"FEAR-OF-THE-LORD" - Isaiah 11:1-3a; Acts 4:32-5:12
A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, September 23, 2018
Texts: Isaiah 11:1-3a; Acts 4:32-5:12
In this wonderful church family, we have lots of very literate and literary people. We have lots of smart people who read books, talk about books, enjoy words, and even love word games.
I learned a new word this week – Syntagm – s-y-n-t-a-g-m.
Do you know that word? It is a linguistic unit consisting of words or phrases that are all bound together, in relationship to each other. The word goes back to the Greek, meaning “arranged together.” Syntagm is a bound phrase. And my Microsoft Word program does not even recognize the word – you know - puts a read underline under syntagm, every time I typed it.
The sermon title – FEAR-OF-THE-LORD – is a syntagm; it is not four different words – with each word holding a separate meaning. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD – a syntagm - is a word – a bound phrase. It means something more and different than the individual words mean on their own. We cannot just look up the meaning of “fear,” as “a feeling of apprehension,” and then think about “God,” as “a being worthy of worship” and say “we got it”: Fear of God. Nope. When those words are put together and held together – in a syntagm – it means something more, something different, . . . something much more important.
There are actually more than 130 references in the Bible to this syntagm – FEAR-OF-THE-LORD. You may have noticed that this phrase – FEAR-OF-THE-LORD was mentioned twice in the first lesson from Isaiah 11. The prophet imagines a shoot, a living and fresh branch emerging from the stump of Jesse – that is reference to the lineage of King David. A savior, a messiah will come. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” He will be filled with the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD. “His delight shall be in the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD.”
That phrase intends to convey is something very important, . . . . perhaps increasingly important in these days when we wonder what truth is, when we are perplexed with what is right and just, when we are so divided on so many issues. It seems so helpful to consider this syntagm – FEAR-OF-THE-LORD.
Isaiah says, “his delight shall be in the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD.” This means that this person will be such a person, and live such a life, that everything about him is fused with God. His feelings, his actions, his ways in the world are fused with God’s purposes and God’s ways. It is not about fear – as we commonly think about that word – afraid or full of anxiety; it is rather a powerful sense that life is lived responsively and appropriately before God. There is a deep reverence, a keen appreciation, a powerful sense of connection to God and God’s purposes. (see E. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, p. 42)
And remember, there are lots of references to this in the Bible, such as this: “the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10); or “the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD is the fountain of life” (Prov. 14:27). When we understand OUR lives to be fused with God, we are on the right track of living well.
Then, in several places in Deuteronomy, it says, what does the Lord require – FEAR-OF-THE-LORD is how you live: walk in God’s ways, follow God’s commands. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD means loving God, and taking care of widows and orphans. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD means God’s people live in the wonderful covenant connectedness to God. It means our lives are fused with faithfulness and devotion to God’s purposes (see Deut. 5 & 10). It is a way of life appropriate to our creation, our salvation, our blessing by God, and our call to be a blessing in the world.
Our second lesson today wants to make this point about FEAR-OF-THE-LORD in a dramatic and even unsettling and perplexing way. In more than 30 years of preaching, I have never preached on this passage from Acts 5. This passage does not come up in the lectionary, the selected schedule of Scripture readings, which we often use to guide our preaching and worship. I wonder how familiar you are with this passage. About this passage, William Barclay says “there is no more VIVID story in the book of Acts.” Listen to Acts 4:32-5:12:
32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
5But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.3“Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. 7After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” 9Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
12Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, maybe in this first time that I have ever preached on this passage, I should simply say – “let us now (bug-eyed) present our offerings to God.” Hah!
This is the story about a couple attempting to give measly offerings. It is a life and death issue! . . . . Let’s present OUR offerings.
As we have said before – we might best start by asking the question worthy of every text: why is this passage in the Bible? Why was this story preserved in Holy Scripture?
I think we have this story to make the strong and important point: the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD is indeed the beginning of wisdom. The FEAR-OF-THE-LORD is the fountain of life. The FEAR-OF-THE-LORD means our lives are filled with faithfulness, with sincere love and devotion to God – not deceit, not selfish pursuits, not with what we can get away with, but with the constant, full, committed desire to trust and serve God with all we have and all we are. What about that?!
Is there any more vivid way to make that point?
As Presbyterians we tend to say “whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God” (Romans 14). As good Christians, we tend to say, we were claimed in the waters of baptism, and we are all called to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Those are the words of Jesus. As modern people, we tend to lean into the idea that God loves us, God forgives us, God holds us forever, and we try to believe it, especially when the hard times come. All of that can be very good.
