Video for September 7th, 2023
Hello everyone and welcome back to the videos. I hope you’ve all had a good summer. I’m recording this from Monpazier, one of those achingly beautiful Bastide towns in the Dordogne region of France. They seem to have been able to preserve their medieval built environment better than anyone else. I wish I could have been in the Council meeting in Hereford in the 18th century that voted to knock most of the walls down. I would have objected. Just think of the tourist trade if they’d still been there. This is now a place of great beauty, but its origins are rooted in fear and power. These Bastide towns were Commissioned by Edward the first in 1285. This town, like the others, were on the frontier between English and French controlled France. They were places of conflict. People from the surrounding land would retreat here in the face of military threat. It was time of turmoil and fear. The same sort of fear that our Ukrainian friends are experiencing in the face of a Russian invasion. Fear is not something we want to cultivate, and yet the phrase the fear of the Lord occurs so often in the Bible its hard to see how we so easily ignore it as a central quality of the Christian life. People might describe us as God-fearers or God-botherers but only as a joke.
The writer of Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” The writer of Ecclesiastes concludes his philosophising with, “here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.”
Orthodox Jews ask God every day to give them the fear of the Lord. Pauls magisterial diagnosis of the human condition, for which the Gospel is the remedy, in Romans chapters 1-3 concludes humankind’s greatest sin is not fearing the Lord. As Isaiah looks forward to the coming Messiah in chapter 11: 1-3, he talks about how the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, and one of the features of this will be a ‘delight in the fear of the Lord.’
I am not a signer, but I understand that there are two signs in sign language for fear. One conveys the idea of being afraid, but the other speaks of awe. There is a line in a song from Jesus Christ superstar that puts it quite well, “I don’t know how to love him.” “Yet if he said he loved me, I’d be lost, I’d be frightened.” It is this awe and respect for the one who created the universe that lies at the root of the fear the Bible encourages us to cultivate. There is gravitas inherent in certain offices of state. When you meet King Charles, there are protocols to observe in addressing him to ensure that you know where you are and don’t make a fool of yourself. God in the Gospel has set certain protocols in place for us to relate to him. I’m sure even his majesty would recognise the creator of the universe is rather worthier of appropriate respect than he is. He said as much in his coronation.
Of course, this has to be handled with care. There are a lot of people today locked in fear for all sorts of reasons. But the fear of the lord brings together ideas of awe, reverence, worship and confidence that are simply essential to a healthy Christian life. There are several thrusts of New Testament ethics. One is the anticipation of Christ’s return in judgement and the accountability that will follow. One is the response of a grateful heart. Why would we want to offend the one who has given us to much by dying for us on the cross? But another is the fear of the Lord, an Old Testament idea that will not go away. Simon Ponsonby said that, “sin appears, when the fear of God disappears. The fear of the Lord will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the fear of the Lord.” Paul had a lot to say to the New Testament church about a presumption on grace. We have experienced the extraordinary love and grace of a God who in love shows himself to us in Jesus Christ, makes forgiveness, and a relationship with him possible. But even though Jesus can call us friends, that doesn’t make us suddenly his best mate.
Holidays are a time to reflect away from the pressing demands of the day to day and I have found myself coming back to this idea afresh. Its much more difficult to commit adultery in mind or heart if you fear the Lord. More difficult to be indifferent to the plight of creation if you fear the Lord. You can’t be indifferent to another’s eternal destiny if you fear the Lord. Its much more difficult to assert your own rights in conflict in Church if you fear the Lord, and if you don’t have the fear of the Lord its much easier to be mean than generous.
I have no doubt that what our church needs if it is to survive and thrive is much more than clever strategic thinking. We need a spiritual invigoration that historically has always been preceded by much prayer and followed by a pouring out of the spirit. One of the first signs of that is a renewed sense of awe of God, even before it brings fresh fruits in evangelisation.
May Jesus Christ be in the right place in all our hearts as we seek to make him known.