Atheophobia | Sermon Archives

Atheophobia

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Luke 12:1-12
© Stacey Steck

There are a lot of things to be afraid of in this world. There’s COVID-19 of course, pretty scary stuff there. Dying a painful death is pretty high on many people’s lists of things to be afraid of. Heights, that’s my great fear. Public speaking is a classic one. Reading the second chapter of Acts is pretty scary with all those foreign words. Clowns are popular right now. And then there are the run of the mill fears of snakes and spiders and the dark. And then there are the lesser known, but often very debilitating, fears that we call phobias. You know some of the common ones like agoraphobia, or the fear of open spaces, and claustrophobia, or the fear of enclosed spaces. But did you know about Syngenesophobia, which is the irrational fear of relatives? Someone suffering from this condition can expect to experience a very high amount of anxiety from merely thinking of relatives, let alone actually seeing them. In fact, their anxiety may be so intense that they may even endure a full blown panic attack as a result of it. Can you imagine Thanksgiving at their house? Xanthophobia is fear of the color yellow. The common cause of this phobia is unhappy experiences involving the color yellow, like getting stung by a bee or even getting hit by a yellow car or school bus. Very troubling for some is asymmetriphobia, or the irrational fear of asymmetry. Essentially, anything that is objectively or subjectively out of whack even just a little will give someone with this condition an very high amount of anxiety. Even thinking about asymmetry may be enough to give someone with asymmetriphobia an influx of unwanted dread and terror. Not surprisingly, the antithetical phobia of asymmetriphobia is symmetrophobia, which is the fear of symmetry. And then there is the class of phobias that bring us closer to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Luke, and in that class is Papaphobia, or fear of the Pope, Hierophobia, or the fear of holy people or sacred things, Ecclesiaphobia, the fear of church, organized religion or holy people, and Hagiophobia, the fear of saints or holy things.

So what should we call this kind of fear Jesus both describes and recommends, when he says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear; fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Well, first we would need to figure out about whom Jesus is warning the disciples. At first glance, we might think he’s talking about Satan, since hell is mentioned, and Satan is supposed to be the caretaker of the underworld. Satan wants us all in hell and would do anything possible to grab our little souls, right? But does Satan have the authority to cast us into hell? Is that Satan’s job? Or is he just the recipient of those souls who are delivered there by someone else? Indeed, it is not the devil whom the disciples should fear. Jesus is pretty clearly indicating that it is God whom they should fear because it is God alone who decides our fate. The devil is powerless over life and death, powerless of anything, really, except to tempt us. And so maybe we should call this fear Jesus recommends theophobia, since it is God, theos in Greek, whom we are to fear. Turns out that theophobia is actually a thing for which people frequently seek treatment. Who knew?

The first part of the 12th chapter of Luke reads like a charge, or maybe more accurately, a warning, to the inner circle of disciples, of what might be coming due to the popularity Jesus was experiencing. After all, thousands of people were gathering to hear him, so many that they were trampling on one another. Such a gathering could be construed as a threat, could it not? And so Jesus is giving them a heads up that trouble may be brewing, and don’t be surprised if you get some questions about your role in this unfolding drama. Indeed, the warning about the Pharisees presages the betrayal by Judas. “What you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that Judas died by suicide, what with the shame of his dark deeds coming to public knowledge. At some point, Judas is either approached by, or goes looking for, those who wanted to do away with Jesus, and surely they had some secret conversations, “words whispered behind closed doors” about betrayal by kiss. So be careful, he tells them, be careful what you say or do, because people are watching, and they might not like what they see. It’s not like the Jewish leadership was the KGB, knocking on doors in the middle of the night, hauling people away, but with a pretty violent Roman Empire lurking in the background, you never knew what could happen. And of course it did ultimately happen, didn’t it?

And so back to the fear factor. Jesus can probably imagine these words provoking fear in the disciples, making them start to look over their shoulders all the time, but that’s not what he wants them to be doing. What he really wants is for them to continue to focus on God, and on the message Jesus is bringing that is attracting so many people, and to let the chips fall where they may. And so he ups the ante and tells them that what they should really be worrying about is not a crucifixion by the side of the road, but an eternity second guessing what might have been. It is life with God that matters, not death at the hands of the Romans. But Jesus doesn’t really want them to be afraid of God in the same way either, and so he follows the warning up with some words of comfort: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” What Jesus seems to be getting at is that despite the overwhelming power at God’s disposal, the power of life and death, the power to cast into hell even, God is benevolent in a way that the powers that be cannot even contemplate, and that rather than living in fear of God’s power, they should live in awe of it.

