Transcribed from the sermon preached December 4, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
Our Isaiah passage this morning gives us the Hebrew version of Lady Justice. There is a new king coming. In the first part we see the king’s leadership traits and then we see the result. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him, which leads to the following good spiritual traits which lead to peace. This king is not motivated primarily by ego and the desire for more worldly power, but by the desire to do what is wise and right. He starts with wisdom and understanding – the ability to listen, learn and discern, and then mix what he has learned about the immediate circumstance people and context with previous relevant knowledge to then give counsel. There is a strength about him, might, and he is willing to make, administer and enforce tough decisions.
Harlan Stelmach was recently reflecting on living with the grief of the loss of his wife Madelyn, and on this post-election world as he constructs the curriculum for his Leadership Ethics course. He writes, “Victor Frankel’s, Man’s (sic) Search for Meaning, was suggested, for I also wanted the issue of death (he spent three years in Auschwitz) to enter the syllabus, when addressing the concept of meaning. Frankel writes: “We have to be aware of the tendency to deal with values in terms of the mere self-expression of [humans themselves]. For logos, or meaning, is not only an emergence from existence itself but rather something confronting existence. If the meaning that is waiting to be fulfilled by [us] were really nothing but a mere expression of self, or no more than a project of [one’s] wishful thinking, it would immediately lose its demanding and challenging character; it could no longer call [us] forth or summon [us].”
Frankel’s meaning that is beyond or deeper than our own immediate whims and desires or the whims and desires of the world can help us understand this concept of fear of the Lord. We middle class post-moderns don’t like the idea of having to be afraid of God or our leaders. The concept may too often be associated with punishment, as if God will reach down and swat us if we sin so we should live in fear. We like the idea of positive reinforcement rather than fear based on punishment. But a biblical concept of fear of the Lord is deeper than fear of punishment. Fear of the Lord is one of those phrases that can use a little commentary, sort of like a wine: it exudes dense blackberry aromas, with elements of oak and forest floor with moose droppings.
Fear of the Lord has elements of discernment, a need for deeper thought, broader context, keeping history and the future in mind as we go about our life and decision making. It is the idea that there are consequences to how we think and live. If fear of the Lord is set within us, if we do our best to discern what a loving and just God would have us do and we allow that to guide our lives, then there isn’t much need to be afraid. So it is not like we are to go around terrified all the time. Isaiah says that this new great leader will delight in the fear of the Lord. Fear of the eternal loving God enables us to decrease other fears, whether we will die tomorrow in a fire or next year from cancer. Fear of the Lord decreases the fear of our boss or the superficial judgment of our peers, the fear of refugees or people who look different from us.
Admittedly fear of the Lord is a bit heavier than the philosophy of the song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” One of the challenges of life is to eliminate unnecessary worry and sadness. It is hard to be a leader if every problem incapacitates us, if we allow every idiot with an opinion to distract us from our positive direction. But happiness is a byproduct of discernment and hard, righteous work. Of course that work includes receiving grace, includes discerning when not to work, when to take Sabbath, when to count your blessings and be grateful and happy. If we wait to give thanks and enjoy the good things and good moments with those we love until every issue of the other family member is fixed, and every bigot is silenced, we won’t ever give thanks or be happy. The bad wins. Don’t fear your inability to fix everyone in the family and the world, fear the Lord. Leave it to Her.
The religion of capitalism thrives on desire; it teaches the fear of not having. The more desires there are, the more desires there are to fill, and the more desires to fill the more money there is to be made. And money is God. Capitalism will always lead us toward ever more immediate and individualistic desires. The more it can divide them the more desires there will be. Value is defined in monetary terms, meaning that building a prison or a wall at the cost of a billion dollars, or building a bridge for a billion dollars will show an equal monetary value to the economy. Twenty dollars spent on a textbook or twenty dollars spent on gambling or pornography contribute the same value. The postmodern trend to define meaning as contextual and internal allows for a broadening of participation in the meaning game and touches on aspects of truth, but too often our new found freedom becomes slavery to the market place. Where is our meaning? Who defines our meaning if we are only consumers responding to every whim? Clearly the market and our place in it meets many real needs, but let us remind ourselves to keep our eyes on the priceless prize of serving the great God of love and peace.
Fear of the Lord also has elements of humility. Those in positions of power are tempted to think they can get away with anything. Those with power usually know how to get what they want in a legal way, they and those like them have shaped the laws so they can, for instance, get rich off low-quality subprime mortgages and when the whole thing comes crashing down, all they get is a good lecture. Or when push comes to shove in a dispute between oil, clean water and indigenous people rights, they take advantage of the violence of the state. Fear of the Lord sets us on a level of accountability and meaning beyond us, even beyond our laws and our ability to force our way.
The new king in Isaiah will not judge by his own desire to find favor with the powerful, or be swayed by the prejudice he sees and hears in society. Instead he “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” This is not inequality in favor of the poor, it is a balancing. The poor will get a fair hearing and the wicked will reap what they sow
John the Baptist in chapter 3 of Matthew warns us to prepare ourselves for the way of the Lord. Make the paths straight. He speaks to people thinking they have it made with God because they share the right faith tradition or certain ancestors. Certainly we have that issue today. If you say you believe in Jesus and share a certain race some think you have got it made. Then if and when things really get apocalyptic, Jesus will come and whisk you up to heaven. But John says, “Who told you to flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Do not presume to say to yourselves we have George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as our ancestors. God is able from these stones to raise up Christian children or citizens of American democracy.
This isn’t just the average Joe minister throwing around cares and concerns. I refer to one greater than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. I baptize with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
I am speaking of the coming of the Christ. But in writing about the fear of the Lord as a leadership quality in this post election context, I couldn’t help but think of the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, and the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord of Abraham Lincoln after he won the election in his Second Inaugural Address. His words seem eternally relevant, so maybe his words will help us prepare the way for Christ today.
“Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.