I want to direct your attention this morning to a verse from our psalm for today. In the Book of Alternative Services it is Psalm 147:12, but the BAS has renumbered the verses and in fact in the original it’s verse 11. In the translation used in the BAS it goes like this: ‘But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favour’. However, I think the translation in our NRSV pew Bibles is much better: ‘But the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love’.
You may have noticed two words here that we aren’t used to seeing in close proximity to each other: fear and love. To us, the two are mutually incompatible. How can you fear someone, and trust in their love for you, at the same time? If you fear someone, that means you’re afraid they’re going to hurt you, right? So how can you also hope in their steadfast love for you?
Let’s look at the psalm as a whole to try to get an answer for this. Let’s start by asking, ‘What kind of God are we talking about here? What can we say about God?’ Let me point out three things the psalm tells us.
First, God created everything that exists and continues to care for it. The writer of the psalm points to God’s activity in the natural world; God is the one who ‘determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names’ (v.4). ‘He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry’ (vv.8-9). ‘He gives snow like wool; he scatters frost like ashes. He hurls down hail like crumbs – who can stand before his cold? He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow’ (vv.16-18).
So if we want to get a sense of who God is, we need to look at the greatness and wonder of God’s creation. One of our Eucharistic prayers talks about ‘the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’. Think about the enormous expanse of time – scientists think it’s about 14 billion years since the big bang, and our earth is only 4 billion years old, and if the days of the earth were compared to a 24 hour clock, we human beings first appeared on the earth at 3 seconds to midnight. Think also about the incredible diversity of creation, the miracle of DNA coding and how it makes life possible, the intricacy of the human eye, the amazing colours of a sunset. Climb a mountain and look down at the vastness of the world below you; watch a prairie storm in the summer time; look up at the night sky and try to count the number of the stars. Whatever else we can say about God, we have to say this: God is big!
God is God and I am not; this is one of the fundamental principles of biblical spirituality. In several places the Bible compares human beings to grass – we’re here today and gone tomorrow. Our life passes in the blink of the eye compared to the years that the universe has existed, and the universe has passed in the blink of an eye compared to the infinite existence of God. God’s power, God’s wisdom, God’s sheer creative skill – all are immeasurably greater than anything I can achieve. As our reading from Isaiah says,
‘It is (God) who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in:
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing’ (Isaiah 40:22-23).
This is part of what the Bible means by ‘the fear of the Lord’ – recognizing that in this relationship, God and I are not equals. God is infinitely greater, infinitely mightier, infinitely wiser, infinitely more patient and loving, infinitely more holy and awesome and good, than me. God is the creator, and I am the creature. God made everything that exists, including me, and therefore I belong to him. God does not exist for our benefit; rather, we exist to fit into his plan for us. And this is not an oppressive thing, because his love for us is infinite and his plan for us is good.
God created everything that exists, and continues to care for it. Secondly, God is the Saviour and Rescuer of his people. The psalmist says,
‘The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up their wounds’ (vv.2-3).
‘The LORD lifts up the downtrodden;
he casts the wicked to the ground’ (v.6).
‘Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem!
Praise your God, O Zion!
For he strengthens the bars of your gates,
he blesses your children within you.
He grants peace within your borders’ (vv.12-14a).
Many biblical scholars think that Psalm 147 was written after the Jewish exiles returned from Babylon. In 587 B.C. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonian empire, the city had been burned, and many of its people had been taken away into captivity in Babylon, where they lived for over half a century. But in time, the Babylonian empire itself was overthrown by the Persian empire, and the Persian emperor Cyrus gave a decree that allowed the Jewish exiles to begin to return home. There were probably several waves of returning exiles over the eighty year period 538-445 B.C., and life was not easy for them as they tried to rebuild their ruined city and nation. Still, they celebrated the goodness of God in changing the political situation to allow them to return to their own land, and that’s probably what this psalm is all about.
To the Jewish people it was almost like a second Exodus. Their ancestral stories told them that God had found them as slaves in Egypt, unable to help themselves, but he had rescued them, delivering them from the hands of their enemies at the Red Sea, leading through the desert and giving them a land of their own to live in. And now he had brought them back from their captivity in Babylon to a place of safety in their own land.
