Fear of God/Love of God

Jeremiah was in a world of pain. He was troubled about his relationship with the Lord. “O LORD you have deceived me and I was deceived.” He was troubled about his calling. “For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”  He was troubled by the opposition that he was receiving. “Terror on every side. ‘Denounce him! Let us denounce him! Say all my close friends, watching for my fall.” And don’t you know that such opposition had to be particularly painful precisely because it was coming from his close friends. All of this made Jeremiah want to quit…. but he didn’t. 
 
When we understand the context of Jeremiah’s struggles we realize that this was not just some private pity party. He was a priest who was a descendent of the man who was the High Priest during the reign of King David. Jeremiah lived in very troubling times. God had called him to prophecy during the rise of the Babylonian Empire, the collapse of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem. This is how one scholar described his time period. “Political, social, financial, moral and spiritual decay led to the country’s demise in 2 short decades.” 
 
During this time, like an early John the Baptist, Jeremiah preached a message of repentance. He shed light on the darkness of the people and the nations but almost no one listened. He spoke for God for 40 years and managed to make only 2 converts. When Jerusalem was destroyed he was taken against his will to Egypt and it is presumed that he died there. And yet in light of all this he still didn’t quit. The lament we read today ends with a song of praise. “Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of the evil doer.” One scholar said of Jeremiah, “His courage and stamina serve as examples to even the most faithful of God’s servants.” 
 
The challenge that his story puts before us today is how to follow his example of courage and stamina. Because we are witnessing the same kind of decay in our day we are going to need it.
And let me add that any solution to this decay that is not rooted in repentance and the Gospel of Jesus Christ will not only be ineffective, it will down right foolish. 
 
Do you see political decay? I see folks on both sides of the aisle so intent on preventing each other from getting an advantage by doing something good for the nation, that rather than being public servants they are self servants. Somehow on a government salary many of them manage to become multi millionaires. But don’t worry. Next November we get to send a whole new batch of public servants up to Washington to vote themselves another pay raise. How’s that for a solution? 
 
Do you see social decay? We may not have been this divided as a nation since the Civil War. Racial tension is much like it was in the 1960’s. A Marxist terrorist mob has taken over a section of a capital city including the police precinct. The irony here is that if they had tried this stunt in an actual Marxist nation they would either be in a mass grave or chipping ice in a Siberian gulag. But don’t worry. Warner Brothers has announced that Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam will no longer be drawn with guns in their hands and ConAgra Foods is going to redo Mrs. Butterworth so that no one will feel body shamed by a syrup bottle. 
 
Do you see financial decay? Ask the 45 million Americans who are unemployed. I made the mistake of looking last month at our 401K only to discover that it is now a 201K. But don’t worry. The government will give you your daily bread. But here is what I don’t understand about their solution. When I write a check and there is no money to back it up it is called fraud. When the government does it, it is called a stimulus. 
 
Do you see moral decay? This one breaks my heart. Let me give you this snapshot. During Holy Week all of our churches were shut down but the abortion mills remained open. I saw Virginia legislators stand to their feet and applaud the passing of a bill making it legal to allow a baby, born alive during a botched abortion, to be left to die from neglect. But don’t worry. We are making things right by desecrating statues that have been around for 150 years rather than saving a baby that is less than an hour old. 
 
Do you see spiritual decay? Jesus told us to make disciples but instead American is making consumers. Even before the pandemic an increasing number of Christians were abandoning their churches and corporate worship to sit alone in front of a computer screen. Now during the pandemic a recent survey found that half admitted that they have not looked at a live stream service in the last 4 weeks. But don’t worry. We are going to put a Starbucks in Thompson Hall so that you can sip your latte during Mass. That will happen right after we see our first flying pig.
 
If things do not radically change we may witness the collapse of our nation just as Jeremiah witnessed his. His nation fell because it did not heed his call to repentance and I fear that we will fall too if we do not humble ourselves and repent and return to the Lord. So again, how do we follow his example of courage and stamina in the midst of so much chaos and disappointment? I see at least partial answers in our Gospel lesson today. 
 
Note that Jesus is sending His disciples out to spread the kingdom also during very troubling times. He actually tells them that He is sending them out like sheep to the wolves. They are going to be taken to court, flogged in synagogues, hated by all and even their family members will have them put to death. Jesus says “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  So they too are going to need stamina and courage and Jesus tells them how to find it. He speaks to them of the fear of God and the love of God. While one may sound like the antithesis of the other, they are actually two sides of the same coin, and together give us the stamina to not quit when things get tough.
 
