A Wakening Fear
As my children are discovering, one of the debatable benefits of being a pastor’s kid is the dinner conversation. This past week, I had Luther’s Small Catechism lying open on the table, because I had been using it to prep Wednesday’s study.
We started talking about Luther’s guidance for table blessings, and I told them about how Luther encourages believers to say a prayer AFTER eating as well as before. Then, I shared the words of Luther’s prayer, which include this line: “(God) finds pleasure in those who fear the Lord.”
The confusion was immediate. “Wait… we’re supposed to be afraid of God?”
I didn’t say this in the moment, but “the fear of the Lord” has probably been the one biblical concept that has given me the most problems throughout my life of faith. Why in the world would God want us to fear? “FEAR NOT” is the most repeated command in scripture. How could our fear not only be desirable, but something that gives God pleasure? How can fear be a good thing?
We all know from our personal experience how destructive fear can be, don’t we? Think about it. Remember a time that you have been afraid…
What happens in your body? Even in memory, I bet you can feel the tension… your heartrate quickening… your muscles tensing for fight or flight… this is not a spiritually open state.
And what about your thoughts and emotions? They go into self-protective mode, right? The very state of being turned in on ourselves that Luther describes as the essential posture of sin. This is NOT desirable.
Jesus’s parable from our reading today describes another consequence of fear: the inability to act. The third servant in the parable, hides his master’s money, rather than investing it. He is unable to engage actively in the work he has been given, and when he is called to account, he makes it very clear why he was so paralyzed:
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.”
He was afraid, and his fear paralyzed him.
In wrestling with this parable, it is important from the beginning to establish that the master figure in the story is NOT an allegory for God. This is clear from the description of his character that the servant declares and the master himself admits. He is not only harsh, but he is also exploitive – reaping and gathering things he has no right to. But this doesn’t fit God. In addition to the biblical assertion that God is LOVE, God is also Creator of the Universe, so God has rights to EVERYTHING. Which means, the master cannot be a not a stand-in for God.
Once we realize that, it is easier to recognize that this servant had a really legitimate reason to be afraid. He was in real danger. His master was harsh and exploitive, and had no compassion for a servant who failed. Unfortunately, the servant’s non-action didn’t save him. Even though he at least protected the master’s money, he was still called “worthless” and thrown into torment.
As I mulled over this story this week, I couldn’t help but see parallels to other victims of exploitation and abuse by powerful men. There are just so many stories in the news right now. And what struck me particularly is the research I have been reading about a phenomenon called “tonic immobility.”
We probably all know about fight and flight, but there is a third physiological response to extreme stress and threatening situations: freeze.
Think of opossums, who play dead when threatened by predators. Our bodies can do the same thing. Literally freezing and making it impossible to fight back. And then making it impossible to act after the fact – to tell the story, or to seek justice.
It’s a self-protection mechanism, but unfortunately it can have unintended consequences. Sometimes those who feel most powerless get blamed for their lack of action.
Just like the third servant. He was afraid. Afraid to take the risk of exposing himself to the penalties of a harsh master who would do who knows what if the servant lost his master’s money. He was just trying to protect himself… but he still got blamed. His fear was maladaptive. It immobilized him in an effort at self-protection… but it didn’t work.
Which leaves us with the same question we started with, right? How can fear be something God requires of us? How can fear – whose negative consequences are so clearly shown in this parable – how can it be a good thing?
I find the answer to that question in understanding that there are DIFFERENT KINDS of fear.
Fear that immobilizes, or silences, or victimizes is NOT good, and it is NOT what God requires of us.
But our reading from 1 Thessalonians presents an image of a different kind of fear, an ENERGIZING one.
Actually, it starts with a different kind of immobility. Paul describes the people who have been lulled into apathy in regards to living an active faith – those who say to themselves “there is peace and security” – and he warns that they are in for a nasty shock.
Just like we can all remember moments in our lives of terrifying fear, we can probably also relate to this kind of passive complacency.
The Christian church no longer lives with the daily expectation that Christ might come back at any time. And the American church mostly lives a life of relative comfort. That’s not to say we face no trials, or that all of our lives are easy. But we are not in a state of eschatological expectation, or of active persecution. We don’t have daily, external reminders that our faith is a matter of urgency.
And so, the final chapter of 1 Thessalonians can give us an important jolt of fear. "The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night…as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!”
The peace and security that we might be tempted to think of as our birthright… they are not where we should put our trust. They are not guaranteed. And when they seem solid and reliable is when we most need to remember the fear of the Lord – the truth that God can snatch that all away in a heartbeat.
This kind of fear is transformative. It moves us to action. As Paul encourages: “let us keep awake and be sober." Our faith is not about resting in comfort, it’s about active discipleship.
The fear of the Lord – the recognition that NOTHING but God is a reliable source of security –stops us from building up self-protective walls to guard our comfortable complacency. Our wakefulness won’t let us rest in comfort when others are in need or suffering.
Which answers the question of how “fear” can be good – because of its motivating power. Of course, that can still leave us feeling weighed down by responsibility that might feel too heavy for us.
Except, this transformative fear doesn’t operate alone. It is paired with faith, love, and hope.
With the promise that “God has destined us not for wrath bu for obtaining salvation.”
Paul does not want us immobilized by complacency, but he also knows that fear alone is an inadequate motivator. Our anxiety about failing to do our part in what God is doing in the world need to be accompanied by the assurance that we are not working out of our own strength and goodness.
We need to stay awake, but we also need to put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation – things that we can’t create for ourselves, but can only receive. We are called into God’s active work in the world by Jesus “who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him." We are not working out our salvation – that is assured. We are doing the most that we can with the time we are given.
So, what do we do with this on a practical level? How do we avoid the immobility both of fear and of complacency?How do we live out an active faith?
There are many answers to that question – it is a life-long task to continually discern how God’s Spirit is prompting us to work for our neighbors and to serve God’s purpose in the world.
Here are Abiding Peace, we are highlighting a few of these areas of activity during the final months of this year.
In November, we have been focusing attention on our stewardship, recognizing that generosity with the resources God has given us is one of the disciplines of our faith. As Robert will be sharing in his sacred story time in a minute, our budget supports our mission in the church and in the world. When we are awake to that reality, we will want to support the work of God’s church as a primary financial commitment (not just something we do when we have a little extra).
Next month during Advent, we will be exploring the theme of active waiting: looking for the ways that we are called to work, worship, and witness to God while we wait for the fulfillment of God’s will on earth.
Maybe some of those words cause you a little fear? Stewardship…witness… these can be intimidating, or at least uncomfortable, words in the church world. But, remember, kingdom fear is not immobilizing; it is transformative. Because our awareness of our own weakness is paired with the promises of God. God has called us all to an active, life-transforming, world-transforming faith.
And while we are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s plan, we are never alone in this work.
Thanks be to God.