I don't believe I've ever witnessed such a powerful portrayal of fear as in the film Saving Private Ryan. From the first scene of shuttered, vomiting horror of the soldiers standing tightly together in the landing craft, motoring towards Omaha Beach and the terrible guns that awaited them there, from that to the private terror that paralyzes this young corporal who is a linguist. He's a maker of maps who had no business carrying a gun, but who found himself totally vulnerable and face-to-face with the enemy. The weeping, the trembling, the horror of fear, fear at its greatest. It's overwhelming in this movie.
Fear is necessary.
Fear is the topic this morning. However, not fear of something dreadful, but the fear of something wonderful, the fear of God. The fear of the Lord. From the beginning to the end of the Bible we're told to fear the Lord. The Bible asks, Do you want wisdom? Then fear the Lord. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The Bible asks, Do you want to lengthen your life? Then fear the Lord. Do you want God's protection? Do you want God's blessing? Do you want God's provision? Then fear the Lord. Do you want riches and honor, happiness, friendship with almighty God? The Scripture says, Then fear God. Do you want to know the love of God? Do you want to bring great pleasure to God? Do you want to learn to fear no one and nothing else? If you do, then the Scripture says that you fear God. And to parents, the Scripture asks the question, Do you want your children to be safe? Then fear God.
Who says? Well, according to Scripture: God says it, Moses said it, the prophets said it, and the apostles said it. Jesus himself said it. Over and over again the Bible stories tell us of the appropriateness, the rightness, the need of fearing the Lord. Here's Moses at the burning bush in terror, Isaiah in the temple, Pharaoh when the plagues began to fall, the Babylonian king Belshazzar when he sees the hand begin to write on the wall, the disciples when Jesus approached them in the dark of night walking on water. When he calmed the sea, when he brought them the great catch of fish, when he raised the dead, when he cast out demons, do you remember what their response was? They were afraid.
Jesus took Peter and James and his brother John and led them up on a high mountain by themselves, and he was transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased. Listen to him." When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.
The sound goes out in the book of Deuteronomy—a cymbal—to the men, women, and children, residents and foreigners, living in your town, so that they can listen and learn to fear the Lord. Their children must hear the Law and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land.
Well, it's a message we seldom hear nowadays. We're so taken up with the love of God, as rightly we should be; but, friends, we can never fully appreciate the love of God unless we've learned the fear of God. We can never really sing Amazing Grace with understanding until you've had a glimpse of God's amazing fearsome judgment. Well, why preach on this? I think about it a lot. I think about it nearly every day as I observe our nation, as I observe our leaders, our values, and our changing culture. Americans have lost the fear of God.
Psalm 34 says, "The angels of the Lord encamp around them that fear him." Oh fear the Lord you, his holy ones. For those who fear him have no want. Come, oh children, listen to me. I will teach you the fear of the Lord."
It's everywhere in the Bible. What does it mean? What does it mean to fear the Lord? I thought that the God of Jesus was mostly love and kindness and tenderness and forgiveness. Well, he is, but he's to be feared also.
Few writers portray this as well as C.S. Lewis does in his writing. Many of us are partial to the Narnia tales. The story of Jill and the Silver Chair is a good example of his portrayal of the fear of God. Jill, this little girl who's the central person, develops a relationship with Aslan, the lion of Narnia who is the Lord. And the most tender, precious, close relationship of love that you could imagine develops between this little girl and Aslan. And yet, Jill first had to learn to fear the lion. So, she encounters him first in the story at a stream where he's standing. He's huge and menacing and awesome.
"Are you thirsty?" asked the lion. "I'm dying of thirst," said Jill. "Then drink," said the lion. "May I…could I…Would you mind going away while I do?" asked Jill. The lion answered this with only a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at his motionless bulk she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move away for her convenience. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic. "Will you promise not, not, not to do anything to me" Jill asked," if I come?" "I make no promises," said the lion. Jill was so thirsty that by now without noticing it she'd come a step nearer. "Do you…do you eat little girls?" "I have swallowed up girls and boys, women, men, kings, emperors, cities, and realms," said the lion. And he didn't say this as if it were boasting nor as if it were sorry nor as if it were angry; he just said it. "I dare not come and drink," said Jill. "Then you will die of thirst," said the lion. "Oh dear, said Jill," coming another step nearer. I suppose I must go and look for another stream then." "There is no other stream," said the lion.
What it means to fear God.
The fear of God means at least three things. First, it means to be in utter, absolute awe of God. To be intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and physically overwhelmed by the holiness, the power, the purity, the righteousness, the justice, the greatness, the glory of God. No man, says the Bible, can see God and live, because his awesomeness is too overwhelming. The power of a great and terrible Pacific typhoon that kills thousands or the invincible might of ten million professional soldiers armed with the latest implements of war or the heat and glory of the sun itself or the appalling hideous explosive force of an atomic bomb, these things are but a snap of the finger of God. To fear God is to be in complete and total awe.
