“In the fear of God, with faith and with love, draw near.”
What does that mean? We're going to hear that phrase in just a few moments, just before we’re offered communion. But what do you think that means: “In the fear of God,” and then, “with faith and with love, draw near”?
When babies are very young they cry when they’re hungry, tired, or uncomfortable -- we have a lot of experience with that here, I can see, and some recent experience too! And also, a little child is afraid when he or she senses their parent not present, right? Their initial feeling is, “Where is my mother? Where is my father?” In other words, a child’s initial fear is the fear of the absence of the parent. They don’t know the rules and regulations. They don’t know they should be going to bed at a certain time. They don’t know all that stuff. They’re not afraid in that way, and they shouldn’t be. But what they are afraid of, in that initial time of fear, is loss, of that parent, the one who loves them the most. The one who feeds them, the one who takes care of them, makes them comfortable. It’s that parent whose absence they truly fear. That’s the primal fear.
When we say the “fear of God,” we are speaking of the primal, overwhelming, fear of the absence of God. Not fear in the normal sense that we think of it, but fear of losing God, of life without God.
Last week in our Gospel lesson, we saw Peter walking on water. And when he begins to sink, he cries out in fear, and our Lord says, “Have no fear.” Peter, in the midst of life, was overwhelmed by that fear for a moment, until he heard the one who loved him. Now, when a child starts to grow, the child begins to learn a little bit more and more. Have you ever gone to a supermarket or somewhere else and seen young kids that have no fear? Of their parents? What does that look like? That isn’t good either, is it? So that initial primal fear that results in supermarket tantrums has to grow into, “I should be doing the right thing. I shouldn't be too comfortable. I shouldn’t take God for granted, and just waltz around, and grab whatever I want from the shelves, and throw it into the shopping cart and then scream and kick and cry if I don't get what I want,” the primal fear has to grow into another kind of fear, it has to become respect, as well as, I hate to say it, just a little good old-fashioned fear. If children think that they’re in charge: bedlam!
There was once a priest that I respected very much who said, “You know, my kids got to that age where I said, “You can have it the easy way or the hard way -- what do you pick?” Often in life, as we grow and if we forget the presence of God, we might try to live life without Him. Thank God, we can come to Church; we pick the easy way. But there are those, and even us within the Church, who have to learn the hard way. We hope and pray that they and we survive, and that experience will teach them and us to come back to the Parent who loves them the most ...to God.
Finally -- we were speaking recently with some friends, and one of them told a story about being afraid, as a child. The point was that he had done something wrong. and he came running home, and he said, “I did something terrible.” And of course, his parents said, “It’s okay; it’s going to be alright.” But the child said, “No, no, no, no.” When the parents found out what he had done, they said, “You have to go back and say you’re sorry.” The child, now the adult of the story, said, “I was terrified; I didn't want to do that; I pictured them yelling at me, screaming at me. I was afraid. And my parents said to me, ‘It’s going to be okay -- just do the right thing.’” He said it took a lot of courage, but he finally just went and apologized, and to his amazement the person was happy to see him, was reconciled to him, and life turned out okay after that. In our lives no matter how old we are, there are things that we are afraid of but the saints say that the greater our fear of God, the less we fear everything else.
We’ve talked about what that fear means, it means, first, fear of the loss of God. Second, as we stand in God's house, we remember and experience that when we do the right thing, even when we are afraid to go before Our Master in formal sacrament of confession or in private prayer, if we are seeking to do the right thing, the God who loves us, welcomes us with open arms, offers to us possibilities we haven't seen. And everything else in life becomes a little less scary.