Let’s first consider the fear of God. Martin Luther taught on this topic and correctly made a distinction between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is the fear that a slave or a prisoner has in the presence of a master or a warden. There is nothing healthy about this kind of fear and most folks would move heaven and earth to be free of it. Wars have been fought to not live under this kind of fear. 
 
Filial fear is very different. It is what a son should feel for his father. It is rooted in love and respect. I was blessed to have this kind of relationship with my father. When I messed up and got the “wait till your father gets home” speech I did experience servile fear, but most of my life I had filial fear which again is love and respect. 
 
This filial fear of my father benefited me in a number of ways. It taught me respect. I loved him and he loved me but it was crystal clear in my mind that he was my father and not my buddy. And that was a healthy distinction for me as a child. 
This filial fear also gave me a great deal of peace in my life. As a Navy family we moved every two years to either a state that we might have never been to before or a country that we had never been to before. This kind of gypsy lifestyle could be very disturbing to some people but because of my love and respect for my father, I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t worry about where we would live. I knew that he would figure it out. I never worried about food or clothing because I trusted him as my provider. I didn’t fear all of the new people that were constantly in and out of our lives because I knew that my father would keep us safe. I think that the biggest worry that I had as a kid was if I was going to make the right decision about my annual new pair of Keds. Were they going to be high top or low top, black or white? In short a healthy fear of my father made my life as a kid pretty wonderful.
 
The filial fear that we have for the LORD benefits us in similar ways. We learn respect and reverence because He is our God and not our buddy. We realize that He is worthy of the honor that is due His Name. 
 
The filial fear of God gives us peace because we know that He is able to do all that He promises. That is why in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us not to worry about what we are to eat or what we are to wear and to not worry even about tomorrow. Abba already has all of that covered. 
 
The healthy fear of God also frees us from the unhealthy fear of man. As St. Paul put it, “If God is for us who can be against us?” Think about it. The worst thing that someone can do to you is to send you home. 
 
The other side of the coin Jesus speaks about is the love of God. He does this by speaking of our worth to God. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father…..Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” 
 
I love how Jesus says “apart from YOUR Father.”  If value is determined by what you pay for it, such as two sparrows for a penny, then you are of infinite worth because Your Father purchased you with the death of His only Begotten Son. You may not always “feel” the love of God but never doubt it. What more could the LORD have done to prove your worth to Him than to give us His Son? 
 
Jesus also speaks of the Father’s love by demonstrating how intimate and personal it is. “But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Of course some of us make His job a little easier.) Jesus’ point is that His love covers every facet of your life down to the finest detail. He doesn’t only love the world, He loves you. And as Brennan Manning so beautifully puts it, “He love you as you are and not as you should be because you will never be as you should be.” I would add, at least not until the next life where it will be glory upon glory.  
 
The fruit of walking in the fear of the Lord and the love of the Lord is that you will grow in trust and trust will get you through the most difficult of times. A fourteenth century theologian named John Tauler tells of meeting a beggar man dressed in rags. John greeted him and said, “Good morning dear brother. May God give you a good day and grant you a happy life.” The man replied, “Sir I do not remember ever having a bad day. You see whether my stomach is full or I am famished with hunger, I praise God equally, when I am rebuffed or despised, I still thank God. My trust in God’s providence and plan for my life is absolute…everything I receive from his loving hand or whatever He permits me to receive from the hands of others – be it prosperity or adversity, sweet or bitter – I accept with joy and see it as a sign of His favor….I have learned that the will of God is the love of God.”
 
That kind of trust seems almost too simplistic. It actually seems child like. But then again Jesus says that is how we enter the kingdom of God. Children trust until they are taught not to. 
 
But I need to add that this kind of trust is not something that we can manufacture ourselves. It is a grace that we must look to God to receive like the man in the Scriptures who prayed, “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” We need to pray every day, “Lord I trust you, help my distrust.”
 
Just like Jeremiah we are living in very troubling times. But the fear of the Lord and the love of God will see us through it. And don’t lose perspective. All of the powerful kingdoms that Jeremiah prophesied to are either long gone or exist in name only. Meanwhile the people of God have filled the earth. There is no guarantee that America is going to survive her many-sided decays, but we have a guarantee that the kingdom will. Jesus said, “I will build My church and the gate of hell will not prevail against it.” If you watch the news or read Facebook you will be filled with anger and fear. But if you will read your Bible you will know that you have been accepted in the beloved and the kingdom is not in trouble. And for that we say “Thanks be to God.” Amen. 

