Grace to you and peace
from God our father
and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
In C.S. Lewis’ story The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, four children, Lucy, Edmond , Susan and Peter walk through a clothes closet, a wardrobe, into a different realm called “Narnia .” There they met Mrs. And Mrs. Beaver and asked them about Aslan, whom they had heard about. “Is—is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly, “certainly not! I tell you, he is the King of the Wood and the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts ? Aslan is the lion—the lion, the great lion!”
“Oh!” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel nervous meeting a lion.”
“That you will dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most of else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” asked Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king. I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”
Lewis was one of the greatest Christian thinkers and writers of the last century, an Oxford don as well as a good story-teller. What these children come to understand about Aslan, the lion-king, is something that we, as Christian believers, come to understand about God. God is not safe but God is good. Martin Luther in the meaning to the Introduction to the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism has us memorize the simple sentence: “We should fear, love and trust God above all things.” We should love and fear God. If there is anything that has fallen out of fashion it is to talk about the fear of God. It was not always so.
Do you remember the first selection we read in American literature class? Whether it was high school or college chances are that the first thing picked to read was a sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by Jonathan Edwards. The work is a masterpiece written by perhaps the greatest theologian North America has ever produced. Jonathon Edwards preached the fear of God—the God who created the heavens and the earth and all creatures, takes us seriously enough to hold us to account.
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There was a time in the Christian Church, long centuries, when the judgment of God was foremost in the preaching and teaching and art of the Church. I have seen many medieval altarpieces where on one side of the triptych there are the blessed saints entering the Kingdom of Heaven and on the other the reprobates being attacked by devil and demons in hell. We don’t paint like that anymore, teach or preach like that anymore. We can even chuckle perhaps as we think of the old-time preachers getting up in their high pulpits to harangue captive congregations with tales of “hellfire and brimstone.”
I remember reading the story, Pollyanna, with our children and I loved the Disney movie. Pollyanna was a happy little girl who turned around the whole town—and its preacher. No more hell-fire; instead joy and gladness in the Lord. We need joy and gladness but to be true to the Scriptures, we also need fear. The Psalmist writes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” St. Peter tells us, “Your Father is the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, so live in reverent fear.” Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel, “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.” As Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis’ counterpart as author and teacher and Christian at Oxford, “If people do not understand the meaning of judgment, they will never come to understand the meaning of grace.”
Our love for God is bound up with our fear. It is just because this holy God demands holiness that we fear God; but then comes our love for a God, who to save us and cast out our fear, came down from heaven to be born of human flesh, to suffer and die for our sin and rise again. It is St. Peter’s argument to the Christians of his time. They had come from pagan backgrounds and were living in the Gentile environment of Asia Minor. They easily slip back into heathen ways. Peter is telling them to fear and love God. They should remember always that God is not mocked. This is God who created the whole world out of nothing and whose word promises judgment upon all flesh.
Biblical scholars think the book was written just after the persecution by the Emperor Nero, a time of testing for those first Christians. They had been forced to decide between worshiping either the idol of the emperor or the living God. Many of those Christians had suffered and died for their faith in Christ. The rest were reminded to live in fear—not of earthly authorities but of the one who will come to judge the quick and the dead. All Christians, then and now are living in a time of exile. We are in the world but not of the world. We are not conformed to this world and its pagan ways, but transformed by the power of God’s Spirit.
This week at our pastors’ text study we discussed whether Christians are really different from other people. Certainly in the first days of Christianity, believers in the Lord Jesus were very different from others. The Christians helped widows and orphans, they did not kill their children; they were faithful to their spouses. The life of Christians was very attractive to people in the Roman Empire. The comment was made of Christians, “See how they love one another.” Marcus Aurelius the emperor said, “Sometimes I think the world stands by reason of the prayers of the Christians.”
Today we aren’t so different from other people. We hear that the divorce rate is highest in the so-called Bible belt, that Christians aren’t always known for their works of charity and love. A recent editorial in the newspaper—written by a church member—called for congregations to be taxed unless they could show that they were truly helping people in need, one of the reasons for tax-exemption of religious organizations. The writer called too many churches, “Fancy members-only clubs.”
Our Wednesday morning Bible class is studying 1 John. The apostle could not be clearer when he writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desires are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”
Thomas Jefferson, the father of American liberty, was a slave-holder. He had the leisure time to read and think and write because the cares of daily life were taken care of by his slaves. George Washington was also a slave-owner. Both of these great men were concerned with the problem of slavery and upon their death both manumitted their slaves.
Little had changed from Roman times when many who had enjoyed the riches of slave labor during their lives, freed their slaves upon their death. Some, both in the American South and in the Roman Empire, also freed the slaves of others by paying for them—with silver or gold. This is the image from our text that St. Peter uses to describe what Jesus has done for us—through the purchase of his suffering and death. It is the blood of Christ not silver or gold that frees us from sin, death and the power of evil. Jesus took the form of a slave to free us by his own death.
We also memorize in the Catechism: “At great cost Christ has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. He has freed me from sin, death and the power of the devil, not with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.” We not only fear God but we love God. We love Him because He loved us enough to die for us and this makes a difference in our daily life.
God’s promises are sure. In the last couple of weeks two of my dear friends in this congregation have been hit hard by major illness. These are people who have helped so many others in their life’s journey and now they are on the other side. It has affected me deeply but I remember also the witness they have given me. I was reminded of our Easter hope that those in Christ have eternal life. Nothing, not even death itself, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God is stronger than cancer.
God is not safe, but good. God is almighty and also loving. We fear God, fear losing our place in the company of God’s people. We can never take God for granted. God’s grace cost God the life of His Son. But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly, when we were often too young to know Him, God made us His children in Baptism, when we are sinking down, God is there to lift up the weak knees and strengthen the feeble hands. God is always there for us to help us and heal us and strengthen us. We fear God and we love God and we trust God above all things. Amen.
—Copyright 2005, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.