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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Holy Fear

This was the sermon I planned to preach this morning (Oct 30, 2016).  It is not terrible, but it had two things wrong with it.  It is too similar to what I preached on Oct 23rd, and it is not what I really wanted to do.  So, I scrapped it at the last minute.

To understand the way the sailors of Jonah chapter 1 related to God, we need to look at the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5.  There, Jesus is already extremely popular, but has not yet called together his 12 disciples.  He is preaching by the shore.  After his sermon, he see Simon Peter, and Jesus tells him to put his fishing nets out in the deep water.  Peter responds that he has not caught anything all night.  Peter probably wants add, ‘Why are you, a carpenter, telling me, a fisherman, how to fish?”  What he actually says is “If you say so, Jesus, I will let down the nets.” 
            The catch is so massive, the nets began break and two others have to help him and they fill two boats with fish.  Awestruck, Peter throws himself at Jesus’ feet and, groveling, says, “Go way from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”  The holiness of Jesus shined a light on his own condition.  Peter could see who Jesus was and who he, himself, was.  He shakes with fear.  Jesus gently raises him to his feet and says, “Fear not.”
            This phrase comes up throughout scripture.  When an angel appeared to Daniel, the angel had to tell Daniel, “Do not be afraid” (10:19).  He had to say this because Daniel was very, very much afraid in the presence of this Heavenly being.  The angel who told Mary she would be the mother of Jesus began by saying, “Do not be afraid, Mary” (Luke 1:30).  In the book of Revelation, the resurrected Christ himself appears to John of Patmos and when John sees him, in awestruck terror he falls to the ground, the life scared out of him.  Jesus raises John saying, “Do not be afraid.”  And in Luke 5, Jesus tells a terrified Peter he need not fear.
            Fear is appropriate and inevitable.  God’s holiness magnifies the corruption sin has inflicted on humanity.  We were created “good,” made in God’s image.  Sin reduces to less than the vision God had in creating us.  In creation, we reflected God’s glory. Tainted by sin, we fall short of God’s glory.
            Yet Jonah was dishonest with himself when it came to appropriate fear of the Lord.  Seeing God, we know that running from God is impossible. Jonah saw God with greater clarity than we do.  He was a prophet called to a specific mission.  His sense of God was particularly sharp.  Yet, he who knew how futile running would be ran!
            Why he ran is a matter of debate.  He was told to prophesy against Nineveh.  God did not say a word about saving Nineveh.  Jonah was sent with a judgment prophecy.  Later, Jonah will claim that he knew God was going to relent from punishing the city (4:2), but that comes after the fact.  That’s like picking the winner after the game has been in played.  In chapter 1, when God tells him to go in verses 1-2 and in verse 3, he goes in the opposite direction, we are not told why.   What’s obvious is the absurdity of it.  He knows God.  He knows there is nowhere one can run from God.  Yet he runs from God. 
            God is holy and we are profane because of sin.  We were created to be holy, but every day, we make choices to rebel against our creator, and the accumulation of sin mocks the God of the universe.  We should fear God, but in a way that compels toward reverence.  Our fear should lead to worship, not retreat.
            This is not like the fear one might have of an abusive parent or of a bully or a dictator.  If you have been a victim of abuse or molestation, that is a different kind of pain and a different kind of fear.  That fear is a fear of evil, an evil born in the heart of the one doing the abusing.  God is not like abuser, the molester, the rapist, the bully.  God is who we run to in order to get away from the abuser. 
            I throw in this caveat because fear has in many cases been a destroyer of faith.  A lot of broken people won’t come to church, and more importantly, don’t think to turn to God for help because the people who taught them about God are the same people who abused them.  Pastors have been guilty of every form of abuse and it is awful.  When my title is “Fear out of Faith,” I do not mean the type of fear related to abuse.  When people have been abused, we who make up the body of Christ have to give them grace and mercy and we do this with enormous patience and gentleness. We have to be the community in which they are safe from fear.  God is graceful and merciful, patient and inviting and gentle.
            God is scary where holiness shines a light which reveals our sinfulness and our smallness.  Peter saw that miraculous catch of fish and wanted no part of it.  But, he didn’t run away.  His mouth said, “Go away from me Lord.”  But his body said something else.  His body was at Jesus’ feet, clinging to Jesus’ knees.  Jesus met him at that point of internal conflict.  Right there, Jesus called him to be a disciple.  Peter wanted to be as far from Jesus as possible and as close to him as he could get; he wanted both at the same time.
