Fear and Faith
Text: Luke 5:1-11
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Growing up, my family went to the Gulf coast quite a bit. Whenever we’d visit extended family, it would often take us to places like Galveston and Corpus Christi. And being on that big body of water, the Gulf of Mexico, I gained an appreciation and healthy respect for it. I knew it could be dangerous, but I also learned how to avoid those dangers, never being too far from the land. But it wasn’t until I flew over the Atlantic for the first time that I had entirely new experience with that water. I watched the sun rise from the window of the plane and realized that all I could see in any direction was water. There was no land—no solid source of safety I had been taught to seek—anywhere. Suddenly, in that moment, I had a new realization: the water could be even more dangerous than I thought, even deadly.
We have a similar realization in our Gospel reading today in the mind of Simon Peter. Peter, like all Hebrews, had learned about God—His infinite nature, His almightiness, His perfect holiness. It’s one thing to know about those things. It’s quite another to have those things standing right in front of you. Jesus was standing in Peter’s boat, and after teaching the people from that waterborne pulpit, Jesus told Peter to go to the deep water and let down the net. Peter, a professional fisherman, scoffed. “Master, we toiled all night and caught nothing.” Yet, because this Jesus appeared to be some sort of holy man, even perhaps a prophet, Peter went on, “But at your word, I will let down the nets.” Immediately they caught an enormous number of fish, so many that the nets were filled and were beginning to snap and break. Peter realized that the only One who could have control over those watery deeps, the only One who could bend the forces of nature in that way, was the all-powerful, perfectly holy God. He was faced with the blazing power and holiness of the God who made heaven and earth, who gave the perfect Law from the fires and thunder on Mount Sinai, the God who said that He wants His people, including Peter, to be as holy as He is. And Peter knew that he did not measure up. Peter realized his smallness beside the Lord’s infinity. He realized His weakness before God’s limitless power. He realized his uncleanness and sin as he stood before the perfect, holy, and righteous God. So he did the only thing he could think to do. He fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”
This is the reaction of fallen mortals when they’re faced with the power and holiness of the Lord. It was the prophet Isaiah’s reaction when He saw the Lord in the temple. He cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Fear—or perhaps more rightly said, terror—is the reaction when mortals are faced with something so much more powerful than them, when we’re faced with perfect holiness that burns away anything unholy. This is what we’re talking about when we say, “the fear of God.”
There is such a thing as a healthy, godly fear of God. We’re instructed in the Ten Commandments to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. All the Commandments begin their teaching with “We should fear and love God” so that we do or do not do certain things. At the end of the Commandments, the Lord says, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing love to a thousand generations to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” What does He mean by this? It means that we should fear God’s wrath and not do anything against His Word.
So then, what has happened to the fear of God today? Why don’t we fear Him? Surely you must be feeling a little bristled at all this talk of fearing God. Why don’t we have that same kind of reaction that Isaiah had, that prophet who surely understood God better than we? Or Simon Peter, the disciple who walked and talked and lived with Jesus for years during His earthly ministry?
I think part of it is that we just don’t stop to think about it. We’ve trained ourselves as a society to not really engage in continuous, deep contemplation of these sorts of things. We don’t really follow this type of truth to its ultimate conclusions. So let’s consider it together now: If there is an all-powerful God who has told us very clearly what to do or not to do—and to do those things perfectly—and if He’s said that there’s a penalty attached to these commands, then we would do well to do it. And if we don’t do those things that this perfect, all-powerful God has said, then we should face the reality that there will be some very serious consequences for us when it’s time to settle our accounts with Him.
But all too often we don’t think of God in this way. We think of Him as a powerful, but benign force; someone who could get involved with the everyday dealings of His creatures, but who prefers to mostly let us run the show. We think of Him as Someone to keep in our pocket for when we need Him, but who would never make demands on us; Someone who would never tell us that something we’re doing is wrong or dangerous. Or—and I think this fits how many people consider Him—there is no reason to fear God because we’re good enough. God gives us a pass for those little things that we do wrong because we’re doing such a good job with all the other stuff.
But that’s not how God describes things in Scripture. He is concerned with the everyday dealings of His creation. He’s interested in what we do with the lives that He’s given us, with the gifts that He’s poured out on us. He wants us to live lives that are the best, according to His desire for us to love Him and those He puts around us. And when it comes to whether we’ve done a good enough job of that, He has some strong words of warning against those who are only concerned about “good enough” or “better than others”. The strongest words of warning that Jesus gives are to those “good enough” Pharisees, who were keeping all the so-called right rules, so that they had no reason to fear God. They were certainly doing better than all those other people. But Jesus does continually give them—and us—a reality check. There is no “good enough to get a pass”. There is only holy and not holy, clean or unclean, sinless or sinful. And if we look at Isaiah and Peter’s reactions, we know exactly which camp we belong in.
None of the reasons we come up with are good enough for us to not fear the almighty, eternal, and holy God. We can’t wiggle our way out of it, no matter how hard you try, even right at this moment. There is one reason that is enough, though. There is one thing that takes the fear of God and turns it into something holy, something that’s not just terror. It’s when God Himself tells us to not be afraid.
When Peter fell down and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” Jesus replied, “Do not be afraid.” Stop being afraid, Peter. Take that terror, that fear of destruction, and set it aside. Let it be transformed into something else. And how is it that our fear is transformed, especially when we realize that we are a people of unclean lips, hearts, and hands? It’s the same reason that God gives the prophet Isaiah. “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Your fear of God is changed from terror, from fear of wrath, because your guilt is taken away from you. Your sins have been atoned for.
We find our peace with God not in the rationales we offer, not in the self-justification we present, and not in the lists of reasons that we come up with for why God should reward us. No, it’s because of what He’s done. Jesus, the atoning sacrifice, has taken on the guilt of Isaiah, Peter, and us. When the burning coal touched Isaiah’s lips, the prophet’s uncleanness was transferred to the Lamb of God. When Jesus told Peter to not be afraid, it’s because He was taking Peter’s sin onto His own holy shoulders, to carry that sin to the cross and deal with it for Peter, to suffer the punishment and wrath that we all had earned. So our fear is changed from something terrible to something good, it’s tempered by faith, by hope in Jesus, so that now we seek to please our heavenly Father not because we’re afraid of His anger, but because we love Him and want to live as His children.
Jesus exchanges our sin for all His goodness. So in the place of what we’ve done wrong, we receive so much good that our nets are filled to bursting. He gives us so much more than we could ever need. And then, because He’s blessed us with so much good that we can’t even hold all of it, He gives us purpose. He makes us part of how He’ll bless others, so that all the good things He’s given us can slip through our nets to the people around us. He included Isaiah in His plan to bring Israel back, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” He told Peter, “From now on you will be catching men.” So He calls us to hear His Word that takes away our guilt. He brings us to Communion, where the purifying fire of His body and blood touches our lips and removes our sin. Your sin is forgiven. You are at one with your almighty God. Go in His name, in peace, knowing that in all His power, in all His holiness, He is for you. In the name of Jesus, who is God in human flesh, Amen.