FROM FORGIVENESS TO FEAR
AREN'T you glad you don’t have to choose between being feared and being loved? Having it both ways is great. As we get older, we hope to have both respect and affection. Back in the 15th century, Machiavelli wrote an essay about the ruling of countries. He told his readers that a prince should seek to be both loved and feared, but if he has to choose one or the other it is better to be feared. If we follow his advice, we can let the affection go as long as we keep peoples’ respect. It’s easy to see how sensible that is, but it is not likely to be popular today, because most of today’s standards are set by show business, and who on earth fears an entertainer? If you want to be "the good guy," you shift fear over to the heavy.
Now, what do you suppose God wants? I don’t mean what does He want for us, but what does He want for Himself? Does He want us to fear Him or love Him? Remember from the Catechism, what do all the Commandments mean? We should fear and love God. Notice, it isn’t one or the other. God doesn’t have dilemmas. He can reconcile all opposites. He can solve all paradoxes. The skeptics ask whether God can make a stone so big that He can’t lift it. That is like asking whether you can make a one-sided triangle. I guess the best answer is, yes, God could make it but it wouldn’t exist. Outside of God’s power nothing can exist. So for Him there is no tough choice. He can be both feared and loved. And if we want to keep His Commandments, we have to do both; fear Him and love Him.
For us however, that’s a problem. How do you love Somebody that you fear? Life teaches us a different lesson. We love those who are dependent on us. Those whom we fear, we avoid. The Commandments won’t let us get away with that. We cannot avoid God; we cannot love Him; we know that we have not loved Him or even feared Him as we should; we can’t imagine what to do about it.
God’s Word is certainly a marvelous thing. This Psalm is a delicious morsel of it, a serving of sweetness, a revelation of God’s love for His fallen creatures. Historically this Psalm was a psalm of ascents, that is one used by pilgrims who were "going up," that is climbing from the Jordan Valley, one of the lowest places on earth, to Jerusalem, and the Mountain of Zion. But there is a deeper sense in which this Psalm ascends. It begins in the depths of depression and guilt, then rises to the exalted hope of redemption from every evil. During the centuries of Christendom, chaplains recited these words as they accompanied criminals to their executions. A penitent criminal might begin the journey in the depths of condemnation, but this morsel of God’s grace shows him a forgiving God, the city of Zion, and the everlasting morning. Make no mistake – it does not show us a lenient God. It shows us a merciful God. Those are not the same thing at all.
There is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. In the Book of Exodus Moses tells of how God hid him between rocks, then let all of His glory pass by. As He did so, Moses heard a voice saying, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy … Moses tells us that this was part of God’s very name, part of His innermost nature. Moses knew that the Lord had forgiven him, and afterward Moses both feared and loved the Lord. He had seen God and lived. His fear was a holy fear, drawn to the beauty of God’s holiness, yet filled with the utmost respect for it. He had seen what the wrath of God could do – on the Egyptians, on the sons of Korah, on his own sister. But on Mt. Sinai nothing bad happened to him. God’s mercy was even more awe-inspiring than His wrath, more incomprehensible than His justice.
You and I have never been summoned to Mt. Sinai. But we have seen something even more dramatic, more direct and clear. We have seen the Word made flesh; we have seen God stoop down to be in the pit with us, taking flesh and blood in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. As He climbs down to be with us in the depths, we see the full meaning of the Psalmist’s words, There is forgiveness with Thee. We see how much sin hurts God, yet He keeps its dreadful consequences away from us, dying on the cross and rising again in glory. He lifts all of our sins up to the height of shame, the hill not of Zion but of Calvary. There God let the evil of human sin fall upon Himself, absorbing all the pain, the sorrow, the humility. You and I crawled into the depths to avoid God, only to find that He crawled in after us and died our death. The Supper He sets before us is the sacrifice that removes all guilt.
Lutherans are accustomed to saying that God’s mercy sets us free to love Him. That doesn’t tell it all, nor does it tell it very well. Actually, God’s mercy sets us free to fear Him. Luther says in one of his prayers: If all did not depend on Thy mercy, if we could remove sin by our own power, no one would fear Thee, and the whole world in its pride would despise Thee. Don’t say you would be different. If God weren’t watching, would you avoid sin? Don’t say the whole world despises God anyway. People are not aware of the Law, the absolute demand God makes on all to fear Him and love Him, and of the dreadful consequences of disobedience. You can’t make up for your disobedience, but you can repent. You can look to Jesus as God’s answer – He is the right answer. You can take up your cross and follow Him. God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. He places it squarely between you and His wrath. But if you stand in its way, you cast your own shadow over His grace. The wrath is still there, but because of grace it is not directed at you.
Let Israel hope in the Lord… He doesn’t want us to stay in the depths. He wants to bring us up with Him, by the way of the cross, to the glory of the resurrection. The holy fear that grasps the hand God offers is the way out of the pit. You can’t dig your way out. The more you dig, the deeper you make the pit. Throw your shovel away, grasp the hand God stretches downward, the merciful Redeemer will pull you out, completely. This is a very serious thing. The world is no friend to us or to God. We are His Israel, called away from this world to have fellowship with Him. This Holy Supper is our Passover Feast, our remembrance of the great deliverance from the hand of the devil, the bondage to sin. As we look at the holy elements we can rejoice with the apostle and say "Now is the dwelling of God with men." Let the Word lead us to the proper fear, the loving fear, the confident fear of the Almighty who has come to be our Friend. Indeed, the same Holy One is coming again to be our Judge. Think about it – the Judge is our Friend. What a blessing to know that in the most important court that ever will be the Judge is our Friend. AMEN.
Rev. Lloyd E. Gross