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Fear. Jerry Seinfeld says, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
Fear is one of those excellent motivators. For most (not all), fear of losing your job is a motivator to work harder or at least update the resumé. Fear of being caught and punished is motivation enough for most to obey the law. Fear of not passing is a motivator for students to study. The list goes on. For others, fear / or a rush, motivates folks to go bungee jumping or perform dangerous stunts. However, I think most of us would like to limit our fear to a scary movie and not find ourselves or put ourselves in a position where true fear is a possibility.
Throughout history, there have been a number of individuals who have struck fear in the hearts of many. From Genghis Khan to Dracula, these individuals have wreaked havoc on people’s blood pressure. Paul Harvey, that great voice of radio, also tells us of another who struck fear in the masses. In fact, this one’s name was enough to do the trick. Harvey tells:
“He was a professional thief… He terrorized the Wells Fargo stage line for thirteen years, roaring like a tornado in and out of the Sierra Nevada’s, spooking the most rugged frontiersmen. In journals from San Francisco to New York, his name became synonymous with the danger of the frontier. During his reign of terror between 1875 and 1883, he is credited with stealing the bags and the breath away from twenty-nine different stagecoach crews. And he did it all without firing a shot… Black Bart. A hooded bandit armed with a deadly weapon. What was his deadly weapon? One word, it was FEAR!”
The funny bit about Black Bart, is that he was nothing to be afraid of. According to Harvey, “When the authorities finally tracked down the thief, they didn’t find a bloodthirsty bandit from Death Valley; they found a mild-mannered druggist from Decatur, Illinois. The man the papers pictured storming through the mountains on horseback was, in reality, so afraid of horses he rode to and from his robberies in a buggy. He was Charles E. Boles – the bandit who never once fired a shot, because he never once loaded his gun.” (Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story, p. 117)
So, if we’re smart, we’ll be afraid of the right things and work to avoid them, or if we’re a bit goofy we’ll go looking for a certain amount of fear, and on occasion, the boogie man we all fear turns out to be a mild-mannered druggist from Illinois. Meanwhile, there’s God. St. Paul writes, to the Hebrews, “For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” yet—and this is the crazy bit—we may be afraid of getting a speeding ticket, but we’re no more afraid of being judged by the Creator of the heavens and the earth than we are of being afraid of a puppy. Why is that?
Michael Yaconelli, in his book Dangerous Wonder, provides us with a bit of insight into why: “We have become comfortable with the radical truth of the gospel; we have become familiar with Jesus; we have become satisfied with the church. The quick and sharp Bible has become slow and dull; the world-changing church has become changed by the world; and the life-threatening Jesus has become an interesting enhancement to modern life.” (p.113)
Take our Gospel reading from today: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’… the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire….
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…. he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Does that spark in fear in your soul? No. I’m guilty of it. I listen to those words, think how much I like John the Baptist’s style, and go home; never giving, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” a second thought. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Cool.
I’m not saying that we need the kind of fear that drives us to go running through the streets like we’re being chased by some rabid clown straight out of a Stephen King novel, but I do think we need to more closely consider who it is we serve. Once, Hugh Latimer had to preach to King Henry VIII and he reports that he said to himself, “Latimer! Latimer! Remember that the king is here; be careful what you say.” After considering this, he said to himself, “Latimer! Latimer! Remember that the King of kings is here; be careful what you do not say.”
Granted, as we draw closer to Jesus, it does seem that we should in fact be more comfortable with God, but consider the time that the disciples and Jesus were out on the sea when the great storm came up. The disciples feared for their lives, but Jesus was asleep in the bow of the boat. They cried out to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They feared for their lives, so they called to Jesus, and Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus calmed the storm and the disciples “were filled with great fear.” They were with him, they knew him, they walked and ate with him, but they had not become comfortable with this Jesus and the things he did. They loved him and they knew that he loved them, and they would go on to follow him—literally—to their dying breath, but there was always this holy fear of what this Jesus, this God would do. And maybe, that points us to the real problem. Maybe we do fear God, but not with a holy fear. Maybe we’re simply afraid to wake him, because we are afraid of what he might do. We’re afraid of how he may change us and our lives. We’re afraid of what it will look like if we give ourselves to Him. We’re afraid of who we’ll become, which means we are afraid of being transformed into the person God created us to be.
I’m fairly certain it was the final installment of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip: the scene is a blanket of heavy snow, Calvin is all bundled up, and Hobbes the tiger is carrying the sled. Calvin says, “Wow, it really snowed last night! Isn’t it wonderful?” Hobbes replies, “Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand-new.” “A new year… a fresh clean start!” Calvin adds and then, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ Buddy… let’s go exploring!”
What if in our relationship with God we let go of the familiar and entered into the words of Jesus, “Behold, I make all things new.” What if, in union with and in holy fear of our God, we went exploring… what if we went boldly into the world in anticipation and wonder of what our God might do? What if, during this season of Advent, as we read about the Son of God coming into the world we actually allowed him to come into our lives and transform us? What if…
Let us pray: Father, in the wilderness of the Jordan you sent a messenger to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of your Son. Help us to hear his words, so that we may clearly see the way to walk, the truth to speak, and the life to live for Him, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Photo by Marina Vitale on Unsplash