Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Terrors of Grace

My home town of Franklin, Virginia (population about 4,000 when I was growing up, no more than 10,000 now) is about to become well known to readers. Mark Richard, whose first book won the PEN/Hemingway Award, has just published a memoir called House of Prayer No. 2. It includes a lot of material about his growing up in Franklin. He was interviewed at length by Diane Rehm on Feb. 9, and the book is favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review this Sunday:

Some years ago when I was still at Grace Church in New York, I wrote a sermon using a New Yorker short story by Mark Richard. It will appear in my forthcoming book God Spoke to Abraham. Here it is:

The Terrors of Grace

Epiphany 1992

Psalm 111:10, Judges 6:21-23

A remarkable short story appeared in The New Yorker last year called “The Birds for Christmas.” (Not the least remarkable thing about it was that the author is Mark Richard, who is from my very small home town of Franklin, Virginia.) The story tells of two adolescent boys, both seriously injured, who are in a hospital ward on Christmas Eve. One is white—he is the narrator—and one is black. They have no visitors and no presents. The nurses try to be kind, but they are overworked and preoccupied. The boys, in their boredom and loneliness, swear at the nurses and are constantly having their beds rolled out into the hall away from the television as a punishment. The black boy, whose name is Michael Christian, has one Christmas wish. He knows that Hitchcock’s film, The Birds, is going to be on TV that night and he wants to see it. He says, “I want to see The Birds, man. I want to see them birds get all up in them people’s hair.” It is clear, however, that he is not going to get to see it, and a sense of abandonment and hopelessness settles over the scene as the early darkness falls.

But then suddenly, near midnight, a drunken Santa Claus with a speech defect appears in the ward. He is only a troubled and lonely soul himself, and his Santa suit is askew and none too clean, but he is carrying a portable television. The night nurse relents and lets them set it up in a place where they will not disturb the other patients. The four of them—the night nurse, the boozy Santa, and the two abandoned boys—settle down to watch the movie. A Hitchcock movie would seem to be very unsuitable fare for Christmas Eve, but a serene calm descends upon the little group. Michael Christian’s only comment as he watches is, “Those birds really messing them people up,” but it is clear that a small, fleeting moment of grace and mercy has occurred.

The last sentence in Mark Richard’s story is taken from the King James Version of the Nativity scene in the New Testament. When the movie is over and the boys are told to go to sleep, the story ends with the words of the white boy, the narrator:

It was Christmas Eve, and we were sore afraid.

This combination of heavenly grace and earthly fear is one of the most powerful recurrent themes in Scripture, but in our time it has been obscured by current trends toward bland, inoffensive theologies. In the nineteenth century, the “fear of the Lord” was a common phrase among Americans, and it was understood in its biblical sense; today it tends to put people off, so we don’t say it. The motif of “the fear of the Lord” appears so many times in the Bible, however, that it requires very fancy footwork to keep out of its way.

To begin with, the saying that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” appears once in the Psalms (111:10), twice in Proverbs (1:7, 9:10), and once in Job (28:28). Twice in Genesis God is actually called “The Fear of Isaac,” as though it was one of God’s names (31:42, 53). Sometimes the word “fear” in English means something more like “reverence,” or “awe,” but very often it means just plain “terror” or “dread.” The very worst thing that can happen to God’s people is that they should forget the “dread” of the Lord. To give just one example, we read in Jeremiah,

Know and see that it is evil and bitter
for you to forsake the Lord your God;
the fear of me is not in you, says the Lord God of hosts.
(Jeremiah 2:19)

When we are told, repeatedly, in various parts of the Old Testament that “the fear of the Lord came upon the people, we are to understand that something beneficial is happening, even though it is terrifying.

