“Fear seized the whole crowd; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably upon his people!'” (Luke 7:16)
The concept of fear as it relates to God has taken on a lot of excess baggage over the last 6,000 years or so. We’re to the point now where it seems as though we have totally missed the boat as we attempt to understand what Scripture means by “fear of the Lord.” Many a preacher has used this to put forward the illusion that God is vengeful and that his wrath will fall upon us with great power and might. This is often tied into a bad reading of the book of Job, creating what seems to be a totally capricious God who will smite even his most faithful followers just because he can. We see this terrible understanding trotted out into the media every time something bad happens on the face of the earth: oil spill, earthquake, or mass shooting. Over the centuries, the idea of fear has become hijacked so that our only understanding of it is in the negative: dread, alarm, panic; generally things that ignite our fight or flight response. Let me be clear, if I haven’t been so already, I think this negative association of fear with God is bogus and should be condemned as heresy.
We get a glimpse into the positive understanding of “fear of the Lord” in Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Luke 7 about Jesus’ encounter with the crowd just outside Nain. There is much in this story with which to wrestle: the Widow’s place in her community, 1st century Jewish funeral customs, Jesus’ compassion, his touching of the bier, and the actual miracle itself are all possible means of entrance into this short story, but in light of my unintended hyperbole in the above paragraph, I think you can see that my interest today in the fear (phobos) that “took hold” of the crowd. The Freiburg Lexicon offers several definitions of phobos, giving it both negative (see above) and positive connotations. “(a) in a negative sense fear, dread, alarm (2C 7.5; possibly 1P 3.14); (b) in a positive sense respect, reverence, awe, (wholesome) fear (RO 3.18); respect for those in authority (EP 6.5)”
The crowd in this narrative is clearly reacting to the raising of the man at Nain with a positive sort of fear: respect, reverence, awe; because of the response that Luke records, “they glorified God.” Proper fear of the Lord shouldn’t instill terror into our hearts, but rather should bring forth praise, worship, and glory. Proper fear should lead us toward God, not insight us to flee from him. Unfortunately, a proper, even healthy, fear of the Lord has been buried under years and years of bad theology and loud mouthed preachers who use God as a cover for their hate and fear. Maybe this Sunday is an opportunity for us to reclaim a healthy and proper fear of the Lord. Maybe the Widow’s Son’s resurrection can show us how we might approach God’s awesome strength.