“The Limits of Fear”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
August 19, 2018
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. Psalm 34:7i
The title of this sermon is “the limits of fear.” It is the 34th Psalm that drove me to this morning’s message. In its 22 verses, fear is mentioned five times – usually in reference to the wisdom of fearing God. So what does this mean for our spiritual lives? What truth can we take from this admonition to fear the Lord?
We will come back to these questions in a minute. Before we launch into a religious quest for meaning, let’s look at fear in it simpler form – namely, as a reality of everyday life. We begin by stating the obvious – fear has its place. No one would argue countless souls have been saved by a fear of falling when they approach a cliff face. Fear of destroying a relationship has kept many of us from saying what was really on our minds. Am I right? A healthy sense of fear has its place.
But I have lived long enough to know the crippling effects of fear and I have seen it destroy young people’s dreams. How many of you have been kept from risking your full fulfillment because of fear? How many of us have let fear keep us silent when a clear voice of moral clarity was needed? Fear can destroy one’s true character and prevent others from seeing the gift God intended you to be.
Fear has been used throughout the ages for political ends. Politicians have driven nations into fear of “the other.” The Israelites feared the Canaanites, Jebusites, Hittites and countless others. Hitler used fear to fuel his hate. At one time we feared the socialists, the communists, folks of a different color, Asians, Italians, Mexicans and others. Fear as a political tool is alive and well and it not only cripples individuals, it can tarnish the ideals of a nation. So while fear may have its place, it also posses a threat.
Why, then, did the palmist suggest that the fear of God is a virtue? I suspect that it is similar to that verse in a county western song of a young man who has to pass algebra or “mom and dad will kill you dead.” Sometimes our fear of how our actions might impact others helps us do the right thing. I suppose this is what the psalmist is aiming for. But he is making another point about the nature of God – God’s sovereignty.
To help me prepare for this sermon I read again Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards states correctly that God is the ultimate judge of the universe. God does not have to rise to our standards of morality. We must rise to God’s. In the end God will rightly judge us all. Edwards is right, but there is a counter voice within the religious tradition. In his book, The Crucified God, Jurgen Moltmann has this view:
“Finally, a God who is only omnipotent is in himself an incomplete being, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlessness. Omnipotence can indeed be longed for and worshiped by helpless men, but omnipotence is never loved; it is only feared. What sort of a being, then, would be a God who was only ‘almighty’? He would be a being without experience, a being without destiny and a being who is loved by no one.”
Jonathan Edwards may have scared people into virtue, but I have known too many religious people destroyed by fear, too many who feared the fires of Hell and lost sight of the joy of heaven, too many religious people who use fear to proclaim their truth as God’s truth.
No, I will listen instead to Jesus when He spoke of having no worry about tomorrow, what you shall wear or what you shall eat. Like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, God provides for the essential needs of life. “Don’t worry” is just another way of saying have no fear. Jesus, it seems to me, came not to inculcate fear in the little people of this earth but to burn it away in the fire of love’s fierce flame.
How, then, might we expel harmful fear from our lives. The 34th Psalm may help lead the way. There is, of course, our text: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” But we skipped over verse four: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” It is, for the psalmist and I would contend for us all, in seeking the sovereign God of heaven that deliverance from our fears awaits. It requires a willingness to let God be sovereign in our lives. It requires a restful trust in the purposes of God, an assured confidence that all will be well. We may not see it in any particular moment in time, but that which we see as evil, God uses for the good. Remember, then, this little part of verse four in First John: “There is no fear in love…” In that truth lies the key of our freedom from fear. You see, fear is a denial of God’s sovereignty. It is the lingering thought that all is lost when our expectations of goodness are not met. My friends, let God be God and trust that in the end God will not let your foot stumble. Let us pray….
i Psalm 34
1I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
3O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
7The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
8O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
9O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
11Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
14Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.
16The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
18The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
19Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.
20He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.
21Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.