For us New Testament believers, Jesus is the Saviour who has rescued us from the slavery of sin and death and brought us into our promised land, the place of relationship with God. The powers of evil appear to be strong, but Jesus in his life and ministry made war on them, and he won the decisive victory over them through his death and resurrection. It looked like a defeat, but in fact it was a victory, because God’s plan was perfectly fulfilled there. Jesus’ death made it possible for you and I to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit and a new relationship with God, and his resurrection assures us that God’s love is in fact stronger than death, so even death, our last and greatest enemy, is not to be feared any more. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:
‘Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying’. (Hebrews 2:14-15 New Living Translation).
Furthermore, Christian believers down through the centuries have testified many times that when we are desperate, when we reach the end of our rope and have nowhere else to turn, that’s often when we discover God’s love and power in a new way. Not that God always delivers us from our circumstances, although sometimes he does; more often, though, we discover within ourselves resources that we didn’t know we had, and we find that we are strengthened and can go through things we thought would overwhelm us, because we know God is with us. God is our ‘rock’ – that’s the most common metaphor for God in the Book of Psalms – a firm place to stand in the midst of the storm.
Our psalm says that God takes pleasure ‘in those who hope in his steadfast love’ (v.11b). The word for ‘steadfast love’ in Hebrew is chesed; the King James Version translated it ‘loving kindness’, which is quite beautiful, and the NIV just uses the word ‘love’, which I find a bit weak. I like the NRSV ‘steadfast love’; it means ‘love with muscles’, love you can count on, love that’s always there because God has committed himself to making sure it’s always there. God is the Saviour and Rescuer of his people, and we can put our hope in his steadfast love for us.
So we’ve seen that God is the creator of everything and that he continues to care for his creation, and we’ve seen that God is the Saviour and rescuer of his people. We might say that these two themes talk to us about the power of God and the love of God. The third theme might be related to the wisdom of God; the psalmist rejoices in the fact that God guides us through his Word. Look at verses 19-20a:
‘He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his ordinances’.
We might think that Israel might find the law of God to be a burden, but that’s not the way this writer sees it. Rather, he’s full of gratitude for the fact that God has not left his people to wander in the dark without guidance. The all-wise and all-loving God who created everything has given his people the wisdom they need to be able to live the life they have been given, and that wisdom comes to us through his Word. This is the same word that God spoke at creation to call everything into being, and the same word that he continues to speak to order the forces of nature. And now he has spoken it to us as well. Think of it: remember how enormous the universe is, and how many billions of years it has existed, and how short is the life of our species on this tiny planet, but the Creator of all has cared enough to speak a Word of guidance to us!
How does this Word come to us? In the Old Testament it was always a dynamic thing – God spoke to his people through his prophets. Moses and Elijah, Amos and Micah and the rest: most of the time they weren’t expecting it, but ‘the Word of the Lord came to them’ like a burning fire in their heart, and they had to speak.
But the Word he has spoken to us is even greater. Remember what Hebrews says:
‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:1-3a).
Sometimes we speak about the Bible as the Word of God, and indeed we do find words from God written for us in the Bible. But the Bible itself tells us that it is Jesus who is the Word of God in the highest sense: his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, give us the clearest picture we have of what God is like and what his will for us is. And so if we want to sum up God’s will for us in one word, we could use the word ‘Christlikeness’; God wants us to be like Christ, because that is the way of true wisdom.
So let’s return to the question we started with: How can we both ‘fear the Lord’ and also ‘hope in his steadfast love’? Doesn’t fear mean we’re afraid God is going to hurt us? And how can we hope in his steadfast love for us if we’re afraid he’s going to hurt us?
No, fear doesn’t mean we’re afraid God is going to hurt us. It means that we recognize that God is God and we are not. We have lived for only a few short years, but God has lived forever – not only the fourteen billion years the universe has existed, but infinitely longer, because he existed before time began and he will exist beyond the end of time, if such a thing ever happens. With all our scientific advances we are still helpless against some of the most dangerous and powerful forces that threaten to overwhelm us, and against our own inner demons that threaten to destroy us. But God is not helpless; the God who created everything is also stronger than everything that he has made. Our wisdom and knowledge are limited, but God’s wisdom and knowledge are infinite.
To fear the Lord, then, means to give up our human desire to be the god of our own world, and to quietly and willingly taken our rightful place as God’s creatures before our loving Creator. As we do this, we put ourselves in the place where we can indeed hope in his steadfast love. We will acknowledge him as God of all creation; we will call on his help as our Saviour in our time of need; we will listen to the Word he has spoken to us in Jesus, and we will shape our lives by it. The psalmist tells us that the Lord will see that, and take pleasure in it. I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like a good thing!