Fear the Lord
1 Peter 1:17
May 8, 2011
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, in the midst of our seven week Easter celebration, we’re told in 1 Peter 1:17 to fear the Lord. But what a shock! Why this rain on our Easter parade? Why are we to fear the Lord during Easter – when Easter, after all, as you might recall, Easter, mind you – is actually about waylaying our fears (Matthew 28:5)?!
So this call – to fear the Lord – surely rankles us. Nobody wants to be told to fear the Lord – even when it’s not Easter! We’d much rather hear about the love of God – which seems more basic to our faith by far (1 John 4:16). And we don’t even care if Psalm 111:10 says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Matthew 10:28). For we think that if we’re going to be wise, we’d just as soon get it from being loving – or at least that’s our longing.
Therefore we eagerly rejoice in the revisions to our faith that have been quietly going on, largely behind the scenes, in the secluded studies of the scholars of the church. They’ve been telling us in their new translations of the Bible that the fear of the Lord actually means something softer – like “reverence” (TEV, 1976) and “respect” (CEV, 1995) – arguing that this is what that Hebrew word, ירא, really has meant all along. And prestigious exegetical studies have built upon these innovations, insisting that the fear of the Lord is actually about obedience, mystery, knowledge and confidence – anything but the frightful fear of God’s wrath against us [Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel (1972) pp. 65-73]. And so all of these scholars shun Martin Luther’s instruction in his Small Catechism (1529) that the fear of the Lord has to do with God threatening to “punish all who transgress [his] commandments” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 344]!
No wonder then that none of us fears the Lord as we should (Psalm 90:11). No wonder then that the fear of the Lord cannot be assumed but must be taught and argued for, near and far (Psalm 34:11)! And that’s because we, students and scholars alike, have all gone astray like sheep (Isaiah 53:6) and fallen from the glorious ways of the Lord (Romans 3:23)! In our deceitful, sinful lives (Hebrews 3:13) we have found a way to soften up the fear of the Lord so that there’s nothing left to fear. Oh, how clever we can be!
So if we’re going to fear the Lord, in a Biblical manner, as we should, we’ll need some tutoring and shoring up of our faith. On that score, God has surely blessed us through the writings of Luther (1483-1546) – our “most eminent teacher” (BC, p. 576). On this matter of fearing God, he writes in his lectures on First Peter:
Even though you [are] called a Christian,… you dare not think that God will spare you on this account if you live without fear [of Him]…. To be sure the world…. spares those who are… rich, beautiful,… wise and powerful. But God has no regard for this…. The apostle wants us to expect such judgment of God and to be in fear. [But if] God saves us solely through faith,… why does St. Peter say that God… judges according to… works? [Well, because] where there is no faith, there can be no good works either…. Therefore link faith and good works together in such a way that both make up the sum total of the Christian life…. [So] God will not judge according to whether you are called a Christian or have been baptized. No, he will ask you: “If you are a Christian, then… where are the fruits with which you can show me your faith?” Therefore… be afraid lest He forsake you…. This is the kind of fear God wants us to have, in order that we may guard against sins and serve our neighbor while we sojourn here (Luther’s Works 30:33-35).
Luther makes four striking points here. First, fearing God is properly rooted in the coming day of judgment, wherein we’ll hear that “all who are outside the Christian church [are] in eternal wrath and damnation, for they do not have the Lord Jesus” (BC, p. 419). Next being baptized and named a Christian cannot save us – but only faith in Christ and good works done in his name (Colossians 3:17), for just those two are the true sum total of the Christian life. And so thirdly we must always fear that God will forsake us if we rend that true summation of Christianity asunder. Therefore finally we must guard against sin, rather than cave into it (Romans 6:15), and help our neighbors, rather than walk past them (Luke 10:32). All four of these points properly ground the fear of the Lord in the Biblical message. So let them bind and regulate you (LW 17:144)!
