Fear

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 9, 2020
Matthew 14:22-33

Peter got out of the boat and started walking on the water toward Jesus. But when Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink. He became frightened and began to sink. Notice the ordering here. As Stanley Hauerwas put it: “Losing sight of Jesus means that Peter, like all of us, cannot help but become frightened, which means we cannot survive.”*

In our world today, truly, there is much fear. For our health. For the economy. For our political turmoil. These fears root themselves into our brains. And what’s worse, is that plenty more people out there want to make a buck off frightening us even more.

And so what do we do? Our boats are being rocked. The stormy wind is blowing. The waves are crashing over the sides. We are afraid. Distracted and worried about all the myriad problems of the day, we take our eyes off Jesus. We sink into worry, into debt, into doubt. All those fears now run our lives, and eventually, they take our lives away from us. Because we are afraid.

Well, I have a bold claim. The key, I think, is not getting rid of our fears. It’s not overcoming our fears. That’s impossible. The key, I think, is to fear God. When we fear God first, then all the other fears are put into their proper order. This is one of the key elements of Christian discipleship – proper fear, reverence, and awe of God.

Think of it – the ancients trembled before the Lord of Hosts. It was said they would be struck dead if they saw God. All throughout the Psalms and Proverbs, we’re taught that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Then Jesus calls Peter to walk on water. In the Prayer Book we pray that we are delivered from “dying suddenly and unprepared.” That’s not because we fear death, it’s because we fear God.* So yes, our primary fear is of God. The One who gave us life and who will reclaim our lives. I’m not saying that we should be scared of God. Heavens, no. Fear of God is reverence, awe, and amazement at a God who created us and loves us.

And when that fear comes first – when we are in awe of God before anything else – all the other fears get put into their proper place. Yes, we live in tumultuous, uncertain times. Yes, there is real social, economic, and political upheaval. Yes, there is a pandemic. All those things are worthy of our concern, but not our primary fear. When our lives are properly ordered you feel like you’re able to breathe a bit easier, to think a bit clearer, resting in the knowledge that God is with you because God is always the first thing on your mind. Fearing God first won’t make all your other fears go away, but it will make life more livable. But there’s something different yet again about the fear of God.

There’s that wonderful little scene at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The children are speaking with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan. Susan asks about the lion, “Is he — quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mrs. Beaver responds, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.” Mr. Beaver then says all that needs to be said, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Of course he isn’t safe, but he’s good. If you listen too closely, if you pray too much, God might just call you to go off and do something very, very unsafe but very, very good. God might just call you to step out of the boat, onto the waves, into the wind. God might call just call you to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.

Face it, this following Jesus business, loving God and our neighbors, is quite unsafe. Look where it got Jesus. Look where it got the disciples. If you don’t think that the way of love won’t get you put upon a very unsafe cross, then you might want to go back and do some reading.

And at some point, the day of decision will come, and you will have to decide what you fear most in life. And what you fear most is what you will spend all of your time, money, and energy taking care of.

If you are afraid of being alone, you might just spend too much time eating or drinking your feelings away. If you are afraid of losing your status and your influence, you probably spend your energy making sure you look good to everybody else. If you are afraid of losing wealth or money, you’re probably exhausting yourself by constantly fretting about the stock market and interest rates. If you are afraid of God, you will be spending your time in prayer, and service, and worship, and fellowship, in works of mercy, in works of justice, in love.

This is what makes the fear of God different. Mr. Beaver said it. Of course God isn’t safe, but God is good. And that’s the whole point – Jesus rescues Peter from drowning. God delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt into freedom. God provided for them wandering in the wilderness. God gives the gift of love, even when they all hated Jesus. God promises us new life, even in death. All those other fears that run your lives, they won’t protect you. They won’t be gracious to you. They won’t love you. They won’t be good to you as God is good to you. The waves and the wind and the stormy water could not have cared less about Peter, and yet those are the things he was afraid of. 

So I will not tell you this morning to stop being afraid of all that is out there. To tell you to stop being afraid would be like telling you to stop breathing, stop eating, stop sleeping, stop being human. I am also not telling you to be reckless. I am not telling you to discount those other very real concerns, thinking that no matter what God will keep you safe. I am not saying that if you pray hard enough then nothing bad will ever happen to you. It doesn’t work that way. We are followers of a Savior not a magician. But as your priest and pastor I will tell you this – living in the shadow of those other fears will never give you the abundant, free, liberated life that you so desperately want. Fear God first. Fear God first and you’ll find that the waves and wind and storm are still there, but Jesus will pull you up when you start to sink. Fear God first and you’ll experience the wonder and awe and amazement at a God who loves you so deeply. Fear God first, and you’ll find yourself joyfully in a life of prayer and service. Take heart, do not sink under those other worries, it is the Lord Jesus who is coming to save your life and to give you new life.

* “Matthew,” Hauerwas, 141.

* Paraphrase from Stanley Hauerwas in an interview with Duke Divinity School, Anglican House of Studies

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