Read Mark 4:21-41
And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
A certain young man of the youth group [name redacted to protect the innocent] has an ongoing joke to which he subjects me from time to time. When I pose a question such as “What does this passage tell us about God?” or “What is Jesus like according to these verses?”, he invariably responds, “That he’s nice.” This young man thinks, rightly, that I am irritated with this response. I think he rather enjoys my exasperated sigh—with only the barest hint of a smile—and my response, which is always some variation of: “God is *not* nice! He is kind, loving, merciful, gracious, yes. He is also all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy, and utterly beyond the grasp of your finite mind! We need to use better and deeper terms than ‘nice’ to describe God!”
As the time when the Church seeks to prepare for the Second Coming of our Lord, Advent is a fitting season to get in touch with that attitude recommended by both the Old and New Testaments: the fear of the Lord. But if we think that this means being “afraid” of God, we would be mistaken.
I am going to make the (perhaps counterintuitive) claim that the fear of the Lord is an attitude that doesn’t diminish our joy and peace but enhances them. In fact, I will make my claim even stronger: without the fear of the Lord we will never experience any lasting joy and peace in this life.
The story of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4 is a story of the disciples trading one fear for another–and getting a great bargain. The sea of Galilee was (in)famous for fierce storms that would appear almost without warning. Crossing the sea, therefore, in a rather small boat like that of Jesus and the disciples was a hazardous and possibly deadly affair. When Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side,” the disciples–some of whom were experienced fisherman–would have understood the possible danger.
Danger strikes; the storm hits; and Jesus is asleep on the cushion, Mark tells us with an odd specificity. The disciples are left alone in their fear, awash in their worries, caught in a deluge of anxiety. They just know: they are going to die. They wonder like some of us have in similar circumstances whether the Lord cares. “Teacher,” they say as the shake him awake, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” The disciples are facing a storm that will almost certainly bring about their death.
Now, let me ask: how do we overcome a fear like that?
We must, like the disciples, trade one fear (the fear of the storm) for another fear (the fear of the Lord). Jesus arises and does what only God can do. With a word he calms the storm, commanding the wind and the waves to be still. Here is the same Voice that once brought order out of chaos at the very creation of the world (Genesis 1). It is the voice of God himself. When the disciples realize Who it is they are in the boat with, they experience a new fear and they forget their old fear. “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?'” It’s God!
They realize in that moment that the storm is no match for the great One in their midst. Their fear of the storm is trumped by their fear of the Lord. And wonder of wonders, this One is on their side! The things that we fear, the things that cause us worry, the things that fill us with anxiety–these things are no match for the Lord who calms the storm with a word. How do we overcome our fears? It is simply–simple but not easy–bringing our fears before the feet of the far more fearsome Lord and seeing them melt away. We can only overcome our fears by placing them up against a greater Fear who loves us.
Without the fear of the Lord we will never experience any lasting joy and peace in this life. Without the fear of the Lord, we will be controlled by all the other fears that dominate our lives. But by fearing the Lord, we realize that those other fears are no match for Him. This brings lasting joy and peace.
God is not nice. He is a fearsome God, a consuming fire. I don’t know about you, but I can love a God like that. Perhaps this is why John Donne, a favorite Anglican of mine, preached in April 1624 that “the love of God begins in fear, and the fear of God ends in love; and that love can never end, for God is love.”