Why should we fear the Lord?
When I was a child, I often heard people talking about the importance of ‘fearing the Lord’, I thought it was nonsense. Why should I fear the only person who’d ever cared about me? It didn’t make sense to me.
Then there was all the stuff about God being a ‘good parent’. That’s pretty incomprehensible too to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Unfortunately today, with all the abuse stories we hear in the press, it seems likely that that phrase is going to be meaningless to a fair number of people to whom we might want to talk about God. But, although I hadn’t experienced a ‘good parent’ I certainly had an idea of what one would be, and it wasn’t someone to be frightened of, so why should I ‘fear the Lord’?
Well, there’s quite a lot in the Bible about fearing God and when I looked at today’s readings I started thinking about it. Why, I wondered, were the people of Israel so scared when they saw Moses’ face shining when he’d just experienced a direct encounter with God?
When I was about 30 I met someone who treated me with genuine affection, asking nothing from me, treating me always with respect, unfailingly thoughtful and consideration of me. I’m not talking about respect for abilities, or respect for qualities I may or may not possess or respect that some people think they’re due because of some particular role they happen to hold. No, the respect I hadn’t experienced until then was the respect that we’re all due because we’re human, from a Christian point of view, because we are God’s creation. It’s a respect which is due to God and which God asks us to offer to one another. It was a tremendous shock to me and forced me to rethink my entire understanding of myself and who I am in relation to the world. That process was drastic, it was like someone had taken the floor away. My grasp on reality slipped, because I was trying to grasp at a reality which was different from anything I’d ever known. Trying to redefine my entire existence. Believe me, it was terrifying – but the end result was that I was able to define myself as someone who could matter, someone who could be cared about, someone who could be loved. That was a very important step in my path toward becoming a Christian, and it was a very important step in my path toward treating other people as they should be treated.
What God was doing, when he met with Moses while the people wandered in the desert, was trying to redefine reality for a whole people. That concept of treating others with respect because they are God’s creation as much as we are ourselves runs all the way through the laws that God gave to Moses. The people had hundreds of years of life as slaves, that’s not designed to enable them to understand the concept of respect.
An encounter with God is always likely to have that effect of changing people, it changed Moses who was scared of public speaking, and went on to become a great leader. The people of Israel were scared of that change. They hid ‘God’ as they thought, in the holy of holies in the temple. They were a fairly primitive people 3000 odd years ago, and I think they really thought that God was ‘in’ the ark of the covenant. It took them a long time to realise that God was everywhere. So nobody went into the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple, even the high priest only went in once a year and he took special precautions to do so! They seem to have thought it was ‘dangerous’. No wonder they talked of ‘fearing the Lord’.
What I’m suggesting is that their fear may have come from a memory of what it felt like to have their entire identity changed from under them, both individually and communally. The end result was good, they learnt that they could matter. To God, and to each other in a way that they hadn’t done before but that doesn’t make the process any less scary.
So, do we need to fear an encounter with God? The answer to that is simple – No, we don’t. God didn’t mean us to fear him, just as a good parent today doesn’t mean their children to fear them. Jesus called God ‘daddy’ – that doesn’t suggest fear! That suggests someone we can run to when we’re in need of a cuddle, or the equivalent in our lives of having grazed our knee and being in need of it being kissed better. When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in the temple was torn in two – I can imagine God’s delight at ripping apart the barrier that the people had put between them and him. It was never meant to be there. We should all be open to an encounter with God.
In the book of Ezekial, God said, ‘I will take away your stony heart and replace with a loving heart’. That’s the sort of total change that was scary to the people – its not that they didn’t want it to happen. The nearest I can get to how we could think of it is being scared of going to the dentist – we know we’ll feel a lot better afterward but its going to hurt a lot while he drills into our teeth. Its not that God would hurt us while replacing our hearts but it can’t help but be drastically confusing to be someone who we weren’t yesterday.
So what might that encounter mean to us, today? The disciples encountered God in Jesus every day. And he often seemed to be impatient with their inability to accept the change that knowing him and experiencing God in him should have been making in them. When they were present when Jesus, Moses and Elijah all gathered in God’s presence their reaction was a bit like a nervous giggle. They knew how important it was but they wanted to build ‘shelters’ for them – was the instinct to get them out of sight? But Jesus knew that it would happen when the Holy Spirit came to them – and it did. Remember the way they changed that day – that was when they finally had their ‘encounter with God’. Their life-changing experience. Remember St Paul and his encounter with God on the road to Damascus? He was blind for a while as a result but his entire being was changed, he could no longer persecute the followers of Jesus, instead he joined them and spent the rest of his life in mission, preaching about Jesus.
When we have our encounter with God it will change us, does change us and has changed us. But it doesn’t have to be so drastic as it was for St Paul or for the people of Israel in the desert – through Jesus God can work in us gradually, changing us to become what he planned for us to be. Its only if we’re set in our ways in a way which is ’against God’ that it would be a real shock to the system, changing us overnight – and in that case, we’d be unlikely to be here in Church. But if we are open to God, open to allowing him to change us then our encounters with him can be wonderful, leaving us glowing. OK, so we’re unlikely to shine like Jesus did that day that we heard about today, but we might feel a gentle glow inside; I’ve certainly known days when I felt that after a sense of having had an encounter with God.
So we don’t need to ’fear’ God, we need to be open to him, so that he can change us, so that Jesus can work the miracle of healing all our hurts, even those that we’re so used to we forget that they are hurts. So that he can make us new people, gently, not in a frightening way. Maybe we’ll look back in a few years time and realise that we’ve done all sorts of things that served God that a few years before we’d have thought were not within our capacity. God’s capacity is infinite, we don’t need to be limited by who we think we are, what we think we’re capable of; we can let God do his wondrous work in us and we will have the capacity to be the people God wants us to be and to do the things that God wants us to do.