cartoons is captioned, “The Lemming family on vacation”. The drawing is of an automobile with
stereotypical family: dad lemming in the driver seat, mom lemming in the
passenger seat, and kid lemmings in the back.
An exasperated dad, responding to any one of a hundred potential driving
distractions by children, cries out, “If you (fill in the blank with your
offense of choice – don’t shut up, don’t sit still, stop asking me how much
longer) … If you … I’m going to drive this car right off a cliff!”
motivation. It might give us
power-broking parents the upper hand in a given situation, but, generally, fear
is a wonderful motivation for wrong-headed decision-making, risk-averse
thinking, status quo entrenchment, attachment disorders and lack of
we’ve struck gold with this one, the big time: The Fear of Hell. When I was a teen, the church our family
attended had an old fashioned revival, complete with graphic preaching on hell. And I remember one guy who got himself
converted that week … but it didn’t really seem to “take”. Within a couple years, he’d run his life and
his faith completely aground.
Merton, Cistercian monk, reflected on one of the first “hell sermons” he heard:
“My opinion is that it is a very extraordinary thing for anyone to be upset by
such a topic. Why should anyone be
shattered by the thought of hell? It is
not compulsory for anyone to go there.
Those who do, do so by their own choice, and against the will of God . .
.” (The Seven Storey Mountain, p 238).
fact remains that hell is an upsetting topic for most of us, and we deal with
it in various ways. Sometimes, we just
shut our mind to the biblical language.
Sometimes, and preferably, we look for deeper biblical understanding
(there are, after all, a variety of theological approaches to the biblical
material). Sometimes, we thrive on some
good “hell fire and brimstone”. Jonathan
Edwards, one of the greatest minds in the history of America, is known for
preaching what may be one of the all-time greatest messages on hell. Remarkably enough, though his writing is
extraordinarily dramatic, he read in a monotone and didn’t look up from the page. Nevertheless, this pastor was used by God in
one of the great revival movements of history known as the Great
Awakening. Some lines from his July 8,
1741, sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”, read with a bit more drama
than he provided:
them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made
ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage
and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath
opened its mouth under them.
hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it,
and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder …
was a “fire” in the soul that was just waiting to destroy us and that we were
only preserved by the “mere pleasure of God”, and an angry God at that.
prefer, personally, to emphasize a line from a bible passage on judgment, from
Romans 2:4 – “Do you not realize that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?”
some point, fear breaks down as a motivation.
Either you drive your young lemmings over the cliff or you have a change
paralyzed by fear. Aside from the
basically healthy fears of truly dangerous things, we face fear in
relationships – a crisis of trust. We
face fear in economics – whether it is having enough or having just a bit more
than we have now. We face fear in
relation to uncertain futures. And, we
face the fear of putting our most intimate self on the line in sharing our
for Jesus, the answer to our fears, our anxieties, isn’t “the only thing we
have to fear is fear itself”. It was a
more radical change of perspective: Why fear all these things if you are on
good terms with God? “Do not fear those
who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him
who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell”. Jesus isn’t saying that God is out to get us,
just waiting for an excuse, a pretense to squash humans like an annoying bug. In fact, he tells us that we are of great
value to God: “Not one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than
many sparrows.” Jesus is just using this
great big fear to knock some sense into his followers: Why fear all these
things if you are on good terms with God, if you are so valuable to the
Lord? Actually, Jesus doesn’t urge us to
fear hell, but to “fear God”, a traditional expression of a core virtue, used
in an expression describing a good person who “fears God and respects people”
(Luke 18:2, 4).
suppose it is a little like the work of a drill sergeant in basic
training. An old DI told me about the
obstacle course in basic training and the ladder of logs that recruits had to
climb. A drill instructor would often be
straddling the top of the ladder to comfort, reassure, and encourage the
tenderfoot recruits. Well, maybe
“comfort” and “reassure” aren’t the correct words. But, if for a moment you are more fearful of
the drill instructor than of heights or weakness, you may find yourself capable
of doing more than you thought possible.
a time of national insecurity, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah: “Do not
call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it
fears, or be in dread. But the LORD of
hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your
dread. He will become a sanctuary”
little more, let’s consider why the disciples might be dealing with fear, with
in 12:13, someone asks Jesus to arbitrate in the distribution of the family
inheritance. Jesus declines and proceeds
to tell a story focused the impermanence of wealth … the old “you can’t take
it with you” story that asks the question: “Have you laid up some true treasure
that will last forever?” And, he
instructs his own disciples on the side: “Do not worry about your life, what
you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more
than clothing” (12:22-23).
of the anxiety of stuff, Jesus recommends the age-old practical antidotes of
simplicity, generosity, and, for some, poverty: “Do not be afraid, little
flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear
out, and unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth
Luke’s gospel, anxious fear is contrasted with faith. Jesus and his disciples are crossing the sea
in a boat and a fierce storm threatens to sink the boat. He calms the sea, but the disciples are
afraid. “Where is your faith?” he
asks. On the other hand, proper “fear of
God” in the gospel is treated as an expression of true faith.
in this context. At the very end of Luke
11, we are told that the “scribes and Pharisees began to be very hostile toward
[Jesus]” (11:53). And, in this very
chapter, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever denies me before others will be
denied before the angels of God. . . .
When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the
authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you
are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought
to say” (12:8-12). No wonder Jesus is
telling his followers not to fear those who can kill the body; they are dealing
with folks who just might do it, and who indeed did.
we talk about evangelism, with a capital “E”, we get nervous. Even when we think of something as simple as
inviting a friend to church, we get nervous – and they are not out to kill
us. Nevertheless, it is easy to get a
little awkward, tied up in knots, even over a simple invitation to share the
journey. In Luke’s gospel, we’re offered
another antidote to fear that addresses just this concern. It comes in the Christmas story: The
shepherds are out in the fields, caring for their sheep, when an angel appears
and they are terrified, “greatly afraid”, using the same Greek term we have in
our passage. The angel’s response is,
“Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all
people” (Luke 2:9-10).
it comes to the witness of a disciple, then as now, no matter the thing we may
fear, the antidote is the same: good news for all people, good news that we
cannot, we must not, keep to ourselves.
When we’ve had an authentic, powerful, life-changing, direct encounter
with the Living God, we will never be the same . . . and we cannot keep silent.
more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). “But the LORD of hosts, him you
shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary” (Isaiah
your anxiety today, remember how important you are to God and let God be your
sanctuary. Surrender everything,
anxieties and all, to the kindness of the Lord.