Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments. Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation for the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. They rise in darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor. The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intend to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astonished.
Happy are those who fear the Lord. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
It happened in a small town in a small United Methodist Church. A single mother was struggling to raise her two boys who were the talk of the town. At 10 and 12 years of age, the two brothers were often responsible for any of the “accidents” in town. They regularly vandalized certain buildings, were known for shoplifting candy from the local 7-11, and would ding-dong-ditch any house they could find.
Yet, on Sunday morning, there they were sitting on either side of their mother in church. The boys would politely greet the minister when they walked in, sat quietly, but during the sermon they loved to make farting sounds while the preacher paused in a sermon.
They were trouble.
Now because the mother was raising the boys all alone, many of the people in the community that wanted to do something about the two boys, felt that it wasn’t their place; that mother had enough on her plate.
This type of behavior went on for some time. The boys would continue their antics, driving people crazy, until one day when the mother had had enough.
The pastor at the local United Methodist Church was a young man fresh from seminary; he thought he had it all figured out. For weeks he had wanted to call out those two boys from the pulpit in the middle of a sermon, but he thought better of it, he would look down on that poor mother and let it go.
So it came to pass that the mother called the young minister. “Preacher,” she barked into the telephone, “I want you to strike the fear of God into my boys. This has got to stop.”
“It will be my absolute pleasure,” The preacher replied.
The following Sunday, after worship, the minister invited the two young boys toward his office, leaving one to sit outside while the other sat on the hot seat in the office.
In order to achieve some sort of repentance from the boys, the preacher thought about teaching them that God is always present, and therefore sees everything. This, he hoped, would teach them to behave better.
With the first brother sitting across the office table, the preacher began his lesson. “Where is God?”
“Where is God?!”
The boy began to fidget.
“Where is God!?!”
The lack of response was beginning to irritate the pastor.
“I want you to answer me right now, where is God?!?!”
And with that the boy jumped from his seat and hightailed it out of the office, grabbed his brother, and bolted for the parking lot.
“Whats going on?” The one brother asked the other.
“We’re in real trouble this time. God’s gone missing, and they think we had something to do with it!”
The psalmist writes, “Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” I have always found this verse a little strange considering the fact that whenever God shows up in the Bible, whenever God humbles himself to speak with one of his creatures, the first thing he usually says is, “Do not be afraid.”
In Mark’s gospel we learn about a time when the disciples got into a boat to go to Bethsaida. After dismissing the crowd, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, leaving his disciples alone on the boat. When Jesus came down he saw how the disciples were straining against the wind so he did what the Son of God would do, he walked on the water out toward the boat. He intended to pass them by, but when they saw him walking on the water they were utterly terrified, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. But immediately Jesus spoke to them across the water, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.
Yet, in Psalm 112, we hear about the blessedness of those who fear the Lord. To fear the Lord means that your heart is steady. If our hearts are fixed on evil, we shall become evil. If our hearts are fixed inwardly, we shall become ridiculously selfish. If our hearts are fixed upon things and possessions, we will become overwhelming materialist. All around us, perhaps even some of us, are failing because our minds and hearts are no longer steady, because our hearts are no longer fixed on the right thing.
So the psalmist calls out, blessed are those who fear the Lord. Fear comes to all of us, to the bravest as well as the cowardly. Fear comes to the faithful and to the faithless. Fear can be a good thing, it warns us to keep our eyes peeled for the danger that might lurk just around the corner. Fear teaches us to respect our elders, teachers, and bosses. Fear reminds us of our finitude. However, to be mindful of fear is one thing, to be constantly panic stricken is another.
A good friend of mine, raised in the church and pursuing a call to ministry, was once invited to a spiritual retreat at the cusp of high-school. For a long weekend, hundreds of young Christians would gather together in small groups to talk about the temptations of the world, how to keep the faith, and what it meant to walk with Jesus throughout their teenage years. They would also spend time as a large group worshiping, they would sing along to the contemporary Christian rock band, they would walk forward to receive communion together, and they would all reverently bow their heads to pray.
