Sermon: Pentecost +5
The Fear of the Lord
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?’
• Mark 4:35-41
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There is an old phrase that we rarely hear anymore. It used to be, when you wanted to describe a good person, a religious person, someone who not only said he was a Christian but who also lived liked one, people would say, “So and so is a God-fearing man.”
How many of you remember when we used to describe people in those terms?
A God-fearing man. A God-fearing woman. This is a description that comes right from the pages of the Bible. On the first page of the book of Proverbs, it says:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
If you want to be a wise, mature person, Proverbs says, you will fear the Lord. On the other hand, it says, you can go in the way that this text calls “foolish.” A foolish person doesn’t listen to God. A foolish person thinks he can figure out this complicated thing we call life all by himself. He or she has little use for God’s wise teachings or instructions.
A pastor and author I respect immensely, Eugene Peterson, thinks that “Fear-of-the-Lord” is still an excellent way to describe the life we try to cultivate as those who trust in Jesus and follow him. However, this is a difficult concept to grasp, because it sounds like it means we are supposed to be afraid of God. So, there are other words we’ve substituted to make it more clear.
- To have a holy awe of God
- To reverence God
- To worshipfully respect God
These all capture something of the idea, but they lack the punch the original phrase packs. Eugene Peterson describes the experience of the fear of God like this:
The moment we find ourselves unexpectedly in the presence of the sacred, our first response is to stop in silence. We do nothing. We say nothing. We fear to trespass inadvertently; we are afraid of saying something inappropriate. Plunged into mystery we become still, we fall silent, all our senses alert.
• Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 41
We learn to fear God when we encounter the Mystery of God, when we get caught up in the unfathomable heights and depths of who God is. When God takes our breath away. I used to like to say it simply like this: the fear of God is when we can feel how big God is and how small we are in comparison.
Have you ever gone out and laid on the ground and looked up at the stars on a cloudless night? Have you ever felt the awe of that sight, the jaw-dropping wonder that is impossible to describe in words?
When the prophet Isaiah tried to describe his experience of seeing the Lord, he said “I am undone.” It was as though his body became unglued. Emotionally, he fell apart. He felt a sense of insignificance, of being swallowed up in something he could never fully comprehend. In the light of God’s holiness he became appalled at the depths of his own sinfulness and the brokenness of the world in which he lived.
This is not something we can control, and it’s not something we feel all the time, obviously. But when you genuinely encounter the Mystery of God, a person does not forget. It leaves an indelible impression on the spirit. When Jacob wrestled with the angel, the Bible says that Jacob’s hip was put out of joint and he limped for the rest of his life. Encountering God and experiencing the fear of God is something like that. We go on living, but we walk with less self-assurance, less control, more humility, and more awareness of our limitations.
Of all the experiences out in the natural world that I’ve enjoyed, nothing makes me feel more aware of the Mystery than the ocean. I love the ocean. I also fear the ocean. The ocean provides me with any number of pleasures as I watch and hear the waves, play in the surf, and discover the treasures it leaves upon the beach. I look out over the vast expanse of the ocean at different times of the day and hear the rhythm of creation’s heartbeat as the tide ebbs and flows. And I’m only looking at the surface! To imagine the ocean’s depths, the variety of its eco-systems, the countless mysterious creatures that live within its waters — it is simply overwhelming to my poor little brain.
The Hebrew people were afraid of the oceans and the seas. In the ancient world, the sea was viewed as a place of chaos where sea-monsters reigned and waited to swallow them up.
- In the creation story we read about how the world “was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” In creation, God brought order to the chaotic, swirling waters of the great sea that covered the land.
- They remembered the story about how God undid the world he had made by sending a great flood in the days of Noah, a flood that covered the entire land.
- They recalled how it took an act of God to part the Red Sea so that they could escape from Egypt.
- They thought of the story of Jonah, and how he was punished by being thrown into the sea, only to be saved by God sending a great fish to rescue him.
Is it any wonder that, when the Book of Revelation describes the new heavens and earth, it says, “And there was no more sea”? Those words describe an ideal world from an Ancient Near Eastern Hebrew point of view. No more chaos. No more vast expanse of water that holds mystery and hidden danger for our lives.
That background helps us with today’s Gospel story, which takes place out on the sea. Jesus and the disciples get in a boat and cross the Sea of Galilee. A terrible storm sweeps in and they find themselves at their wits’ end. Jesus, however, sleeps in the back of the boat. Panicked, the disciples awaken him and Jesus rebukes the wind and the seas and they are still. And then we read this:
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?’
I want you to notice something here. The disciples were deathly afraid during the storm. After Jesus calmed the storm, the text says they were even more afraid. The NRSV says they were “filled with great awe,” but it’s the same word — they were petrified, filled with terror. To use Isaiah’s word, they were “undone.” I suggest to you that this experience caused these disciples to move from “fear” to “the fear of the Lord.”
The storm frightened them terribly. But then something happened. They encountered the Mystery. They encountered God’s power over nature. They witnessed the word of God in action. Their jaws dropped. Their minds spun. They were speechless. Perhaps they became timid about even approaching Jesus at that moment, for they had seen something in him that exposed the vast distance between themselves and this One who was with them. They felt the fear of God.
My favorite scene from the movie “Jaws” is when the giant shark suddenly emerges from the water and startles Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider. He is leaning down over the back of the boat., throwing fish into the water to bait the shark. Then the great monster shoots up out of the water just a few feet from him. Scheider springs to his feet and backs up. And oh, the look on his face! He’s just had the shock of his life. He is speechless. With his eyes wide open in fear, he backs slowly into the bridge and mutters to the captain,“You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
I can imagine the disciples must have reacted and felt the same way that evening on the Sea of Galilee. Where were they going to find a boat big enough to contain Jesus?
My friends, the God we serve is great beyond understanding. His mighty works are all around us if only we have eyes to see the Mystery revealed in them. In prayer and worship and spiritual practices we can train our senses to perceive this God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Let us pray that he will awaken in our lives and in our world today, that we may all, in the truest sense, be people who fear the Lord.