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.