Knowing God the Holy Spirit

When I have spoken with folks about their understanding of the Holy Trinity I found that most Christians have a pretty clear idea of who Jesus is and what it means to call Him Savior. When they think of God as Father, that relationship is equally clear. But when I ask about their relationship with the Holy Spirit I frequently get back only blank stares. 

And that is not just among the laity. I have heard more than one sermon where the Holy Spirit is referred to as an “it” implying that the Holy Spirit is only a power. That is a grave error. 

Given that the Church has taught throughout the centuries that right belief in the Holy Trinity is necessary for our salvation, it is no inconsequential matter to be confused about God the Holy Spirit. Sure the Trinity is a mystery and it is also true that God is incomprehensible. But Jesus also taught us that God is knowable and that includes God the Holy Spirit. 

First let’s clear up the mistaken notion that the Holy Spirit just another name for the power of God. That particular teaching was declared a heresy by the early Church. The Holy Spirit is more than power, He is a Person, just as the Father is a Person and the Son is a Person. Thus the Holy Spirit is correctly referred to as the third Person of the Trinity. Of course we are not talking about a flesh and blood person but rather Personhood. 

He was present at creation, hovering over the abyss (Genesis 1:2). He spoke through the Prophets  (2Peter 1:21). He can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30). He prays for us with groaning too deep for words (Romans 8:26). He is sovereign (2 Corinthians 3:17). Power alone can’t do or be those things. Electricity is not Lord and cannot be grieved nor can it pray. So let’s settle among ourselves, once and for all, that the Holy Spirit is more than a power, He is a Person. And we do not call Him “it” because that is blasphemous. 

Because the Holy Spirit is a Person we can have a relationship with Him just as we can have a relationship with God the Father and God the Son. But what does that relationship look like?

We have to be careful in answering that question because there is a lot of squirrely stuff out there that is attributed to the Holy Spirit but does not pass the smell test. Religious fervor and group- think can result in some significant manifestations but just because there are manifestation does not necessarily mean that they are from God. There is a vast difference between seeking a relationship and seeking an experience. I have seen videos of meetings where people are shaking violently, laughing uncontrollably and even barking like dogs. I have seen a preacher who claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit wave his suit jacket over a congregation and a whole section of people fall over. When Beth and I were first married we lived in a little town on the edge of Chattanooga that had a Pentecostal Church in which they handled snakes. And yet we read in the Scripture that God is a God of order and not of chaos. So again we need to exercise caution. 

One of the safest places we can learn of the Holy Spirit, and how to relate to Him, is in the teachings of the undivided Church and understanding what the Church has confessed for over 1,700 years. Of course I refer to the Nicene Creed.

“And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord…” Just as we call the Father “Lord” and we call the Son “Lord” so we are to call the Holy Spirit “Lord.” And that is more than an honorific title, that helps defines our relationship with Him. 

What does that look like? The feudal system gives us insights in what it means to call the Holy Spirit “Lord.” To have a Lord is to be under His authority. When you have a Lord you swear allegiance to Him, which is in part what we do every week when we recite the Creed. When you have a Lord uou look to your Lord as Provider and Protector. When you have a Lord you seek to honor Him by your faithful service. In the feudal system you did not own your own land, but were a steward of that which belonged to your lord. In the same way as Christians we see ourselves as stewards of the Lord God because everything in our lives belongs to Him. “All things come of Thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”

A daily practical way that we can apply this confession of the Holy Spirit as Lord is as we submit to His guidance. Because He is our Lord we do not take His directions merely as quaint suggestions. We have to mature in hearing Him, because He often speaks in a still small voice, but when He speaks to us, we shouldn’t debate Him. We say “Yes Lord” and we do what He has called us to do. And such obedience is not a burden because the Lordship of the Holy Spirit is rooted in pure love because God is love. And that love equips us to obey and casts out our fear. 

We need to be aware however that love does not make obedience easy. Jesus never promised easy. Priest and Theologian Henri Nouwen was absolutely correct when he said, “One of the most arduous tasks is that of giving up control and allowing the Spirit of God to lead our lives.”

