1 John 3:13-end St Luke 14:16-24
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Pr 9:10
Perfect love casts out fear. 1 Jn 4:18
The fear of the Lord is clean, and endures forever. Ps 19:9
Faith in Jesus and his words to us, and the inward illumination of the Spirit received in Baptism, lead us to see or catch glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. And it is love of what we see, that moves us, motivates us, to enter the kingdom of heaven – we see God's love and enter when we gladly return that love and also share that love with our neighbour.
Last week we saw how our love can be confused, what the Rich man loved led him away from love of God and love of neighbour. Our growth in the spiritual life requires the perfecting of our loves.
Another primary and powerful motivator of human action is fear. As we begin this spiritual ascent into the life of God, it is helpful to reflect on how a right fear is also essential. Today we consider how our fear of earthly things and of God also needs to be perfected.
Today is also Father’s Day and I’ve been trying to think about how it is right to fear our father as a kind of image of the fear of our heavenly Father. More on that later…
Jesus tells us a parable today that deals with this question of having a right fear. He was at a feast hosted by a Pharisee and had told some parables that made one man at the supper shout out enthusiastically, Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!
But Jesus responded,
A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. [Lk 14:16f]
Why did they all begin to make excuses? They were preoccupied with the good things in their own lives – property - one had just bought some land, earning a livelihood - one had just bought a team of oxen, even the good of attending to family - one had just married and wanted to attend to his wife. What was on offer, a great banquet, could not match what those who were first invited thought to be better. But why were they preoccupied? They had a love of these things and also a fear of loosing them that made them want to attend to them. These loves and fears are understandable, but they are excessive, to the extent that they limit these men from participating in something so much more. This was an invitation from God to eat bread in the kingdom of God! They refused because they did not fear God.
In the parable, the master of the house, who is a figure of God, is angry at those who refuse. Angry that they are not only missing opportunities but throwing their lives away. The creature, given the invitation, is instead choosing a life apart from God, which in the end is death.
We don’t like to think of God as angry. But look at how that anger is expressed. The invitation goes out to all who are willing, people like Lazarus last week—the poor, the maimed, the halt, the blind. Those who accept the invitation are those who know themselves to be needy and want more from this life. And those who refused, hold themselves away from the goodness of God. Their punishment is this: simply that they hold themselves away from the goodness of God – none of those men which were invited shall taste my banquet. It is not vindictive, just a spiritual truth, a statement of fact – and the punishing judgement is not in the next life but immediate.
This is a tragedy we see all around us. How many altars around the world are offering the bread of heaven today with few attending? And the invitation is not only to church and to communion with God here. How many opportunities daily to love our neighbour are passed by? These too are invitations to eat bread in the kingdom of heaven! To step out in love is to enter the kingdom of heaven, and to feast. The Spirit is beckoning us to not fret so much about our earthly needs that we fail to attend to what is higher – to attend to the daily invitations to love our neighbour.
God’s anger is His love. God is not sometimes angry and sometimes loving - He is perfect love always, we only experience it differently from our side if we are moving towards Him or away from Him. These parables are God’s warnings, God’s shout, like a father shouting with a loud, even angry, voice to their child who is running onto a busy street to frighten them, to wake them up, to the real dangers. God would kindle in our hearts a right fear of the potential dangers of the spiritual ascent and right fear of Him, so that we may be watchful, obedient, and not fall away.
There are certain fears we should have, and there are other fears we should not.
We should have fears around earthly things: fear that we will not have enough to survive, fear that we will lose the things we have, fear surrounding our relationships with others, fear about our provisions for the future, fear of temptations, fear of not doing well on an exam, fomo – fear of missing out! A certain amount of fear in these matters is appropriate to safeguard the good things of this life and to spur us to work and study and to love others. But these fears should never be so great that they hinder us from God’s invitations to come even higher. We are to fear but also to trust daily that God will provide, trust his providential care, so that these earthly fears don’t get in the way of our spiritual ascent.
And we should have a fear of God – we are told this throughout the Bible. But the reasons we fear God and the manner of that fear needs perfecting.
One kind of fear of God, is related to our fear of judgement. This fear is important to lead us to repentance as we begin our journey but we will grow out of this kind of fear. It is related to our conscience.