This connection between grace and mercy, on the one hand, and fear and terror on the other, must be very important or it would not be repeated so often in the Bible. If I were to read aloud all the verses in the Bible that begin with the words, “Fear not,” we’d be here an extra half hour. Frankly, I was amazed when I looked it up; I hadn’t realized that the command not to be afraid, in one form or another, ran through the Bible from one end to the other. Perhaps the most familiar example is from the Christmas story:

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. (Luke 2:10)

We are in the season of Epiphany, which means that we are reading various stories about the way God shows forth his glory. Whenever God shows forth his glory, you are going to find the words “Fear not,” or something like them. The glory of the Lord and the fear of the Lord go together. As Annie Dillard has written, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package tour of the Absolute? We should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers.”[1]

Today we have two readings about the fear of the Lord, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The first one is part of the story of Gideon, one of those rousing narratives for which the Hebrew Bible has always been famous. The reading for today tells the beginning of the story; you can read the rest of it in Judges 6-8.

The story begins with the Midianites. Being an Israelite during the invasions of the Midianites must have been a little like being a Kurd in Iraq—constantly in danger of losing everything, always afraid of being uprooted, never secure.[2] We first see Gideon, an untried young man of no distinction from a small Hebrew tribe, threshing wheat in a hidden spot hoping to hide his meager yield from the Midianites. As he engages in this pedestrian activity, suddenly an angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” I think this is supposed to be funny. Gideon is not in the least a mighty man of valor. He is just a kid, a nonentity. He has the good sense to recognize this himself, for he says to the angel, “My clan is the weakest in the tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” But the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall smite the Midianites as if they were one man.” Notice that, in the Old Testament, “the angel of he Lord” is equivalent to the Lord himself. If the angel is present and speaking, the Lord is present and speaking.

Now Gideon does not quite believe that this is the Lord speaking to him. He asks the angel to wait while he goes inside and prepares an offering so that the angel can give him a sign that it really is the Lord. This is an exceedingly presumptuous request; we know from other parts of the Scripture that God frequently comes down hard on people who ask for signs. In this case, God demonstrates his freedom, condescending to Gideon’s youth and ignorance of his own people’s history with God. The angel displays amazing patience; he sits down under a tree and waits for Gideon to go inside and prepare a young goat for cooking, with wheat cakes and broth. This must have taken some time. When he gets back to the tree, the angel is still there; this is meant to amaze us, that the Lord of Hosts would indulge Gideon like this. Gideon puts his present of a meal on top of a rock which serves as a table. The angel tells him to pour the broth over the food—to drench it, in other words. Now come the special effects:

Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and there sprang up fire from the rock and consumed the flesh and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that he was the angel of the Lord; and Gideon said, “Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face.” But the Lord said to him, “Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die.” (Judges 6:21-23)

The reaction of Gideon to the presence of God is duplicated over and over in the Old Testament. When God appeared to Isaiah, Isaiah cried,

Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5)

It is commonplace to hear people declare that “the fear of God” is an Old Testament notion which is out of place in the New. But in our lesson from the Gospel of Luke today, we see a memorable corrective of that mistaken view. Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen have just spent a very disappointing night out on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus comes along on the shore and, with that air of mysterious authority that characterized him, tells the fishermen to put out into the deep water again, and let down their nets again. Peter is irritated by this. “Lord!” he says. “We’ve already been out! We caught nothing all night!” Such is the power of Jesus’ command, however, that the tired little group of men, no doubt swearing under their breath, haul the heavy nets into the boats again and row out. You know what happens; the catch of fish is so huge that the nets start breaking and the boat begins to take on water.

When the men get back to shore, what happens? Do they whoop it up as if they had just won the lottery? On the contrary. Peter falls on his knees before Jesus standing on the beach and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:8-11).

Two stories: one about Gideon, one about Peter. God draws near to them both, and both are overcome with terror. At the instant of their fear, however, the word of the Lord comes: Do not be afraid. And the reassurance is immediately followed by the promise of divine help for the mighty tasks that lie ahead. Luke has modeled his story to be parallel to the epiphanies of YHWH in he Old Testament.