But this story lays it out there – more vivid, more direct, no missing the point; it is about life and death! ALL of life is lived before God. When we plot and scheme, we are plotting against God, and it could cost us our lives. When we are dishonest, we are dishonest before God, and that is not something to minimize. Everything, however humble it may be, that contributes to the health, the wholeness, the happiness of others, is work done for God. This is not just a good idea or phrase – it is life and death.
The great maker of violins, Antonio Stradivari, said, “if my hand slacked, I should rob God.” He knew that his life’s work – making the best violins - was with and for God. That ought to be the mindset of all of us, always. This is the point: what we do, we do for God. What we do badly or selfishly, we are offending God. When we seek to deceive, we are disappointing God. We are not to miss this point. This matters!
I think this story of Ananias and Sapphira is in the Bible to make the point – which is made all through Scripture – about the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD. God has sincere and serious intentions for us. Our lives are to be lived before God – with a deep reverence for who God is, a deep passion for work for God, a deep love that keeps us focused and faithful. This story wants to motivate us in that way of living.
Richard Rohr has it right: we do not think ourselves into a new way of living. We live ourselves into a new way of thinking” (See G Boyle, Barking at the Choir, p. 83). This story wants to inspire us into a new way of living and thinking – all of life is lived before God – with the FEAR-OF-THE-LORD as the main descriptor.
Money, truthfulness, how we participate in community, how we hold one another accountable, how we deal with our tendencies toward selfishness, how we care for the less fortunate – these are all issues that we need to take very seriously as God’s people, as the church.
Maybe this is why the writer of Acts – which is all about the early church, finally mentions the word “church” at the end of this passage. The passage says, “and great fear seized the whole church.” This whole book of Acts is about the early church getting going, organized, focused to carry on the work of Jesus. This whole book – Acts – is about God’s continuing purposes in the world toward the full reign of God with the church being formed to carry on the work of Jesus. And the first time “church” is mentioned in the story is right here – in a story about selfishness and money, in a story about deceit and community. What does it mean to be the faithful church – carrying on the work of Jesus? It is centered in truthfulness, and encountering the dangers of money, and revealing the temptations of selfishness, the inclination that is ours to rationalize things.
We want to live ourselves into a new way of thinking.
Can’t you just imagine Ananias and Sapphira talking – “we are not really all that well off. Aren’t we being faithful enough? Let’s hold back.” We get so good, so accustomed to rationalizing our selfish needs, thinking we can do what we want.
And then we have this jarring story. As God’s people, as the church, we are called to deal with these things head-on. All we have, all we are, belongs to God. Deceit? It is against God. Truthfulness – it is really important. This passage urges us to be straight up, so we can find our way to deeper faithfulness, integrity, honesty, commitments that build community and promote the sincere Kingdom of God. (See W. Willimon, Acts, p. 55)
Here is another way of thinking about this passage – EVERYTHING is theological. Everything about our lives, everything we do, or do not do, relates to God. That is why this syntagm – FEAR-OF-THE-LORD – can be so helpful. It is meant to apply to all of us. It is not about fear; it is knowing that what we say and what we do intends always to be fused with God – and God’s plans for us and for the world. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD is the beginning of wisdom. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD is not just talking about God or studying about God, but living life in genuine reverence before God. And we can all grow in reverence for God, in reverence of living life before God. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD, nurtured in faithful community, nurtured in worship moments and prayer moments, in service and sacrifice moments, in intentional acts of love and compassion in God’s name – all of this helps us grow into a life of living and breathing God. (see E. Peterson, Christ Plays… p. 44)
Priest and author, Greg Boyle, in his latest book, Barking to the Choir, (p. 2) says that “human beings are settlers.” He is not talking about the pioneer sense – our history of going and settling expansive territory. He says, rather, it is “our human occupational hazard to settle for little. We settle for purity and piety when we are invited to an exquisite holiness. We settle for fear-driven, when love longs to be our engine.” We settle for a puny vindictive God, when we are shown again and again God’s expansive grace, boundless forgiveness, and amazing faithfulness that are all intended to play out in us. We settle for measly gifts when God has been so generous with us, and asks us for transformative generosity that creates the kind of community we all need – where everyone took care of everyone. We settle for judging one another harshly, when we called to continuing kinship, inclusion, sincere care and compassion for one another.
FEAR-OF-THE-LORD wants to reframe our lives – remind us that our lives are all fused to God. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD wants to help us live into a new kind of thinking. Our lives are to trust God and serve God all our days. FEAR-OF-THE-LORD!
May it be so. Alleluia. Amen.
Prayer of Commitment: O Lord, you keep showering us with boundless faithfulness and blessings. We, open to your Spirit, seek to live with faithfulness and as a blessing in this world following Jesus. Amen.
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on September 23, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.