English translations of the Bible have always had trouble capturing the nuances of the original languages and perhaps nowhere do they miss the richness more than with respect to the word “fear.” In Hebrew itself, and in the worldview of its speakers, the word fear has a different meaning based on context. It can mean either fear like the fear I described earlier, our common fears or our phobias, but it can also mean awe and reverence. And so the famous scary phrase, “the fear of the Lord,” is not about living in fear, but living in awe, not about walking around wondering when God will jump out from behind a rock to scare you out of your wits, but marveling at the rock itself and your own inability to make it. It’s a kind of jaw dropping sense of awesomeness or wonder you experience when you come face to face with something so amazing or divine that it seems too perfect or too untouchable or too indescribable. The fear of the Lord is that profound understanding of the difference between you and God, a way of living as if you know how awesome God really is. And once again, we are betrayed by the translation of the Greek in Luke 12 which simply reduces it all to fright by the use of the word phobos in both places. But it’s the awe Jesus wants to make sure they do not lose sight of, because once we lose that awe, the awe of a God who knows the number of hairs on our heads, then we really will have something to be afraid of.

In increasingly pointed language, the passages that follow in Luke 12 speak of the coming judgment of this awe-inspiring God. Here’s what’s going to happen, Jesus says, when the end of days comes, and what will your posture be? Will it be cowering in fear, or standing up in proclamations of awe? Will it be worried, striving, hoarding of possessions for some futile attempt to survive a siege, or will it be graceful generosity that welcomes God’s coming to make things right? You get to decide, Jesus says. You get to decide whether you will live in fear or awe, because there are worse things than death. Maybe the kind of fear Jesus is really recommending is Atheophobia, or the fear of not having God in your life. What could be worse than living under Roman occupation? Living under Roman occupation numb and indifferent, not caring what happens to yourself or your neighbors or God’s creation. When we lose our connection to God, when we lose that awe, the world is a much duller place, the flowers of spring gray rather than vibrant with color, the songs of the birds monotone rather than symphonic, the taste of Patterson Farms strawberries bland rather than bursting with the flavor they always have. Now, that is something to be afraid of. In a world where there really are so many things to be afraid of, can we really afford to add a life without God to the list?

If we can remain connected to God, however, good things happen. What does Jesus say? “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge. When they bring you before the synagogues [for interrogation, you won’t have to] worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; fore the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” There are benefits to believing. God will vouch for you. The Holy Spirit will empower you. Those benefits probably shouldn’t be the reasons we believe, but they are pretty good perks. We probably should believe in God simply because God is worth believing in, because life without God isn’t worth living, but I suppose God doesn’t mind sweetening the pot. You probably shop at your favorite supermarket because it offers a nice shopping experience, and has the things you want to buy, and not only because it always has the lowest prices, but isn’t it nice when they also throw in a VIC card or an MVP card for some extra savings. Isn’t it nice to have the assurance that God thinks you are of more value than many sparrows and that the Holy Spirit will give you the right words when it really matters?

I know that some of you are still waiting for me to offer an explanation of the “unforgiveable sin” of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Yes, it’s one of the more mysterious phrases in the Bible: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” Very scary. Nobody really has a complete explanation for that phrase but let me just say this. Most of us don’t really have to worry too much about committing this unforgiveable sin because it takes an awful lot of intentionality to be blasphemous. I mean, blasphemy is not casual, not accidental. You really have to work at it. You have to try to deny God. Look at it this way. Jesus says, “Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven,” and that covers a lot, doesn’t it? It covered Peter when he denied Jesus three times when it mattered the most, and it’s going to cover us for almost any slip up we might make in our confessions about God as we are trying to live awe-inspired lives. If there is something we can do that is blasphemous, unforgiveable, it’s living as if God doesn’t matter, as if we are the captains of our own fate, as if have no fear of the one who has authority to cast into hell. God forgives our well-intentioned mistakes, and that might even be the best definition of the word grace. But let us not take God’s grace for granted by making our mistakes without any intention at all. In the end, that’s what Jesus is after with these disciples, and with us, for us to really live like God matters, and like other people matter, even when we fail at it. When we do that, we’ll have nothing to be afraid of. Let us be glad for a little atheophobia, the fear of life without God, and let us embrace the grace we have been given. Amen.