What is it about the appearance of God that causes dread? An influential German pastor of the 19th century, Christoph Blumhardt, wrote:

There is a question that strikes fear into our hearts, and every honest person will feel it with me. It is this: Will I be able to stand before God? Will I be able to stand before the Saviour? Many people who feel quite reassured because they attend church every Sunday and participate in religious activities…would nevertheless be terrified if suddenly they should hear the thunder of the Last Judgment and witness the arrival of our God. They would then come to see their Christian cloak as a filthy garment.[3]

This last sentence is a reference to Isaiah 64:6: “All our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” There is a fundamental sense in which we need to understand that the God who is really God is opposed to us. Over against our littleness is his greatness, over against our impurity is his perfection, over against our sin is his righteousness. This is the reason that God must say to us, “Do not be afraid.” If we have never known this, then we must submit to J. B. Phillips who taught us, “Your God is too small.”[4]

The attitudes of God toward us are too much for “unaccommodated man” to bear.[5] The attributes of God toward us are these:

· Perfect justice
· Unconditional love

We cannot tolerate either one. The perfect justice of God would require that each of us be condemned, not only for our own sinfulness, but also for our participation in the human condition in general, as Isaiah recognized when he cried out, “Woe is me…for I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

Unconditional love terrifies us also. I think of a man I once knew who had a serious automobile accident which left him helpless for several years. His wife nursed him devotedly and performed all sorts of intimate services for him. When he finally recovered, he left her and married another woman who would not be a constant reminder to him of his weakness and dependency. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” We don’t want to be loved unconditionally; we want to feel that we are deserving of love.

Perfect justice and unconditional love are combined in the person of Jesus Christ, who was hastened to his horrific public death by all the best people. The world has never seen his like. In him, God the Father is definitively revealed, in his love and in his justice.

Grace is terrifying. God is opposed to us; he is opposed to our selfishness, greed, idolatry, cruelty, pettiness, pomposity, vanity, and self-deceit. Yet God is for us. He is for us in ways that we can scarcely imagine, indeed could not imagine if he had not revealed his conquering love in Jesus Christ. It is the love that not only opposes all that is harmful in the beloved but also has power to make our resistance go up in flames like Gideon’s meat and cakes. When God appears, we are filled with fear; but the fear is instantly removed by the enabling word, “Fear not.” The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because the awareness of sin comes only to those who are already standing on the brink of their salvation. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because it cannot come about unless God is present with us and for us.

Like the people Michael Christian was watching in the movie, you and I are indeed “messed up” and our city and our world is “messed up.” We are all seriously sick patients in the hospital, swearing at those who would help us, venting our anger on our fellow patients, clutching our privileges to ourselves, increasingly indifferent to the suffering of others, puffed up with an exaggerated idea of our own importance, deficient in giving and—most damaging of all—deficient in receiving love. Yet at any moment, while we are about our mundane daily lives, cleaning our nets, threshing our wheat, doing our income tax, riding the subway, there may suddenly come an irruption of grace—an angel sitting under a tree, a catch of fish, a disheveled Santa Claus, a strain of music, a Valentine, a spurt of energy, unexpected forgiveness, fire leaping from the rock. Count yourself blessed if, when such moments come, you have a sensation of holy dread, a suspicion that what has happened might have come in spite of your deserving, an intimation that all good things come, not from within ourselves, but as mercy from above.

If your rebelliousness and mine were allowed to play itself out to the end, we would have our beds rolled out into the dark forever and ever with no visitors and no presents; but the God who terrifies is also the one who loves us for all eternity. If you come to know the fear of the Lord, count yourself blessed, for the next words that you hear will be

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.


[1] This famous quotation from Annie Dillard is in her Teaching a Stone to Talk.
[2] A few years before, the Kurds had been under murderous attack (Saddam Hussein’s Anfal Campaign) and were fleeing by the tens of thousands during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.
[3] Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader, Vernard Eller, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 123.
[4] J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Touchstone, 2004. Copyright 1952).
[5] Shakespeare, King Lear, III/4.