But it's more than that. Secondly, it's to have reverence for God; to fall down on one's face before God in honor, in homage and adoration and worship. The people of Israel in Bible times had a lovely way of showing their reverence for the Lord. The covenant name of God, the name that God shared with his people, his Name, the name Jehovah or Yahweh or Yahoa, this name was so sacred that the Jews refused to even pronounce it out loud. That's why we don't know how to pronounce these four consonants y-h-w-h. And when an ancient Jewish scholar came in his readings to the word Jehovah, he wouldn't read it out loud. He would say, "Adonijah," my Lord. That's reverence. Too holy to even speak aloud his name.
Bill Moyers, the television journalist, tells the story of a man's personal response to witnessing the launch of one of the Apollo shuttles in one of his books.
I was an observer at the launch of Apollo XVII in 1975. It was a night launch. There were hundreds of cynical reporters all over the town drinking beer, wisecracking, waiting for this thirty-five-story-high rocket. The countdown came and then the launch. The first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just about the limit of what you can bear to look at. Everything is illuminated with this light. Then comes this thing, slowly rising up in total silence because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across, and then you hear this whoosh-mmmp. It enters right into you. You can practically hear jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place as this thing goes up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize there are humans in it. And then there's total silence.
[And then this observation] People just get up quietly helping each other. They're kind. They open doors. They look at one another speaking quietly and interestedly. These were suddenly moral people because the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder had made them moral.
That's what the wonder of God does in a person's life. The fear of God has the same effect on people. It's awe and reverence which cause us to tremble before him and to wonder at him and to walk in obedience, to be moral, to want to be pure and pleasing to almighty God.
Now this connects with the third sense of what fearing God means. It's the fear of dishonoring or displeasing or disappointing, or it's the fear of disobeying your Father in heaven.
Many of you have heard me talk about the headmaster of my school. He towered six feet six inches above us. He was totally bald, broad of shoulder, big and deep of voice, stern, erect. He wore glasses that were thick in the lens and with thick black rims. I had never in my life met such an awe inspiring human being. I still haven't. In fact, he telephoned me out of the blue a few years ago; and as I realized to whom I was speaking, my kids tell me, that I stood bolt upright from the sofa and called him Sir.
It's like that with God. We can enter into an intimate relationship with God, but we can never be casually familiar with God—not a holy God. Mr. Duncan, my headmaster, never spoke to me harshly. He treated me kindly. He took an unusually deep, almost fatherly, interest in this poor teenage boy, and yet I could never relax around him. But you know what? More than anything else, I wanted to please that man. I wanted to come up to his expectations. I wanted to be what he saw in me. I had a fear of letting him down. Isn't that amazing?
That's the way it is with God. That's what it means to fear God. The disciples desperately wanted to please Jesus. His holy, fearsome love is what propelled them to risk, and ultimately lose, their lives for his sake.
When Martin Luther, that unique genius in the German Reformation, was hauled before the Emperor Charles V at the court in Vernes in 1521, he was accused of disobeying the Pope, dishonoring the Church, and misrepresenting God's truth. Luther, they say, as he stood before this august gathering was visibly shaken. He was overwhelmed. He hesitated. And finally he was able to ask for more time to "think it over."
His enemies assumed that he was overawed by the emperor. Luther is a peasant. He's a simple monk, son of a miner. They figured he was humbled by the presence of this prince, the lord of Austria, Burgundy, the Low Countries and the most important man on the continent. But they were wrong.
The truth is explained in his biography by Roland Bainton. It was not so much that he stood in the presence of the emperor that shook him up as that he and the emperor alike were going to be called upon to answer before Almighty God. That's why he was trembling. Luther feared God more than he feared the emperor. The next day he explained it. He said, "My conscious is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
A person who understands the fear of God doesn't want to let God down, but there's a more tender side to it. There's a sweeter side to it.
The sweeter side of fear.
One of my dear friends, a physician in Pittsburgh, grew up in the home. He was the son of a great Presbyterian preacher, Dr. David Barnhouse, at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Dr. Barnhouse told this story:
Several years ago I married a young couple. It's a quaint story. They were very much, and still are very much, in love with one another. They had met when they were thirteen and fourteen, had never looked at anyone else, and never would all their life. They went away on their honeymoon and after a few weeks came home again. I saw them in church the next Sunday, greeted them with a little pleasantry and I asked the groom if his bride had burned the roast for the first dinner she prepared. They laughed. And she said, "Oh, I was afraid I was going to. I'd read so much about the bride being unable to cook that I decided that John was going to have the very best meal a bride could prepare for her husband.
[Sounds quaint in the 1990s, doesn't it? But it's beautiful, too.] "So I began about three o'clock. I got everything out and started to work. When I finally put things on to cook I wanted everything to turn out well, and I was afraid they wouldn't. And of course he had to be a little late, and I was so afraid things would be spoiled."