A right fear of God’s judgement restrains us from destructive behaviours, or leads us to repentance when we’ve strayed. This is what John meant in last Sunday’s Epistle, when he said, “Perfect love casts out fear.” God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ casts out our fear of condemnation as we trust in his self-offering.
But also, a fear of God’s judgement diminishes in time as we follow in loving obedience to Him, as our love is perfected. John Newton, a former slave trader, had a dramatic conversion of heart while in the middle of that business. He was on a slave ship, the business inherited from his father, and suddenly saw the humanity in the men he was caging like animals. His fear of judgement was stirred up and then was relieved as he changed his life and came to trust in the mercy offered through Jesus Christ. He describes well the place of this fear of judgement in our growth in holiness in two lines from his famous hymn Amazing Grace, which is our offertory hymn today. He wrote,
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved…
There is, however, another kind of fear of God that should remain. The Psalmist declares, The fear of the Lord is clean, and endures forever. [Ps 19:9] This is the fear of God that the Virgin Mary speaks of in her song, the Magnificat: His mercy is on those who fear him. [St Luke 1:50]
What kind of fear of God would we want to have remain forever?
As a child I think we all learned to fear our fathers, in this sense: there was a limit to our wilfulness, our craziness, there was a limit, that when crossed, led to certain restrictions in our actions – that’s enough!, my father would say, and there was a edge to it. There was a strength that we came up against, that would, if our father was wise, not be wielded arbitrarily, but for our good. It becomes, I think, mingled with the idea of honouring our father, taking his perspective into account. And I think we probably internalize that in our souls in time, a certain fear restraining our excesses so that we might direct our energy rightly. To the extent that our fathers got that right, it has served us well. [There are, of course, many other aspects of fatherhood, but we’re focussing on this aspect this morning as we try to understand the fear of God.]
In the great novels, the Lord of the Rings, by J R Tolkien, there is a scene near the beginning of the first book, portrayed beautifully on film, that captures something of this right kind of fear. Bilbo, a childlike hobbit, is asked by his wizard friend Gandalf, to give over the ring of power that he has been caring for as a good steward. But Bilbo hesitates, and decides for a moment that he wants to keep it for himself. Gandalf, realizing the spiritual danger Bilbo is in, being consumed by its power, suddenly makes himself large in Bilbo’s eyes to terrify him, and Bilbo, like a frightened child, runs to the embrace of Gandalf, and gives over the ring. Gandalf reveals his power to awaken Bilbo to the seriousness of the step he must take, relinquish the ring. Gandalf frightens him, out of love for him.
There are many examples in the Bible, where God reveals his power, to frighten, with the purpose of awakening the hearts of his people to the seriousness of their calling. We can think of the burning bush which drew Moses near; or when God manifested his glory in a dark cloud on the mountain and in the sound of a loud trumpet at the giving of the Law; or the manifestation of God’s glory in the Temple to Isaiah; or the use of angels to terrify and embolden Gideon and Daniel for their missions; or of the revelation of God’s majesty to Job (next Saturday’s daily reading!). And we can think of how Jesus manifested forth his glory in miracles, and people were both glad and frightened – who is this!
All of these manifestations of God’s power evoked fear – not to push people away, but to make them take more seriously their steps in this life, in wonder, in hope, in awe, and expectation of glory. The manifestations had a cleansing effect, cutting away the distractions and giving ultimate meaning and purpose to their lives, a sharp refocussing.
It is the awareness of God’s presence, that awakens a holy fear of Him and that cleanses. Diadochus of Photiki, an early Church Greek Father, says, When, through great attentiveness, the soul begins to be purified, it also begins to experience the fear of God as a life-giving medicine which, through the reproaches it arouses in the conscience, burns the soul in the fire of dispassion. Prayer in time will certainly make us more and more aware of God’s holy presence – he is everywhere. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you, says James [4:8], and in that fear that His presence evokes, we will be purified.
To sum up: This is the perfecting of our fears:
- the lessening of fear of earthly cares by trusting that God will provide,
- the transforming of our fear of condemnation to a way of life that has no condemnation
- and the awakening of a holy fear of God that rightly acknowledges his glory and power and majesty – a fear that cleanses and purifies us continually.
With these fears made right, we will never refuse invitations to love, invitations to glory.
God invites us now to eat bread in the kingdom of heaven, let us respond quickly, through repentance and faith, that we may sit at his table.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2