            Jonah, possessing much greater knowledge of God than Peter, much more experience in his relationship with God, only wanted the first part of the equation.  He just wanted to bail out, to flee, to get away from God.  His fear led him to abandon his own faith and to accept a gross self-deception.  Many believers today want to know God and then to disavow God when knowing God has implications for our lives.  Would-be disciples settle for the same self-deception that tugged at Jonah as he fled God. 
            People convince themselves that it is enough to check off “Christian” on the census, to tell others “I am Baptist,” to go to church 3 or 4 times a year, and to memorize the Lord’s Prayer.  That’s sufficient to be right with God and that’s all they want.  They don’t want to actually know God.  This hands-off approach to faith requires almost nothing, it has no impact on the person’s life at all, and it produces someone who has no sense of what God is about in the world.  That individual might be a church member.  However, that individual has no relationship with God. 
            That person with the noncommittal faith deep down knows he or she is living a lie, but it feels easy to keep living it.  It feels scary to open ourselves up completely so that the depths of our hearts are fully exposed before the living God.  That’s terrifying because when we do that, we are inviting God to step in and begin changing us from the inside.
            In the book of Jonah, we see God willing to do that, step into the lives of people, even for non-Jews.  The sailors on the boat where not Israelites.  They believed in God – or in gods – but, they did not know God.  The storm at sea confirmed something they already believed.  The world is much bigger than them, and it was beyond their ability, even as able bodied mariners, to control it.          The mariners’ response to all loss of control was to run to God.  When Jonah told them his god was the creator of land and sea, those sailors believed without hesitation.  And their fear increased.  They believed God would sink their ship because of Jonah and they would go down with. When Jonah told them the solution was to throw him into the sea, their fear increased more.  They hesitated.  They tried rowing (it hadn’t worked before, and it didn’t work now).  Then, they prayed, and threw Jonah into the sea.  The waves stopped battering the ship, the wind died down, and rain stopped.  The storm was over.  And, like Peter trembling at the miraculous fish catch they feared God even more. 
            In verse 12, Jonah tells the sailors, “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven.”  The actual Hebrew word is not “worship.”  It is “fear.” Jonah literally says, “I fear the Lord, the God of heaven.”[i]       The book of Jonah displays real faith that comes out of genuine fear of the magnificent holiness of God.  Jonah speaks this fear but betrays himself by running, and ends up swallowed by the fish and the sea.  The sailors live what Jonah says.  Their fear leads to worship.
            After chapter 1, we don’t hear from the sailors again in the story, but by the end of Jonah, we are left to wonder.  What did their lives look like after they became God-fearing worshipers?  They made it to Tarshish.  As each sailor, got off that boat, how was his life different after his encounter with the living God.
            How about our lives?  One of the cornerstones of the way we try to live as a body of believers is the encounter.  We pray that when we gather, people will meet God in this place, this gathering of believers.  In that meeting with God, when holiness exposes us at our worst, will fear drive us to our knees in confession and worship?  Or will fear make us runaway and pretend that God is far off somewhere, mostly uninterested in our lives?  We at HillSong try to set conditions so that you will meet God here and stay with Him.  Meet God and be made new in the process. 
            God controls how He will reveal himself.  When he does, we decide if we will run away, or if stripped down, we will kneel at the cross and receive forgiveness and grace and new life. I don’t know what you’ve been through today.  I don’t know the pains stabbing at your heart.  I don’t know your brokenness. 
            I pray this morning, you’ll open your eyes and mind and heart wide enough to see God.  When you see God, I urge you step into the fear.  Like Peter, even though you want to say “away from me Lord,” I pray you will step to God.  Step to the cross and let the Lord hang your sins on it.  Let the Lord wash you and bring you up from the waters clean, refreshed, renewed, and alive.  The sailors in Jonah 1 help me see the new possibilities of life that come when we step to God.  I pray you will see that too and that you will step toward God right now.

[i] E. Achtemeier (1996), New International Bible Commentary: Minor Prophets I, Paternoster Press (Peabody, MA), p.262

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