We confess the Holy Spirit not only as Lord, but also “giver of life.”  This truth weaves its way through Holy Scripture. As I said earlier the Spirit was present at creation. And at the creation of man, Adam became a living soul when God breathed His Spirit into him. God promises through the prophet that He will remove our hearts of stone and replacing them with a heart of flesh by putting His Spirit within us. I love the story of the valley of dry bones where the prophet is told to prophecy to the wind so that the spirit would come into those who were slain and give them life. The resurrection of Jesus is attributed to the Holy Spirit and the text goes on to say, “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” It is the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life that enables us to walk in the newness of life. It is the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life who produces in us the life giving fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

It is important for us as a body to embrace the Holy Spirit as the Giver of Life because it is possible for a church to be doctrinally sound but as dead as doornail. Beth and I visited a church a few years ago that was of a very dour Scottish heritage. Their theology was sound in its core but let me tell you there was no joy in Mudville. I know I am exaggerating, but not by much, as I tell you my overall impression of the church. It felt like the opening prayer was about what miserable sinners we were, the hymns were about what miserable sinners we were, the sermon was about what miserable sinners we were. And would you like to take a guess about the theme of the closing prayer? No absolution was offered, no Sacrament was given to unite us with Christ. So when we got in the car I told Beth that I felt like jumping off the nearest bridge. As vital as it is to have right doctrine it is equally important to be open and receptive to the Giver of Life so that we worship not just in truth, but in Spirit and truth. 

The next thing that we confess is that the Holy Spirit “proceedeth from the Father and the Son.” This is important for two reasons. First, while the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are all One, they are also distinctly separate Persons. This carefully chosen language of  “proceedeth from” upholds that truth. Thus only the Son is Begotten while only the Spirit “proceedeth.” The Son and the Spirit are One, but they are also distinct.

But the second thing that is important about confessing that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son is that He proceeds from them to us, the Church. After Jesus’ resurrection He appeared to the disciples and said. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you withhold forgiveness they are withheld.” This is referred to as “the keys to the kingdom.” 

The authority that Jesus received from the Father, He in turn conferred upon the Church through the sending of the Holy Spirit. In fact there would be no Church without the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit that we are baptized into Christ’s Body at our baptism. It is the Holy Spirit that equips you for your ministry at your Confirmation. It is the Holy Spirit who consecrates a man to be a priest or bishop. It is Word AND Holy Spirit that consecrates the Bread and Wine to be for us the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that inspired the Holy Scriptures. Thus it is through the Spirit empowered proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Spirit empowered Sacraments that the Church utilizes the keys to the kingdom and proclaims the forgiveness of sins. So it is not an accident in the Creed that immediately following the confession of the Holy Spirit that we say that we also believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

“Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified….” This is a confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who is equal God with the Father and the Son. This confession answers a question that I have been asked many times. “Is it appropriate to pray to the Holy Spirit?” The answer is “Of course.” Since the Holy Spirit is worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son, then the Holy Spirit receives our prayers as does Father and the Son. One of my favorite parts of the ordination service is when we chant a prayer from the 9thcentury called Veni Creator Spiritus. This is part of the prayer. “Come Holy Ghost our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire. Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart. Thy blessed unction from above, is comfort, life and fire of love.” 

Lastly we confess that He “spake by the prophets.” The importance of those few words cannot be overstated. Divine inspiration is why we call “The Word of the Lord” the Word of the Lord. And we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to speak to us today through the Holy Scriptures. The new catechism puts it this way. “As I prayerfully learn Holy Scripture, I should expect the Holy Spirit to use it to teach, rebuke, correct and train me in the righteousness that God desires. This nourishes my soul toward the service of God and my neighbor.” 

It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit shows us the path of life. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit teaches us about the nature and character of God. It is through the Holy Scriptures that the Holy Spirit makes us wise unto salvation. We don’t need to make a pilgrimage to Machu Pechu to come in contact with the Divine Spirit. We don’t need to listen to self-proclaimed prophets to find God’s direction for our lives. And we most certainly don’t need to look to the stars to know what lies ahead. We just need to open the Book and allow the Holy Spirit to speak. 

The confession of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed instructs us in how we may develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit so if you have never purposely sought a relationship with Him I encourage you to do so. What you will pleasantly discover is His graciousness. You will also find that His principle ministry is to point us to Jesus just as Jesus points us to our heavenly Father. They do this to reveal a relationship of love and then they invite us into that relationship.

I want to conclude with a beautiful prayer of invitation that was written by Brennan Manning. He wrote it addressing the Father but since the Holy Spirit is also God it is appropriate to also address this prayer to Him. Let us pray.

“Holy Spirit, I surrender my will and my life to you today, without reservation and with humble confidence, for you are loving. Set me free from self-consciousness, from anxiety about tomorrow, and from the tyranny of the approval and disapproval of others, that I may find joy and delight simply and solely pleasing you. May my inner freedom be a compelling sign of your presence, your peace, your power, your love. Let your plan for my life and the lives of all your children gracefully unfold one day at a time. I love you with all of my heart and I place all my confidence in you.” In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen