If there is one thing our land lacks, it is the fear of God. Romans 3 says there’s none righteous, none seeks after God, all are unprofitable, our mouths are like open graves, our tongues are full of poisonous venom, full of cursing and lies and bitterness, shedding innocent blood, destruction and misery fill our days, there’s no knowledge of peace, and the final summary of it all is: there is no fear of God before their eyes. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the refusal to fear God is the beginning of all kinds of destructive insanity.
Even in the Christian Church, you do not hear messages on the fear of God, the wrath of God, the justice of God – even at Christmas, maybe especially at Christmas. But Christmas is all about the justice of God: “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Is. 9:7). Christmas is all about the zealous justice of God, which ought to make everyone tremble: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence // And with fear and trembling stand… Christ our God to earth descendeth // Our full homage to demand.”
But Christians rush to the verses about perfect love casting out fear, and remember: the angels told Mary and Joseph and the shepherds to “fear not.” Of course there is a kind of fear that Christ came to take away: the fear of death, the fear of torment. But there is also a kind of godly fear that Christ came to restore: “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And Jesus Himself said, “And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him” (Lk. 12:4-5).
So what is this godly fear? It is an acknowledgement of God’s utter immensity and power and perfection and justice. It is an acknowledgement of your own frailty and weakness and utter dependence and deficiencies. All things exist and hold together by the power of God’s omnipotent Word, and therefore we are all walking and living every moment on the high wire of God’s kindness, suspended over absolute eternity. Your heart trembles to see madmen walk across wires suspended between skyscrapers. Maybe you get sick at the thought of being in outer space or sky diving. But we are all constantly walking the high wire of existence, a hairsbreadth between us and forever. We all live in outer space. It is only God’s merciful will that keeps us from flying off this globe into the darkness.
But then add to this reality the fact that we have all repudiated, cursed, and defied the One who holds us at every moment. He holds us, giving us every breath, every heartbeat, and we demand our own way. He gives us life and health and every good thing, and we are full of bitterness and complaining. We are held up by His almighty power, and we struggle and kick and curse. In our sinful folly, we demand to be left alone. We try to run away from Him – which means, in our sinful insanity, we are trying to destroy ourselves. Like foolish toddlers on a balcony without a railing, we scream and kick and insist that God let us toddle around by ourselves. God is light, and He is the light of men, the light of all existence. Without Him there is only darkness, complete and absolute darkness.
It’s often been said that the night before the birth of Christ was the darkest night in the history of the world. And there’s something profoundly true about that. But it’s also true that wherever Christ has not yet come or wherever Christ has been rejected, wherever people insist on continuing in their sins, insist on going their own way, in that place there is still great darkness. Of course, so many people, even Christians, don’t want to talk about the darkness. They only want to talk about the light: grace, love, and joy. Isn’t that what Christmas is about?
But Jesus Christ, the One whose birth we are celebrating, is the One who came speaking, perhaps more than anyone else in the Bible, about the darkness, about judgment, about Hell. Jesus said the tares are the children of the Wicked One growing in His Kingdom that will be gathered up and thrown into a furnace of fire. Jesus said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a great net cast into the sea, and when it is pulled up to the shore, the bad and wicked are separated from the good and cast into a furnace of fire, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Jesus repeatedly warned cities of their reception of Him, saying that their judgment would be worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Jesus said that those without a wedding garment will be cast out of the Marriage Feast, into outer darkness. He said that the one who buries his talent in the ground will have his talent taken away and be cast into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus said those who refuse to cut off hands and pluck out eyes that cause offense will be cast into hell, into fire that is never quenched, where the worm never dies.
When the Light of the World comes into the world, the first thing you notice is all the darkness. We cannot talk about the birth of the Light of the world, without talking about the darkness of the world, the darkness in our lives. And when we do that, it must cause us to tremble. The King has come, and we have rebelled. The Lord of Glory has appeared, and we have been plotting against Him. There is a kind of fear that He came to banish, and it is the fear that we see in our first parents in the Garden, the kind of fear that tries to hide. But you cannot hide from the Lord of all Light. In His Light everything is manifest: every thought, every word, every glance, every act. All is plain as day to Him. The kind of fear that tries to run away, tries to hide is foolish, fleshly fear of punishment. But godly fear trembles because we have offended our Father’s love. Godly fear falls to the ground in worship because we have not honored our King. Godly fear acknowledges that true justice would mean our destruction. It acknowledges that it would be good and righteous and holy if all sinners were cast into Hell for our insolence. Godly fear wants nothing but the glory of God because He is worthy, because He is the King. Godly fear does not run from the King. Godly fear stumbles toward the King, trembling and full of joy. Even if we perish, it would have been worth it to be so near the King.
John Bunyan once called godly fear a “blessed confusion.” It’s the confusion of knowing the greatness of God and the frailty of being a creature, the confusion of knowing the goodness and holiness of God and the shameful filth of our own hearts and lives. And in the midst of that confusion, hearing the words, from our Savior Himself, Come. Come and welcome. Come into the feast. Come into the light. And the fear of the Lord drives you in, trembling with joy. Because Christ has come for us. Christ was born for us. All is grace. All is gift. All is Christmas.
“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Is. 9:2).
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.