Our text is today’s Introit and Gradual (Psalm 47:1–2; Psalm 34:11, 5):
1 Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! 2 For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. and 11 Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 5 Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. (ESV)
Two weeks ago, I preached on these words from 1 Peter (3:14-15): if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. [Do not fear what unbelievers] fear, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy. In these times of open and subtle persecution, Christians are not to be afraid of people who want to squash Christianity. We are not even to fear what they fear. Those who would torment us for being Christian, what is it that they fear? Well, they fear the very things which we Christians are quite content to suffer for Jesus’ sake: the confiscation of our property, the loss of our jobs, the threat of being tortured and killed. Unbelievers fear losing what they cannot keep, but Christians cling to the Lord even in the greatest of losses.
Two weeks ago, the focus was on our not fearing what unbelievers fear. Today, the focus is flipped around, as we consider how Christians fear what unbelievers do not fear. Baptized into Christ, you and I do not fear what unbelievers fear. Unbelievers fear things that can diminish or terminate their earthly lives, for that is all they have. They fear economic downturns, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and war. But you and I are joined to Christ Jesus. And so we have no fear of these things, for we know that our lives consist of far more than our earthly existence. We know that God has made us His children and has given us heaven, our true home!
We do not fear what unbelievers fear, but we do fear what they do not fear—that is, we fear the Lord. In today’s Introit and Gradual, we prayed: The LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Now, what does it mean to fear the Lord? And even more important, do you fear the Lord? Again, as a Christian, you are not to fear what unbelievers fear, and you are to fear what unbelievers do not fear. Let me tell you, then, about the fear of the Lord.
To start with, to fear the Lord is to tremble at the thought of what He can do to you. Martin Luther puts it so succinctly: Fear no one but [God] because [He] can kill you (Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Ten Commandments, Albrecht Peters, p. 129). And of course, not just kill you but cast you in hell. For as our Lord Jesus Himself says: do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28). This is the kind of fear the repentant thief on the cross had in mind when he rebuked the impenitent thief, saying: Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong (Luke 23:40-41).
Now, there is a left side and a right side to the fear of God. Luther says that the left side of godly fear is to fear God because of His threat of punishment. Of course, it is good to fear God’s power to condemn sinners to hell. But for the Christian—for you—this type of fear is just the starting point. After all, we know that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). And so, the fear of punishment is not what motivates us in our obedience to God and service to our neighbour.
We are baptized into Christ. And so, although we of course always acknowledge the proper fearing of God because of His threat of punishment, our lives are governed mostly by the right side of fearing God. Luther says that the right side of fearing God has to do with trusting and loving God because of His promise of grace and mercy in Christ Jesus. There are many facets to this right side of godly fear. We could talk of standing in awe of God, of reverencing God’s authority, obeying His commandments, and hating and shunning all forms of evil. And all this is true—this is what you do when you fear God because of His promise of grace and mercy to you in Christ Jesus.
But to help you better understand and remember this right side of godly fear, let me boil it all down to a single phrase: “To fear God rightly is to hang your heart on God alone”. Let me say it again: “To fear God rightly is to hang your heart on God alone”. To hang your heart on God alone is to trust that God is truly everything that His Word, the Bible, says He is.
When you are struggling against temptation, when you are overwhelmed by your sorrows, when you suffer more than you can bear, do you still hang your heart on God alone? Do you actually trust that what we confess every Sunday is absolutely true—that the Lord is good and that His mercy endures forever? Or are you guilty of hanging your heart on other things?
It has been said that happy families are all happy in the same way but every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own unique way. Happy families all follow similar patterns of loving, caring, and showing respect to one another. But there are a thousand ways of being dysfunctional—drug addition, alcoholism, sexual immorality, gambling, fits of rage, and refusal to communicate, just to name a few.
The same is true with your heart. There are a thousand ways to not hang your heart on God. Some people hang their hearts on accumulating wealth and pursuing earthly pleasures. Others turn their hearts from God when the going gets tough; instead of trusting that God is good and that His mercy endures forever, they hang their hearts on anger, bitterness, and despair. Every unbeliever and every Christian who has fallen away from the faith has taken his or her own unique path to unbelief.