Frightening Passive Verbs
But even getting the fear of the Lord laid out straight like this will not automatically give you a heart to fear God as you should. And so we’re drawn to Luke 24 about the disciples who encountered the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Skimming over the top of that chapter we easily hit the peaks – walking with the Lord, eating with him, listening to him teach and spending the night with him. Dumbfounding events, indeed! Even so, all we get from these peaks is the admonition not to be distracted and miss the Lord as they almost did. But we need more than that because it’s all too easy for us to be distracted and remain so. And thanks be to God that there is more here than just this demand. In the underbelly of this chapter are those passive verbs – their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus, their eyes finally were opened, and their hearts were burning within them (Luke 24:16, 31, 32). And in these passive verbs we have a divine circumlocution! So they nearly missed it all because of God! who distracted them and then pulled them back!
So cling to God – for he’s in charge, and not you! Cling to his word which leads you to his deep mercy for you. Quit trying to force yourself to fear the Lord – for only he can get you there by his great power. And thank God for his mercy. Thank God for his Son our Savior Jesus Christ who doesn’t leave us in our spiritual lethargy but meets us on the roads of our lives to shut our eyes that we might come to see him clearly. And so, you who believe this and are baptized in his name, bow down before the Altar this day and receive Christ Jesus in and under the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper, that you might live abundantly (John 6:53, 10:10).
And then, be sure not to forget, as Luther warned us in his 1520 Treatise on Good Works, that all Christians are to venture “everything that needs to be done… to please God [and to serve Him] with no thought of reward” (LW 44:27). In Acts 2:42 we learn that this will include abiding in the apostolic teachings, enjoying Christian fellowship, receiving the Lord’s Supper and offering prayers.
Apostolic Teachings. The first of these is about upholding the teachings of the Apostles from the early church. This is no small undertaking – since so much of what we hear in the New Testament offends us (Matthew 11:6; Luke 2:34; John 6:61). Lutherans even confess that these offenses make Christianity repulsive (BC, p. 139)! But that doesn’t mean it should be altered or rejected. Not at all. It only means we’ll need to ponder it carefully (Luke 2:19) – and in some cases, even for years – before we can follow it faithfully. So offensiveness must not authorize doctrinal changes, supposing that better days are coming because of them (LW 13:217).
Christian Fellowship. Secondly we are to fight off religious isolation, whereby we think faith is about walking alone with God – turning religion into what we do “with our solitariness” [A. N. Whitehead, Religion in the Making (1929, 1996, 2011) p. 16; Micah 6:8]. No, we instead are to live with and among our fellow Christians. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Paul, you recall, didn’t like Peter – and vice versa (Galatians 2:11; 1:16-18). Barnabas didn’t like Paul or Silas (Acts 15:39-40). Luther broke with his good friends Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer [D. Wilson, Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (2007) pp. 203, 211]. But that’s not supposed to be our way. We are to buck the trends (R. D. Putnam, Bowling Alone, 2000) and insist that the church is the very body of Christ (Ephesians 1:23), and that we are each to live as members of it (1 Corinthians12:27).
The Lord’s Supper. Our third obligation is that we are to gratefully receive the Lord’s Supper every Sunday in the congregation of the faithful. That’s because, as Luther again said, while “the passion of Christ occurred but once on the cross, [it’s] distributed, applied, and put to use… through [this] sacrament” (LW 37:193). So in receiving the Lord’s Supper we don’t shrink back from declaring that Christ’s sacrifice is our blessing (1 Corinthians 11:26)!
Prayer. And finally we are to pray daily in private (Matthew 6:6) and in church weekly. So it isn’t abstract thinking that makes us human, following the dictum of René Descartes (1596-1650), cogito ergo sum – “I think therefore I am.” But it’s rather praying to the Lord that does this. For it’s only in prayer that we learn to depend on God (John 15:5) and to humble ourselves (Luke 18:13).
So call on God for strength to take up these four ventures of faith. For by so doing you’ll fear the Lord as you should. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)