Psalm 22:25; John 15:1-8
Lynne Carson caught me last Sunday and wondered how she might respond to someone who had asked if Presbyterians fear God. It was a great question to which I gave a completely inadequate answer. I suggested Lynne substitute the word “awe” for “fear”. We certainly can be inspired without feeling fear particularly when it comes to our relationship to God. Isn’t it amazing when we speak without thinking we later regret speaking so hastily? The next morning I read this week’s text from the Gospel of John. “Abide in me. Those who abide in me will bear much fruit. But whoever does not abide in me will be thrown into a fire and be burned.” I quickly ran to the Psalms hoping to encounter something a little less frightening only to come across the words, “Blessings will fall upon those who fear the Lord.” Houston, we have a problem!
I remember as a child my fear of God was very real. Ever rearrange the brownies? At the church I grew up in we would occasionally have dinners after worship. Folks would bring all kind of delicious food and deserts to be enjoyed at noon. Between Sunday School and Church my friends and I would sneak into the Fellowship Hall to steal a morsel or two. The treats were beautifully arranged. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to have them look so magnificent. We assumed this was done to keep us from eating them before the proper time. I would go to the tray with chocolate brownies and figure out how to remove one and yet make it appear as if nothing had been touched. Once I had captured my treasure I would quickly consume it, and then rush to the bathroom to make sure there were no crumbs around my lips. I gleefully celebrated my mischief.
After the opening hymn and before the scriptures we always read a prayer of confession. It went something like this. “Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.” (stop) I never heard the scripture or sermon. The brownie which had tasted so good earlier now became a cauldron of discomfort. I wanted to rush from the sanctuary to the nearest bathroom but the sermon seemed to go on and on and on. Here I was in the house of the Lord where God and God alone was aware of my transgression. I had sinned. My pain was real and my fear of God, intense.
We can easily dismiss this as the confessions of a ten year overcome by guilt. I had no business taking the brownie, I knew I had no business taking the brownie, and in the midst of a prayer of confession acid reflux caused me to taste the fruits of my transgression. I had sinned and while only God knew of my transgression that was enough.
Thanks to vigilant parents I was constantly reminded that whatever I did never escaped the watchful eye of God. I was taught what was right and what was wrong. Any variance from the prescribed path of righteousness would not go undetected. My God was like Dikembe Mutombo. For those of you who don’t recognize the name, Mutombo was a legendary NBA player best known for his shot blocking ability. His teammates knew anytime someone ventured near the basket Mutombo would send their shot flying in a different direction. Then he would wave his finger at the offending player as if to say, “Not in my house”. Such was the presence of my God. I might fool my friends, I might fool my parents but I could not fool God. Any attempt at deception was swatted away followed by the finger of God being waved in my face reminding me I knew better.
At some point and time I outgrow this childish understanding of moral values. I became the captain of my own ship. The idea that God would zap me was no more real than those monsters I believed existed under my bed. But who or what became my moral compass?
As I returned to the Bible to help me unlock the mysteries of my own universe, I discovered an amazing fact. In the Old Testament we encounter the message that we are to, “Fear the Lord”. But the emphasis of the New Testament is, “Fear not.” It would seem these statements lie in direct opposition to each other. Remembering the Hebrew language can be a puzzle unto itself I researched the word “yare”, the word we translate as fear.
The writers of the Old Testament lived in a primitive society which was ruled by superstitions and beliefs we would consider to be nonsense. Weather was thought to be directly related to the emotions of the gods. Showers represented God’s benevolence. Thunder storms or flash floods signified the rage of the Almighty. Fear of an angry God was a real component of daily life. Then I discovered “yare/fear” had more than one meaning. It was also the word used specifically to describe Israel’s relationship with Yahweh. The closest English equivalent would be trust. To claim to trust God is certainly a great deal different than being afraid of God. Imagine standing in the storms of life and declaring I will not fear for I trust God. This translation allows the Old and New Testament messages to be consistent. So how was that understanding of our relationship with God lost?
In 1604, King James called for an English translation of the Latin Bible. Actually it wasn’t his idea but a ploy to keep the nation from revolt. The relationship between the King and his subjects was tenuous at best. A Catholic King ruled a Protestant nation. The King was feared but not necessarily trusted. The translation took seven years to complete. Those loyal to the King were terrified that some Biblical passages would fuel their rebelliousness. When our beloved King James Version was completed in 1611 it was very monarchy friendly. James saw his word and the word of God as one. Therefore “yare” was translated exclusively as fear. In other words, you will fear God and you will fear the king. Because of political unrest, the intent of the Psalmist was lost. Unfortunately, future translations, even through today, have failed to return to the original intent of the Psalmist. Listen to the difference when read as intended.
Psalm 67:7, “May the Lord continue to bless us. Let the ends of the earth trust God.” Psalm 119:79, “Those trusting God will turn to God.” Psalm 22:25, “God will bless those that trust the Lord.”
Fear is the great pathology of any society. I know that was true during the time of the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. I could make a pretty good case that we continue to be paralyzed by fears both real and imagined. The antidote for fear is hope. This is why it has always been the message of God’s people to proclaim, “Fear not”, an assurance grounded in a God who can be trusted.
So who do we trust? I suspect, more often than not, we only trust ourselves. I am perfectly capable of determining what is right or wrong and if we happen to disagree, then obviously you must be wrong. What if trust begins with a relationship of mutual respect? And what if there are rules of behavior that lead assist in developing that relationship?
Take this as a start point:
Don’t work yourself to death. Take a day to remember what is important.
Remember the ancient ones among you. Their wisdom will guide you through turbulent times.
Preserve the life and the hopes of another.
Instead of taking from another, offer someone that extra coat that has never left your closet.
Do your best to speak honestly, even if it might not seem in your best interest at the moment.
If someone has a better house or car than you, rejoice that you have a house and car. Not everyone does.
Love your neighbor, but always remember there are boundaries which must not be violated.
The moral code we call the 10 commandments offers an opportunity to reside in a community based on trust rather than lies and deceit. When we disobey these regulations, more often than not something bad happens. Therefore when the writer of John speaks of God being the vine and we the branches, it is implied that a community will thrive when the branches live in harmony with each other. Discord abounds when members of the community are ruled by selfish ambition.
Do we seek harmony because we fear chaos? Perhaps. Will harmony abound if we live in fear? Probably not. God calls us toward a relationship of trust, not only toward God, but also with those with whom we live. There is an African proverb that states, “Because we are, I am.” In other words communities thieve when they do the right thing for the right reason. This builds mutual respect and interdependence.
That is easy to do when we all agree. But sometimes that is not the case. So who do we trust? So often, when we are only thinking of our own needs we devour the chocolate brownie. The bigger mistake might be closing our hearts to that inner voice that cries out, “You messed up, but trust me, I can help you through it.” If we fear the voice, we slide further into chaos and risk relationships which have taken years to build. But if we trust the voice, if we live into hope, we open our hearts to the words of the Psalmist. “For God alone our soul waits. Our hope is found in God. We can trust the Lord at all times for God is our rock and our salvation. We shall not fear.” To God be the Glory Amen.