So I interrupted her and said, "You've said three times that you were afraid. Did you think he was going to beat you?" She pouted and said, "Of course not," and she looked at him with all the love of her heart in her eyes. But I persisted, "You said you were afraid." She broke in. "You know what I mean." Of course I knew what she meant. Her fear was not fright; her fear was a great desire to serve the one to whom she's given herself entirely. And in this case, the fear of John was the beginning of good cooking.
Holy fear is a loving anxiety to please the one who loves you more than anyone else can ever love you. Although fearing God begins with a sense of fright before our holy God, it's not the same thing as fright before God. One Episcopal writer has said, "To fear God is to stand in awe of God." To be afraid of God is to run away from him. See the difference? They're close to one another but they're different. And once a person moves from the fright of God to the fear of God, he can then begin to understand the love of God and the humble gratitude to God that God desires us to know.
If we put an emphasis on obeying the laws of a frightening God, that produces an unhealthy kind of fear of God and it results in legalism, a slavish fear of a punishing master. That's not what it's about. You see, this is what Paul meant in Romans 5 when he said, "For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption when we cry out 'Abba, dear Father,'" that kind of fear. It's what the apostle John meant in his first letter, the fourth chapter, when he says, "God is love. Love has been perfected among us in this, that we may have boldness on the day of judgment." There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has to do with punishment.
So fearing God in the right way and loving God go hand in hand. They're a pair. Psalm 147 says it this way. It says, "The Lord delights in those who fear him who put their hope in his unfailing love." Fear and love. Gradually the right kind of fear for God will drive out the fear of other things and other people. Oswald Chambers said, "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear no one, nothing else. Whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else." Blessed is everyone that feareth the Lord.
But it's a long process to get to the place where you have no fear. Today, kids wear No Fear clothing, but they have fears. And I'll tell you, I'm not there yet. There are things I'm afraid of, just like there are things you're afraid of. That's okay. We're people in process. I believe there's no more important lesson to the twenty-first century man, woman and child than to learn the fear of the Lord.
How do we learn the fear of the Lord?
So, in closing, how do we learn the fear of the Lord? How do we as a church, first of all, learn to do as Luke says in Acts 9? He says, "The early church was going on in the fear of the Lord." How do we get there? I've got some suggestions.
First of all, the fear of God comes from God. You must ask him to teach you the fear of God. The natural person doesn't necessarily have a sense of fear of God. Pagans aren't afraid of God. The prophet Jeremiah tells us that God will put his fear into our hearts. So ask him to teach us the proper fear of God.
And then, secondly, reflect upon the character of God. When you read the Bible, don't just pick and choose. Read all of it. Read the parts that you don't like. Read the parts that make you feel squeamish that are just distasteful. Sometimes those are the parts we need most to meditate on. Ask yourself, What does this tell me about God's character? Read from the Psalms and the Proverbs every day if you can. They teach us the character of God. Think, ponder, and meditate when you're reading. Read the Scriptures.
Thirdly, study the lives of believers. Read about the saints, the martyrs, the ordinary men, women, boys, and girls who have gone before us and who followed the Lord. Read about people like Wesley, Whitfield, Augustine, Reece Howell the great Scottish intercessor, Brother Andrew, Jim Elliot, and others. Learn from the lives of others who have learned to know God.
Then, fourth, open your eyes to the creation if you want to learn to fear God. I have a goal to get out in God's creation somehow, someway every day even if it's just for a few minutes. To get out and meditate on, to savor, to soak in the mighty creation of God that will teach you the fear of God, the love of God, and the greatness of God.
Fifth, practice the worship of God. Friends, as your shepherd, I want to say to you gently that nothing is more important, for you or your children, than to participate in the weekly corporate worship of Almighty God. To kneel before God together in silence, to say the psalms, to sing his praise, to affirm the faith of the saints and martyrs over the generations, to recite the creeds, to sit under God's holy Word. To worship. I pray that the modern church does not succumb to the temptation to design our worship to be so user-friendly, to be so seeker-friendly, to be so casual as to lose all sense of the transcendence of Almighty God in our worship. A God before whom we need to have no fear is not God. It's just an idol that we've made with our hands.
How do we learn the fear of God? Well, finally, parental training. Parents, teach your children the fear of the Lord. If you want to protect your children, if you want to prepare your children, if you want to provide for your children, teach them the fear of God. Instruct them in the fear of God. I thank God that my mother read all of the Bible stories to me—not just the sweet and happy ones, but the frightening ones as well. Parents, I love you. And because I do, I tell you—you'd better do the same for your children. If you don't, I very much doubt that your children will walk with Christ in tomorrow's culture.
Our joy in God will be proportionate to our fear of God. Let's close with the words of the poet F. W. Faber:
But fear is love, and love is fear.
And in and out they move;
But fear is an intenser joy
Than mere unfrightened love.
They love Thee little, if at all,
Who do not fear Thee much;
If love is Thine attraction, Lord!
Fear is Thy very touch.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?