A burglar broke into a house one night. He shined his flashlight around, looking for valuables, and when he picked up a CD player to place in his pack, a strange, disembodied voice echoed from the dark saying, “Jesus is watching you.”
He nearly jumped out of his skin, clicked his flashlight out, and froze. When he heard nothing more after a bit, he shook his head, promised himself a vacation after the next big score, then clicked the light on and began searching for more valuables. Just as he pulled the stereo out so he could disconnect the wires, clear as a bell he heard, “Jesus is watching you.” Freaked out, he shone his light around frantically, looking for the source of the voice. Finally, in the corner of the room, his flashlight beam came to rest on a parrot. “Did you say that?”, he hissed at the parrot.
“Yep,” the parrot confessed, then squawked, “I’m just trying to warn you.”
The burglar relaxed. “Warn me, huh? Who in the world are you?”
“Moses,” replied the bird.
“Moses?” the burglar laughed. “What kind of people would name a bird Moses?”
“The kind of people that would name a Pit Bull Jesus.”
There are many times throughout Holy Scripture that we are told to fear God. For the unbeliever, that word fear brings panic and trembling, all that smiting business comes to mind, but for the one who places their trust in God, that fear turns to awe and reverence.
John Piper, theologian and preacher, has a bit too much John Calvin in his blood for me most of the time, but he explained this fear of God nicely. He asks the reader to imagine they are standing on a glacier in Greenland, just on the edge of a cliff, when suddenly a hugely violent storm blows in. The wind is so strong that you fear you will be blown over the edge of the cliff, but you find a small cleft in the ice to hide. From this vantage point, you know you are safe from the storm, but you can also still witness the awesome power of the storm. He writes:
At first there was the fear that this terrible storm and awesome terrain might claim your life. But then you found a refuge and gained the hope that you would be safe. But not everything in the feeling called fear vanished from your heart. Only the life-threatening part. There remained the trembling, the awe, the wonder, the feeling that you would never want to tangle with such a storm or be the adversary of such power. . . . The fear of God is what is left of the storm when you have a safe place to watch right in the middle of it. . . . Oh, the thrill of being here in the center of the awful power of God, yet protected by God himself! (The Pleasures of God, 198)
There is very much a balance that is taking place, for to step outside of the protection is to take the chance of being swept away by the storm; however, to take the protection for granted is to fall into reliance on self instead of God’s mercy. St. Josemaría Escrivá writes: “There is a great tendency among worldly souls to think of God’s mercy, and so they are emboldened to persist in their follies. It’s true that God our Lord is infinitely merciful, but he is also infinitely just; and there is a judgment, and he is the judge.” (The Way #747) Therefore, there is this fear of God. Not the kind of fear that you get from watching scary movies or bungee jumping, but an awe, a reverence that comes from recognizing who He is, and that the eternal dwelling place of our soul is in His hands.
Jesus is not a Pit Bull and God is not looking for ways to smite you, but that doesn’t mean he’s safe.
Yet, you would likely not be here if you did not already fear God in this way—if you didn’t believe or at least want to believe that there will be a final judgment, that He is the judge, and that we are completely dependent upon His grace. But there is also another fear of God that can arise. It begins to infect the heart of a believer when God begins to act. Technically put, it is a good case metathesiophobia. Simply put, it is the fear of change. This is the kind of fear we witnessed in our Gospel reading today.
Jesus and his disciples cross over the Sea of Galilee and come to the land of the Gerasenes, who are gentiles. We know this partly because in the eyes of the Israelites, the pig is a filthy animal, and they certainly wouldn’t be keeping herds of them.
When Jesus and the disciples arrive, they encounter the demoniac. He is filled with demons that recognize Jesus as the Son of the Most High God. It is clear to the demons that Jesus will exorcise them, so they beg him to not cast them into the abyss, but to send them into a herd of pigs that were near by. Jesus agreed, the demons went into the pigs (the first production of “deviled ham”), which drove the pigs mad, so they went charging over the side of a cliff.
The pig herders then ran into town and told everyone what they had seen. The Gospel then says, “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”
Jesus came into their land and he acted in a powerful way. He succeeded where both man and chains had failed. God showed up and there was great change, but when the people saw it they were afraid, they were seized with great fear and said, “We’ll have none of that. Thank you very much.” They asked Jesus to leave.
The one man experienced the power of God in his life. Those who witnessed it ran and reported it to the rest of the village. The villagers came, saw for themselves, and then out of fear asked God to leave.
On June 4, 1783 at the market square of a French village of Annonay, not far from Paris, a smoky bonfire on a raised platform was fed by wet straw and old wool rags. Tethered above, straining its lines, was a huge taffeta bag 33 feet in diameter. In the presence of “a respectable assembly and a great many other people,” and accompanied by great cheering, the balloon was cut from its moorings and set free to rise majestically into the noon sky. Six thousand feet into the air it went — the first public ascent of a balloon, the first step in the history of human flight. It came to earth several miles away in a field, where it was promptly attacked by pitchfork-waving peasants and torn to pieces as an instrument of evil!
Fortunately, we as Episcopalians are not afraid of change. (How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? What do you mean change the lightbulb?! My great grandfather gave that lightbulb!) A clergy person reported that he was successful in moving a piano from one side of the sanctuary to the other, with no uproar in the congregation. Other clergy were amazed and asked him how. “One inch per week. It only took five years. When I was done, everyone thought it had always been there.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
Moving a piano around is one thing, but when God shows up, when God comes and makes His home with us, and begins to change lives, others will begin to get nervous, then whether consciously or unconsciously some will resist. Why? Metathesiophobia, the fear of change has arrived. Is that fear unfounded? Absolutely not. Remember Hebrews 10:31 – “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” However, we must not allow the fear to rule our lives. We must allow God to move and work amongst us. We must welcome Him when he comes to make His home with us.
We fear God out of awe and reverence and we can fear God because of the changes He brings. Yet in both cases we can hear the word the Lord spoke to the Prophet Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
and as the Psalmist said to us today:
Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
Let us pray: O Lord, our God, fill with the Spirit of Christ those whom You call to live in the midst of the world and its concern. Help them by their work on earth to build up Your eternal Kingdom. May they be effective witnesses to the Truth of the Gospel and make Your Church a living presence in the midst of the world. This we pray in Your Son’s most holy name. Amen.