Sermon: Fearing God

“Fearing God”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 23, 2019

Psalm 34

I will bless the Lord at all times;

God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth. 
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
   let the humble hear and be glad. 
O magnify the Lord with me,
   and let us exalt God’s name together. 

I sought the Lord, and God answered me,
   and delivered me from all my fears. 
Look to God, and be radiant;
   so your faces shall never be ashamed. 
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
   and was saved from every trouble. 
The angel of the Lord encamps
   around those who fear God, and delivers them. 
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
   happy are those who take refuge in God. 
O fear the Lord, you who are God’s holy ones,
   for those who fear the Lord have no want. 
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
   but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. 

Come, O children, listen to me;
   I will teach you the fear of the Lord
Which of you desires life,
   and covets many days to enjoy good? 
Keep your tongue from evil,
   and your lips from speaking deceit. 
Depart from evil, and do good;
   seek peace, and pursue it. 

The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
   and God’s ears are open to their cry. 
The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
   to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. 
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,
   and rescues them from all their troubles. 
The Lord is near to the broken-hearted,
   and saves the crushed in spirit. 

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
   but the Lord rescues them from them all. 
God keeps all their bones;
   not one of them will be broken. 
Evil brings death to the wicked,
   and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. 
The Lord redeems the life of God’s servants;
   none of those who take refuge in the Lord will be condemned.

Luke 8:26-39
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

You may have noticed that our scriptures this morning were full of fear:

“The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear God.”

“O fear the Lord, you holy ones, for those who fear God have no want.”

“I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”

The people who saw the Gerasene demoniac cured were “afraid,” “seized by a great fear.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, “God” and “fear” are two words that don’t go together. How can you truly love someone who makes you afraid? And how can a divine force that’s supposed to love you also inspire great fear? We might sometimes fear the consequences of disappointing someone we love, but truly fearing a loved one is the hallmark of an abusive relationship, not of the nurturing, life-giving relationship we should have with the Holy One.

I remember as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital serving a family whose young child was dying of cancer. On duty one night, I met the mom for dinner in the hospital cafeteria. I knew she was a devout Christian, so I asked whether she ever got angry at God for what was happening to her sweet daughter. “Do you ever question God?” I wanted to know.

“Oh no, I could never question God or be mad,” she said. The look on her face made me so sad. It was one of respect, yes, but also of a certain distance – a kind of lack of intimacy. You see, it becomes difficult to share the deepest, most tender parts of yourself with God – the parts of you that are mad at God, the parts of you that have made mistakes – if you are afraid of what will happen when you do.

Did you notice that in addition to using the word “fear” a lot, this morning’s Psalm also describes God as One who answers our calls for help, rescuing us from danger? This God hears “poor souls” who cry out, encompasses those who are in trouble, makes sure that whoever seeks the Divine lacks no good thing. This God draws “near to the broken-hearted” and the “crushed in spirit.” What tenderness! “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” What joy!

It feels a bit like whiplash, doesn’t it? So either God is like an abusive partner who lavishes care on a loved only to turn on them in an instant of thunderous displeasure… or something else is going on here.

The Hebrew word yare, which is here translated “fear,” carries a connotation of reverence, of standing in awe before something that you can’t quite wrap your mind around. I think “awe” or “reverence” much better captures the sense of scale here – this is the God who hung the stars in the sky! – while still allowing for a sense of intimacy.

Think of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or holding the perfectly-formed fingers of a newborn baby: awe opens up doorways in our heart instead of closing them.

So let’s do a little re-translation here. How about:

“The angel of the Lord encamps around those who are in awe of God”

“O stand reverent before the Lord, you holy ones, for those who are in awe of God have no want.”

“I will teach you to be utterly in awe of the Lord.”

Sound better? More open? More amazed?

But what does it mean to be in awe of something? I think it comes down to noticing and appreciating, and truly allowing the magnificence of a thing to sink in. To be in awe of God, we might notice the unbelievable intricacy of the created world around us. We might appreciate the ways our hurts have, slowly but surely, healed over the years. We could take stock of the endless opportunities we’re given to help others, or take a moment to revel in the uniqueness of another human being, the deep resonance of connection. We could tune in to how profoundly we are loved, at every moment, and we could glory in the delight of this arms-ever-open God who is so much more than we are, yet so very close to us.

As Psalm 36 says, in the Message translation [adapted]:

“God’s love is meteoric,
  God’s faithfulness astronomic,
God’s purpose titanic,
  God’s verdicts oceanic.

Yet in God’s largeness nothing gets lost;

Not a person, not a paramecium 
  slips through the cracks. 

All people take refuge under your wings.”

With an awe-filled attitude, the world becomes littered with beauty and miracles and blessings – beauty and miracles and blessings that draw us near to the One who endlessly inspires us to celebrate and share this abundant goodness.

