Sunday, July 3, 2016

Reverent Fear

This morning we’re going to take another look at Noah and his famous flood. There’s more to learn from this brother of ours. Last week we saw how Jesus warned people using Noah’s situation. This week we’re going to consider some inspired commentary about Noah that will, I hope, give us some direction when it comes to living in our changing times.

Listen to what the author of the book of Hebrews wrote.

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. Hebrews 11.7

When it comes to understanding events recorded in the Bible it can help if you put yourself into the situation. David and Goliath is an interesting story. But what if you were David? Or maybe even Goliath?

So, consider this. What would it have felt like to have been Noah? Let’s imagine a conversation that Noah might have had with one of his neighbors.

‘Hey there, Noah. How’s it going?’
‘I’m doing really well.’
‘I’ve noticed that you’ve been kind of busy lately. What are you building?’
‘I’m building an ark.’
‘An ark. What’s that?’
‘It’s a really big boat.’
‘Yeah, it really is big. But why would you want to build a really big boat?’
‘There’s a flood coming.’
‘A flood. What’s that?’
‘It’s a lot of water that covers everything, and I mean everything. See that mountain over there? There’s going to be so much water that the top of that mountain is going to be covered.’
‘Noah, what are you talking about? That can’t be. There’s never been anything like that before.’
‘Well, there’s going to be.’
‘Really. And how do you know this?’
‘God told me.’
‘God told you.’
‘Yep. He told me that He’s seen all the terrible things that people have been doing, and He’s fed up with it. He’s going to send a flood, and it’s going to kill everyone who doesn’t change his ways.’
‘Noah, get a hold of yourself. You realize how silly this all sounds, don’t you?’
‘Well, it doesn’t matter how it sounds. It’s the truth. There’s going to be a flood. And if you don’t change your ways you’re going to die in that flood.’
‘Look, Noah, I’m your friend. We’ve been good neighbors for I don’t know how many years. So, as your friend I’m telling you that you need to give up this ridiculous idea. You know that there are some people who aren’t going to just tell you to knock it off. You’ve seen how they can make life miserable for folk like us. So, think about it.’
‘I appreciate your concern. So, let me return the favor. There’s going to be a flood. And everyone who doesn’t change his ways is going to die. I really hope that you will take that seriously. God is going to act, and you don’t want Him to be mad at you.’

Now, I have no idea whether Noah ever had a conversation like this with one of his neighbors. But I think that it gives you a sense of what Noah faced. It gives you a sense of what those two sentences in Hebrews are about.

Noah constructed an ark. Why? He did this because God had told him about ‘an unseen event’, something that hadn’t happened yet, but was going to - the flood. So, out of ‘reverent fear’ Noah did something the significance of which the people around him refused to accept. He built an ark. As a result of his hard-working faith Noah gained the status of one who is right before God.

That’s a basic explanation of the text. Now, let’s poke at it and see what happens.

A question. Why is the author of Hebrews writing about Noah to a group of Christians? Noah had some important choices to make. And he had to make them in the face of a world that was by no means sympathetic. The Christians that Hebrews was written to also had some important choices to make. And they also had to make them in the face of a world that was by no means sympathetic. In fact, it had gotten to the point that some of them wanted to give in to the pressure. They wanted to quit being Christians. So, our author collects some examples from the history of the Church to encourage those saints. That’s what Hebrews 11 is about. One of those examples is Noah. The author wants to encourage these Christians by pointing to someone in a similar situation, someone who chose wisely as he also faced a hostile world.

Now, another question. Why am I telling you about what this author did? I’m doing this because your situation is increasingly becoming like the situation of those Christians he was writing to. Or to say it differently, because your situation is becoming very similar to Noah’s.

For most of my lifetime the world around me generally ignored me as I worked at God’s calling for my life. Working at understanding what it means to be a disciple and trying to put it into practice was seen, at worst, as an oddity. The world accepted that since, well, we all have our quirks. But that is changing. It is less and less ‘live and let live’. The pressure to conform is increasing. Things unthinkable not all that long ago are now expected to be received as normal. I don’t see that changing any time soon unless God sends a dramatic revival, a revival that converts not just the people of our culture but also its institutions. If He does that, then we’re in great shape. But if He doesn’t, then we and our children and our grandchildren are going to be facing some very hard times just like Noah and those Christians Hebrews was written to.

