Afraid of God or Mrs. Grundy?
In the 1798 play Speed the Plough, character Dame Ashby is constantly afraid of provoking the scorn of her neighbor Mrs. Grundy. She is always saying, "What would Mrs. Grundy say?" The expression became proverbial so much so that it inspired an 1857 poem: "'They eat, and drink, and scheme, and plod. / And go to church on Sunday. / And many are afraid of God. / And more of Mrs. Grundy'" (Heavens to Betsy, 173-4). So how about you? You afraid of Mrs. Grundy more than God?
From the outset let's agree that Buffalo Springfield was wrong in their 1967 song. It does not start when you're always afraid. It starts when you're not afraid of God above all, and what I mean by "it" is what they meant by "it": paranoia. And fittingly in the song it starts with fear of men not God. The 18th century Lutheran clergyman Johann Bengel got it right. "He who fears God, ought to fear nothing except Him; he who does not fear God fears everything except Him" (New Testament Commentary, 1, 161).
Reasons to fear is where Jesus starts and apparently ends this text. There is a reason to fear being owned by Jesus. Look what they did to our Lord? His friends betrayed, deserted, and denied Him. The church leaders ridiculed Him, spat on Him, beat Him, and handed Him over to the State to kill Him, and the State killed Him knowing and proclaiming Him innocent of all charges.
If you're a disciple of Jesus, don't think you're going to get beyond the way of your Teacher. If you're a slave of the Lord Jesus don't think you'll rise above what happened to your Master. If they called your perfect Teacher and Master "Devil", how much more are they going to call sinful, imperfect disciples and slaves of Him demons? Jesus promises in John 15: the world that hates Him will hate you. "If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." Owned by Jesus; disowned by the world.
Not only am I afraid of being owned by Jesus in the beginning, in the end I'm afraid of doing what Jesus says: of disowning Him. I'm afraid of hearing from His holy lips, "I never knew you." I'm afraid of hearing Him say, "I don't even know where you're from." I'm afraid of the door being slammed in my face and me pounding and begging to be let in and finding it's too late for that.
But better to fear owning or being disowned by God than always being afraid of everything. The first 2 fears are centered in reality, in the flesh and blood God who came into this world and still rules it. However, fear strikes out. I am not here referencing the 1950's book and movie, Fear Strikes Out", about Major League baseball player Jim Piersall. Don't read or watch this. It will leave you with a painful understanding of the totally debilitating nature of fear. It correctly shows how it rooted in your head and how you get in a loop of "I won't be afraid this time; I won't be afraid this time; I'm more afraid than ever now." But it leaves the problem of fear in your lap.
And you're still afraid more of the Mrs. Grundy in your head than God. No, when I say fear strikes out, I don't mean it in the sense of that baseball movie but in the sense of baseball. Three times in our text Jesus says flatly, "Don't be afraid." And according to the Greek constructions used, the first time Jesus says, "Do even start fearing those who will persecute you." We would say, "Don't go there." But Jesus knows us well. He knows that we are but dust, so the next two times Jesus says, "Don't be afraid" it could be translated "don't continue to be afraid."
But if you are going to go to fearing, for the disciple, the slave of Christ the options are easy. There is only one object of fear and it's not Mrs. Grundy; it's God. Fear not those who can give your body hell on earth but the One who can give your body and soul hell for eternity. Fear not those who the worst they can do is take your life, goods, fame, child, and wife, but fear the One who can take your soul and send it to eternal hell.
This is what the Lutheran Confessions call "true fear" of God (AP, XVIII, 7). They speak of this over against having "no true fear." There is a fear that is false or merely instinctive (Conservative Reformation, 387). A false fear of God is based on what God may do or not do in the future. The instinctive fear is fearing God as a concept not a person. True fear is based on what the personal God reveals He is able to do and will do to those who don't fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.
True fear of God is a good thing. Look at our Collect. It's not the pre-7th century original which is in our red hymnal. That one says that the Lord never fails to guide and govern "those whom Thou dost bring up in Thy steadfast fear (not worship) and love." And the original petition, in the red hymnal, is "make us to have a perpetual fear and love of Thy holy name."