My nature-loving daughter Davie and I are particularly enamored of two awe-producing devices in our house: the binoculars and the magnifying glass. We love to peer through their lenses at bunnies across the street or squirrels up a tree, to inspect dead bugs and wriggling worms at close range. “Look Mom,” she’ll say, “this is the ant’s exoskeleton!” Noticing nature up close allows us to pay attention to incredible creations we would otherwise walk right past; it makes us conspirators in awe. The rush we feel at such discoveries overflows into a kind of holy euphoria – “Wow!” we’ll shout. “Thanks for such an amazing creation, God!”

In an interview with host Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being, Jewish-Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein talks about cultivating “a sense of amazement” as a spiritual practice that attunes us to the holy all around us.

As I’ve experienced with Davie, Boorstein notes that this is particularly easy around kids, who are constantly seeing the wonder in the world as they discover new-to-them.  “You can look at one flower for a long time because it’s amazing when they start to do that.” But it also works for adults. “I have a friend who ends all of her emails…[with the] automatic signature… ‘Stay amazed.’ I love that.”

Not noticing or celebrating God’s glory displayed all around us can lead to indifference, a kind of dulling of our spirits. We may not even notice how our lives have slowly turned to grayscale until we are surprised back into awe by a glorious sunset or an unexpected kindness.

But if indifference is the opposite of awe, its underbelly is fear. We can easily ignore the familiar, even if it is amazing; but when we come face to face with the unfamiliar, with things that seem beyond our knowing, our impulse is often to shun or reject. Instead of choosing awe, we are prone to fear what is different because we can’t understand it, and therefore can’t control it.

This explains the Gerasenes’ reaction to Jesus healing of the man possessed by demons. He goes from living naked among the tombs, susceptible to shouting, convulsing, and running away, to being “clothed and in his right mind,” sitting at the feet of Jesus. Yet instead of celebrating that he has been made well and reintegrated into a society that did not know how to deal with his condition, his fellow townspeople are “seized by a great fear” and ask Jesus to leave.

It seems ungrateful to have Jesus heal some great ill in our lives or our community only to show him the door. But it can be truly difficult to adjust to a new, unfamiliar normal – even if it is a healthier, desirable outcome. It is often easier to hold onto the old because we knew how the world worked then; we understood it, we felt in control.

The Gerasenes’ reaction begs the question: when something is suddenly beyond us, do we respond with fear, or with awe? Two sides of the same coin; yet one draws us nearer to God while the other pushes us away.

Think about how the way we talk about gender has changed in the last ten or even five – or even two – years. When you’ve spent your entire life seeing gender as a straightforward binary – men and women – it feels jarring to adjust our lenses, to try to wrap our minds around there being more to it. People who at their core don’t feel themselves to be women or men, but something in between, something more fluid, challenge what we think we know about the world; their experiences may even seem to threaten, on some deep level, our feelings of being solidly a man or a woman.

Not to mention the practical components – won’t there be chaos if we don’t have a way to categorize people? And it just feels overwhelming to keep up with all the terminology!

When faced with the existence of people who don’t fit our norms, in whatever way, we can choose to dismiss, to turn away in revulsion or throw up our hands in exasperation – a kind of fear-lite. Or we can choose to stand in awe of the vastly complex array of human experiences and identities – the infinite facets with which the brilliant Creator has carved our species. We are all such unique, beloved creations in so many ways – isn’t awe the only reasonable response?

It’s also a powerful tool in the face of despair. Sylvia Boorstein describes how awe can combat the deeply painful places in our lives and in our planet:

“[S]ometimes the pain of the world seems incomprehensible and unbearable to me. But I think if there’s anything that balances it, it’s the wonder at the world, the amazingness of people, how kind they are, how resilient they are, how people will take care of people that they don’t know.”

Maybe you heard the story of Larry White, a high school senior in Baltimore with big plans to attend college, who was caught in the crossfire of an armed robbery over spring break. Larry was shot 13 times and it wasn’t clear he’d pull through. But he fought to recover and even ended up completing his coursework and graduating on time. Because he couldn’t work while recovering, though, he can no longer afford the bridge program to help him start college in the fall, and mounting medical costs mean he can’t afford college tuition either. But a woman he’s never met heard about his story and decided to use her social media following to make sure he can achieve his dreams, and now hundreds of strangers are making it happen. [Click here to read more and help Larry get to college.] Wow.

I think choosing awe over fear or disconnection is actually a revolutionary act. It changes hearts; it makes us more generous, more open; it can even heal us – and the world.

And it brings us closer to one another and to God, the God whose love is meteoric, in whose vast embrace nothing is lost. If we choose to celebrate and stand in awe of complexity, difference, and the unfamiliar rather than skipping over or rejecting them, we align ourselves with a God whose very nature is unbelievably complex, whose very difference from our human selves is cause for reassurance, whose unknowable nature becomes known in our desire to marvel at it and delight in it.

As the Message translation of Psalm 34 [adapted] says:

“Worship God if you want the best;
Awe-filled reverence opens doors to all God’s goodness.”