And so, like the author of Hebrews, I want to respond to your need. I want to give you something so that when you are tempted to waver - and don’t say that that could never happen to you - you will have something to hold on to.

So let’s consider your situation through the lens of Noah’s situation.

Just as He did with Noah, God has told you about an event as yet unseen, something like that flood. As I explained last week, Jesus is coming - certainly at the end of it all but also even sooner than that - and when He does He will do some serious evaluating. And based on that evaluation He will either bless or curse.

And here you are, working at God’s calling for your life, being a disciple of Jesus. But you are doing that in an increasingly hostile world. Maybe you have felt some of the pressure of the world. Maybe you haven’t. If you haven’t, in time you will.

Just like Noah with his neighbor in my made-up conversation, you will have friends, co-workers, neighbors, maybe even relatives who will see you working at this discipleship and who will react. At this point it just might be social pressure. They might just think that you’re weird. But in time they will go further, much further. You are going to feel the pressure to conform. They will try to force you to conform to how they define normal. One of their tools will be economic pressure. Christians will be confronted with the possibility of losing their jobs if they don’t live according to the cultural expectations. You are going to feel the pressure.

So, what are we to do? First, it’s good to consider what not to do. What if Noah gave in to that neighbor that I made up? What if Noah responded by saying, ‘You know, I think you’re right’? This boat-building idea really is ridiculous. All we’ve had are blue skies. Not a drop of rain. And how could there be enough water to cover the mountains? That’s impossible. Yeah, you’re right. I’m going to quit working on the boat’? If that had happened then when the flood came Noah would have died with all the others. God would have killed him too. Giving in to the pressure would have been fatal. Likewise, it would have been fatal for those Christians Hebrews was written to. And it would be fatal for you. You don’t want to give in to the pressure.

So, what are we to do? There has been a recurring theme in some of my sermons of the last several months. The theme has been about knowing God. The priority for a Christian is to know God. That lies at the heart of eternal life. And that is our chief defense as the pressure gets greater. Something in that quote from Hebrews applies this theme of knowing God.

… in reverent fear [Noah] constructed an ark … 

Noah heard what God had said about the coming flood, and Noah believed Him. In response to that, ‘in reverent fear’, Noah started building. Your protection against the growing pressures of the world is the fear of God. It is taking seriously the simple fact that giving in to the pressure will be fatal. Jesus is coming.

He said:

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10.28)

Your protection against the growing pressures of the world is the fear of God.

But how are we to grow in the fear of God? You start by prayer. David understood that.

… unite my heart to fear your name. (Psalm 86.11)

The fear of God, like every other aspect of being a disciple, is something God gives. We need to ask Him to grow that fear in our lives. If we ask, we shall receive.

But growing in such things is never merely a matter of prayer. We follow that up by working at a reverent fear in the little things, the things where we think that a little compromise will make no difference. Pray that you would catch yourself being tempted in these little things. A reverent fear will tell you, ‘If I fail here He will know.’ But also bear in mind that a reverent fear will also tell you, ‘If I prove faithful here He will know.’ Victory in the big battles starts with victories in the little skirmishes.

The fear of the Lord is, sadly, out of vogue these days. It needs to be restored to its once‑privileged position in the Church. We need to again believe,

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9.10)

And that’s because the great need of the day in this increasingly hostile world is for Christians to be very wise. We will have many hard situations where we will need to choose wisely. Much will depend on whether we will do that.

So, what have I done this morning? I have tried to warn you. Our culture careening into chaos, and nobody knows where the brakes are. Simply being a Christian, trying to live one’s life according to what Jesus calls for, is going to get harder and harder.

But at the same time we should look at our situation as leading to a huge opportunity. Being a faithful Christian is going to cost. Only the real Christians will stand out because only they will stand firm. And as our world continues to go crazy, people will find that what they thought was the way to a great life is actually the way to death. But then, they will see that our lives are working. They will see that we are on the path of real life. So, they will come to us to ask how we do that. And we will tell them about Jesus. There will be a great turning of many people to Jesus, the only one who gives life. So, on the one hand be warned. It’s going to get hard. But on the other, be excited about what is going to happen as we stand firm.

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