Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Fear of the Lord is my Strength (Part 1)

In Nehemiah 8:10, the author writes the words to a popular worship song called “The Joy of the Lord.” He encourages his audience to "[go] and enjoy choice food and sweet drink, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. . . . Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." Whatever the Lord gives us is good. As Christians, we hope God will not stop giving us gifts we enjoy; love, peace, kindness and gentleness are some examples, but continue to lavish us with good things.

However, He is certainly not restricted to giving us only positive gifts like these. For instance, what if He chose to give you the gift of faithfulness, along with a job to take care of the down and out on the downtown east side every Friday night? Or, what about patience, coupled with a prodigal daughter whom you would wait and search for, for hours on end. If you have not experienced fear personally, the media provide us with a plethora of horror movies and news casts that often “freak [us] out,” giving us enough reasons to be afraid. We have all experienced the negative sense of fear, and no one needs to be reminded why we hate it so much. Therefore, I am sure you would quickly conclude that fear is certainly not a gift of God. But if we have not experienced both sides of fear, we are truly missing out on a good thing.

I have a ‘seeing is believing’ type of faith because throughout my life, I have seen God’s handiwork. He has done it in my own life (see: “Miracle on Fox Street”) and he has used me to bring healing to others. Dr. Luke, the author of the Gospel was also one of those people, and I have been a big fan of his writings since I started reading the Bible. His gospel is like a documentary, as he describes one exciting miracle after another, culminating in the greatest miracle of them all, Christ’s resurrection. As I approach my thirtieth birthday, I have begun to enjoy his other book, Acts, with the same amount of excitement.

Here Luke follows several members of the early church including Peter and Paul (sorry Mary wasn’t a prominent figure in this book!) as they learn and teach about this new religion called Christianity. These great men are responsible for some more miraculous signs. Some of them, including the famous story of the beggar at the gate, who learns to walk for the first time at the age of forty, are very well known. However, it also describes a few others that do not make the top ten. This might be because they show the fearful side of God.

One of these stories is found in chapter five, the story of a couple of devout Christians, Ananias and Sapphira. They had been attending the local church for years and didn’t intend on leaving. In fact, so that its ministry would continue, they had sold their house and had donated everything they had received from the sale to the leaders of their church. (At least this is what they said they did).

If my parents were to finally suffer a mid life crisis and sell our house, forwarding all the funds to the church, four things would happen. 1) Our church would greatly appreciate their gift and probably re-name it DuckChurch. 2) My parents (and I) would have no place to live, though I am sure we would have a long list of invitations to spend a night or two at guest bedrooms throughout our church community. 3) If they truly believed that God was asking them to do something as drastic as this, my parents would probably feel fairly peaceful with their decision. But I wouldn’t. Instead I would probably think they had just a little too much faith for my liking. Lastly, I probably would not join my parents in a dwelling that might become available to them to move into, whenever that might be.

Don’t wrestle with a Heavyweight

Today, most pastors are the same. They are all good at something weather that be leading worship, sermonizing or any other of a variety of gifts that Paul writes about in his letters to the early church. However, the gift that Peter uses in Acts 5, reading another person’s mind (also known as prophecy), has been neglected for some time.

The Apostle Peter’s years as a student of Christ are well documented in the Gospels. Acts is like Peter’s Coming-of-age party where he shows that he really is the rock which Christ said he would become (Matthew 16:18). In prior chapters in Acts, God gave Peter so much power that his shadow was the only thing needed to heal somebody (Acts 5:12-15). And if anybody had this amount of power, they are due at least a little respect. But Ananias and Sapphira (whose story is also found in Acts 5) did the exact opposite.

The church at this time was young, small and tightly knit. And for these two to do what they claimed to have done, they would have certainly been deserving of a few invitations for dinner and a good night’s rest in someone else’s tent-house. But while everybody else was in awe of these two, Peter wasn’t buying it for a moment.

In verse 3, Peter says, "Ananias, you hypocrite! You, a leader in this church have done a complete 180° turn and have lied to the Holy Spirit. Why did you allow Satan to connive with you to do something like this, keeping some of the money for yourself? Before you sold the field, it was all yours, wasn’t it? And after you sold it, the money was yours to do with as you wished, wasn’t it? So what got into you to tell people that you did something that you didn’t do? You didn't lie to men but to God."

When he heard these words, Ananias fell down dead. That put the fear of God into everyone who heard the story. The younger men went right to work and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him.

Only a few hours later, his wife, knowing nothing of what had happened, came in. Peter said, "So, what’s the deal? Were you given this price for your field?"

"Absolutely," she said.

Peter was indignant, almost ready to tear his hair out, "What's going on here that you and your husband would gang up against the Spirit of God?! The men who buried your husband are at the door, and you're going with them!" No sooner were the words out of his mouth than she also fell down, dead. The young men waiting at the door carried her out and buried her beside her husband.

By this time the whole church and everyone else who heard of these things had a healthy fear for God. They knew He was not to be trifled with.

“The reverent and worshipful fear of the Lord is the beginning (the chief and choice part) of Wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight and understanding.”

Proverbs 9:10

(Amplified version)

The Fear of the Lord is my Strength (Part 2)

It’s not your job anyway

One of the reasons why I became a Christian was because, over many years, I heard and understood the wonderful miracles Jesus did. Though the awesome (in the scary sense) acts of God that Ananias and Sapphira experienced, in Acts 5, gave the Jews around them reason to believe in God, fear should not be the first and only motivation to love Him. Unfortunately, thousands of Christians have placed their faith in a God, who must be feared with trembling, at all times. Though this judgmental and unwelcoming side of God’s character cannot be ignored, I also believe in a God whose miraculous works can also be joyful, (John 5:8-9), surprising (Matthew 9:20-22), or even bizarre (John 2:1-11, Acts 5:15).

At this point in the early church’s history, people continued to spend regular periods of time together (Acts 2:42). The Holy Spirit had just recently joined them, and there was nothing else these Christians would currently want to do more then to spend time in worship with each other. In Acts 19, miracles continued to take place, one of them in particular even bordered on the absurd.

As followers of Jesus, we often expect that we all have at least some faith, and because Jesus has said that we don’t need a lot, surely we have enough. But what if we have none at all, can Jesus still use us? In chapter 19:11-12, Luke writes that “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”

It makes sense that God did amazing things through Peter and Paul because they were spiritual heavy-weights in the church. Peter had spent three years with Jesus, and Paul would soon spend the rest of his life in prison because of his faith in Him. But a handkerchief and an apron? They don’t even have enough weight in themselves to be a paper weight, let alone have spiritual weight.

But that’s the point. They didn’t have any weight in themselves and couldn’t talk back to the Person who was using them for a purpose they knew nothing about. However unorthodox these healings were, it was never the apron’s job, nor its ability for that matter, to say, “I wasn’t made for this purpose! Fold me up and put me back where you found me!” It was clearly the strength and faith of Someone greater than the apron to do with it what He had decided to use it for.

Is God using you to do something you don’t feel you have the strength to do? Some of us are about to go on mission’s trips, accept jobs as pastors, or teachers in Christian schools and we know exactly what God is using us for and believe we have the faith for him to do it. But others are plumbers, carpenters, mechanics or students with secular endeavors and cannot see how God will use them in these capacities. As you step into the responsibility God has given you, what kind of fear do you have? Are you anxious, or in awe? Are you worried, or in wonder?

Remember, if God can do this much through a handkerchief, He can do whatever He wants through you, whatever amount of faith you may or may not have. It was because of unorthodox miracles like these that the name of Jesus became reverent in the early church.

"Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Matthew 10:28
(New Living Translation)