The last time the Catechism was redone in the 80s the liberals wanted to remove from the Commandment explanations fear.' Rather than the Law teaching that we should "fear and love God," they wanted to confess that we should love God. Aww; ain't that special. No, fear has this saving grace when it is of God that is. Fear "always sides with the thing we are afraid of" (The Princess and the Goblin, 106-7). Whether it's God or Mrs. Grundy whatever you're afraid of, it's right there with you up close and personal.
God in flesh and blood strikes fear out by commanding twice "don't be afraid" of anyone but God, and then blows the third pitch right by us saying "stop being afraid of God." This wonderful theology is messed up by those translators' of our Collects and Bibles who put revere' for fear' making a distinction on paper that is impossible to make in your heart. No, let God be God, fear be fear, and hear God in flesh and blood saying: The Christian fears God above all things; the Christian doesn't fear God at all.
Don't try to reconcile what God in Christ doesn't. The God who in Christ doesn't count sins, does count the number of hairs on your head. That hair you pay no attention to but when it's in your food; that hair in your brush or left on your pillow that you give not a first thought to let alone a second, God in Christ says, "Look at that; there's another hair lost from her head." The God who says in Psalm 40:12 that your sins outnumber the hairs on your head in Christ keeps closer count of your lost hairs than He does your sins. The God who doesn't weigh the guilt of your sins but for the sake of Christ's holy life and guilty death in your place tosses your guilt behind His back into the ocean of the blood of Christ says you weigh more than many sparrows.
Not even in the age of the all-knowing Internet will you find anyone but guessing at how many sparrows are in the world, and since the Greek could be any little bird, we are talking multiple billions. Quite possibly the small bird population could outweigh the human population, but the point is that God lovingly, completely, meticulously watches out for sparrows and not one falls without His knowledge and consent (Davies, I, 208). So, even when men appear to have them in their hands they don't.
Chairman Mao thought sparrows were one of the 4 pests of mankind. In March 1958, he ordered people all over China to bang pots to keep the sparrows flying. They did and the sparrows flew till exhausted they died mid-air and fell to the ground. Some estimate that a billion birds were killed (Rob Dunn, Smithsonian.com, March 2, 2012). And do you think the Father who knew when and where each one of those sparrows fell, didn't know, didn't care about the millions of people who fell at the hands of the Communists?
Jesus delivers you from the hands of your Mrs. Grundys whether they be people or problems into the God who has hands with nail holes in them. You can't think that He delivers you from the fear of Mrs. Grundy only to throw you into a bigger fear at the end of the text. So, don't think Torschlusspanik think Dixie Chicks.
Torschlusspanik is a German word literally translated as door-shut-panic'. It describes the frenzy as people fight to rush through a door before its slammed in their faces (How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered, 239). The Law leaves you with door-shut-panic'. It demands you consider: are you one of the foolish maidens who isn't preparing for the arrival of the Bridegroom? Are you one of the those who thinks he is a disciple but will rush toward the door of heaven and find your Master has shut it in your face? Do you think this fear is where the Lord who promises in Psalm 34 that He delivers you from all Your fears wishes to leave you this morning?
But what about the last paragraph? First, there is not an imperative in it. This is not a statement of what you must do, better do, be afraid of not doing, but a statement indicating what disciples and slaves of Christ do. So, this text ends not with Torschlusspanik but the 1998 Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces."
Wide open, deep breath, large spaces is the nature of the figures Jesus uses in the preceding text. There's an unveiling and making known. There's proclaiming from the rooftops. God's not keeping secrets from you or about you. All the promises of God are Yes in Christ, says 1 Cor. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Christ. The Christ who welcomes the Prodigal, the lost, the sinful, the fallen is Your God. You are to cease to picture God at heaven's door just hoping He can slam it in your face; no in Christ He is the ever-open Door beckoning, "Come on in. There's still room." The Door is narrow, but it's wide open to sinners pleading their sinfulness and Christ's holiness.
The insert leaves out an important word in the last paragraph: the little word "in". Jesus says, "All who confess in Me before people, I also will confess in Him before My Father." Search not for the power in you to confess but for the Jesus in you by Word and Sacraments who can't fail to confess His love for you. St. John says, "Perfect love casts out fear." With the perfect love of God in Christ in you, where's the room to fear or even care what Mrs. Grundy would say, think, or do? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (20170709); Matthew 10: 24-33