On the last night of the conference, at the final worship service, at the height of the concluding sermon, the fire alarm went off. The ushers and facilitators rushed everyone out of the building, yelling at the kids to hurry up as they struggled to find their peers. My friend was rushed through one of the hallways, forced around dark corners, until he found himself standing outside in the parking lot.
Spread throughout the area were life boats, and throngs of the young Christians were climbing aboard. My friend, unsure of what was going on, ran forward to the closest boat, grabbed hold of a rope and tried to swing himself on when the fire alarm stopped and a voice cried out over the megaphone: “Take a look around you, there are not enough spaces in the life boats for everyone. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
Fear can be a tool, but it can also warp and manipulate us. My friend refused to enter a church for years after that incident because of the way the people at his retreat attempted to manipulate his faith through fear. That is not the kind of fear that the psalmist calls blessed.
The disciples were on the boat, the wind was against them and they were having problems crossing on to the over side. They were doing their best to follow Jesus’ commands, yet the world was not matching their expectations. They must’ve felt tired and abandoned out there all alone; why had Jesus asked them to do this? Where was he when they really needed him? Somehow, though stricken with overwhelming fear, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water while calling out, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
When fear was the most appropriate response to the present circumstances, Jesus triumphantly declared, “Do not be afraid.” In the many chaotic moments of our lives, when bashed by the waves of the world, Jesus continues to call out to us, “Do not be afraid.” Christ is there with us on the rocky boats of life’s circumstances, God listens to our prayers, and the Holy Spirit moves through everyone of us to help transform this world into God’s kingdom.
The disciples, the Israelites who sang Psalm 112, and all of us are not called to be motivated by fear, but instead motivated by love. The disciples did not leave everything to follow their God because he had promised them hard days and suffering, though that often comes if we take faith seriously, but instead they were offered a new way of living. Those who do not want to be afraid are those who have decided to see the world through the lens of faith, to be free from the tyranny of the world. People without fear are those who are fully open to the troubles and the needs of their fellow human beings. They, as the psalmist writes, rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous. Their hearts are secure and firm in the Lord, they will not be afraid because they know the Lord is with them.
Fearing the Lord, as the psalmist writes, means loving the Lord. Loving God enough to realize that God wants to us to love one another, to strive for justice, to celebrate peace, to take faith seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. Those who cannot sigh with others in the midst of suffering, and laugh a little bit about themselves are the ones who will be controlled by their fear.
There has been plenty of fear used throughout the history of the church, perhaps today more than ever. Churches have become professionals with motivation by fear. If you don’t tithe, if you don’t believe, if you don’t commit to prayer, etc. Right now, what we need more than fear is a little bit of laughter, we need some joy, we need to rediscover the happiness that the church contains for those who want to follow Jesus Christ.
I like to imagine that later in Jesus’ ministry, or perhaps after the resurrection, the disciples would be together joking about the old times. “Do you remember that time Jesus went into the temple and over turned all the tables!? How crazy was that?” “Or when he asked us to go find him a donkey to ride on into Jerusalem? What a character!” “Or what about that time we were all shaking with fear on the boat and Jesus calmed the wind like that *snap* what a night that was.”
Laughter, joy, and excitement must have been a part of the disciples journey through faith.
Thats why I started the sermon with a funny story about two young boys running out of a church. Until we can laugh together about the excitement of faith, then the fear of God will remain what many people get out of church.
Happy are those who fear the Lord, because they realize that God’s love is incredible. We fear God’s love because we recognize that we do not deserve it. We fear God for welcoming us into this journey when we have so little to contribute. We fear God for inviting us into a place to be loved, when we feel unlovable.
We have too often settled for the motivation of fear in church. Can you imagine what the church could look like if instead of gathering to hear about what we must do to change in our lives, we gathered out of joy and excitement and laughter?
Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.
Let us all recover that sense of happiness and delight in our faith journeys. Let us be motivated by the good God who calls us by name to laugh, live, and love. Let us rekindle the flame of faith in our lives to be utterly astonished by the God who came to die, and live, for us.
Fear not, for God is with you.