But just as happy families are all happy in the the same way, so all Christians hang their hearts on God alone in the same way.
And of course, that way begins with repentance, with confession and absolution. “O almighty God, merciful Father, I confess that I have often failed to hang my heart on You. Indeed, every sin I commit is a rebellious act of hanging my heart on something other than You. I confess that in my sorrows and struggles, I have often failed to trust that You are truly everything that Your Word says You are. I have questioned Your steadfast love, even Your existence. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And forgive me for the sake of my Saviour Jesus”.
The LORD, the Most High, is to be feared. And the right way to fear the Lord always leads sinners through the narrow path of repentance. Unless you confess that you are a sinner and that you have sinned most grievously through your own fault, and unless you trust God to forgive you for the sake of Jesus, then you have no true fear of God.
Now, you might be tempted to think that admitting to your sins before God would have bad consequences. When you were a child, you dreaded coming clean to your parents about something you did wrong. Just the look on your face showed that you were either ashamed of what you had done or afraid of what your parents were going to do to you. Now if you felt shame and fear in front of your parents, then what will you feel when standing before the Holy God of heaven and earth? The truth is that on the Last Day, on Judgment Day, the look of shame and fear will only be on the faces of unbelievers. How different will it be with you and with all who have hung their hearts on Christ alone for the hope of salvation.
Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. Do you see the connection? Those who do not fear the Lord, they are the ones whose faces will be covered with shame and fear on the Last Day. But for you who fear the Lord; for you who hang your hearts only on the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirt; for you who, in spite of your afflictions and griefs, trust that the Lord is good and that His mercy endures forever; for you who look to Christ Jesus, trusting Him to forgive you and to give you heaven; for you, your faces will never be ashamed—rather, you will be radiant in the joy of knowing that God loves you and forgives you and will one day bring you safely home, all for the sake of Jesus.
In today’s communion psalm, Psalm 33, we pray: Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! (v. 8). The sad truth is that many of the world’s inhabitants have gone down the path of unbelief. And so, unbelievers fear what Christians do not fear. And we Christians fear what unbelievers do not fear. We fear the Lord. We fear the Lord on the left, knowing that the consequences of our not remaining faithful until death would be utterly and eternally disastrous. And so we fear God’s wrath and strive to not do anything against His commandments, for the wages of sin is death. But we also fear the Lord on the right, knowing that the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. With a holy fear, then, we yearn to stand before God the Father not by ourselves, for that would be disastrous, but with Christ standing beside us as our advocate. And so, with Jesus dwelling in us through Holy Baptism, we love and trust in God and gladly do what He commands. And all of our fearing of God—on both the left and the right—we do only by the power of the Holy Spirit, who keeps us with the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, died in my place, in your place, to save, to redeem us lost and condemned people and has won for us the victory over all sins, death, and the devil. Jesus won the victory with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. And now, baptized into Him, we belong to Him and we live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Of course, our service to the Lord is marred by our sins. But the Holy Spirit is always calling us to fear the Lord by repenting of our sins.
And when we repent, when we lay all our sins out in the open before God and trust Him to forgive us, we find that we have nothing to fear and nothing to be ashamed of. In Christ, we fear God alone. In Christ, we hang our hearts on God alone. In Christ, we do not allow our afflictions to cause us to doubt God’s love. Rather, in Christ, we trust that God is truly everything that His Word says He is. Yes, we trust that the Lord is good and that His mercy endures forever.
It seems so counter-intuitive, but the truth is that the fear of the Lord goes together with radiant joy. As the psalmist proclaims: Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! (Psalm 34:9). In other words, when we fear God, there is nothing to be afraid of! When you fear God, your shame over your sins and your terror over being condemned by God on Judgment Day, all your shame and dread are washed away in the blood of the Lamb. In Holy Baptism, God gives you a new heart, a heart that hangs onto God alone. And your Saviour Jesus gives you a face and a song of joy, a radiant joy that no one and nothing in this fallen world of evil and suffering can take from you. Thanks be to God!