.” Fear took over. His faith was strong in the absence of fear, but he collapsed in fear in the absence of faith.
When faced with terrifying and imprisoning experiences in your own life from which you cannot escape, do you still love God in the midst of the dreadful calamity? Do you turn to God for comfort and help, or do you abandon God and your faith?
As I was mulling over fear this week, a story popped into my head. Thank you God. It’s the story of the wife of a classmate of mine back in the 70’s. Long term memory is still there. We were all living in New York City. She was getting in her car in the underground parking garage of her apartment building on her way to teach her second grade class. A man appeared out of no where and shoved her into the car and jumped on top of her. She told him that she was a school teacher and where she was going, and asked him to pray with her before he committed this heinous act. Then she began to pray the Lord’s Prayer. He immediately got off of her and ran away.
My friend did what Peter was unable to. They were both persons of faith. But she faced her fear and turned it over to God. She called on her faith, realizing that God was there with her in that car. And whether consciously or unconsciously, she realized that God was present in that man too, and she appealed to God’s presence buried somewhere deep within him. She awakened that presence in him in her moment of fear. If she hadn’t, he would have raped her.
Faith doesn’t and shouldn’t take away our fears. Instead, it offers proof that God is present with us as we face them down. And here is where our image of God becomes so important. Would we call on a punishing, wrathful God in our times of need? Or do we call on a compassionate, all loving God? The choice is yours.