1/3/2013 18:00


Before Christmas a group of adults spent an hour looking at the story of Rahab the prostitute, the one who hid the spies of Israel and then let them down outside the walls of the town. One person wondered what Rabab's motivation was for aiding the foreign spies against her own king and city. Looking at the text itself, I answered that she was afraid -- afraid of her family being destroyed by the invading soldiers, afraid of their God who seemed able to give the victory to the descendents of Israel. Someone else pointed out that the discussion guide, speaking from point of view of the epistle, said Rahab had acted out of faith. Which is right?

From the point of view of the Old Testament, fear and faith may be nearly the same thing. How did people in the old stories react to the presence of God? They were afraid. How did the people feel at Sinai when Moses went to talk with God? How did Hannah and her husband feel when God's angel came to them? Even in the gospel, what does the angel say first of all -- and why must he say it? He says, "Don't be afraid" because they are afraid.

But the obverse of this fear is to order one's life and society to align with the preferences of this fearsome God. That is, the response is faithfulness. Fear of God in the ancient stories gives rise to faithfulness. They cannot be separated.

For the wanderers, the fear of God may have been a very immanent thing. Journeying to the home of Yahweh was risky enough, but it turned out that their God was travelling with them on the journey. God had travelled to Egypt and had frightened the religiously adept Egyptians, had shaken them and their government to the foundations. God had left Egypt with them -- not going home ahead of them nor staying behind to finish off those annoying Egyptians, but travelling with the people and staying in their camp. A Hebrew on the way to the promised land might have taken a turn around one of the tents and come face to face with the ruler of the universe.

They would have been foolish not to be afraid.

The rules and regulations they received at Sinai, the rituals and the procedures which were initiated under the smoking mountain were less a matter of honoring God than of reassuring the people. If they set up the Tent of Meeting properly, if they followed the rules for their own behavior, if they listened to Moses when he repeated the words of God, then they themselves would not meet God face to face. If they are faithful, they will not risk seeing God in person.

For us, residents of the modern world, the sense of the camp has been lost. We don't generally live with that kind of community and we don't typically have the fear of meeting God around the next corner.

We may -- depending on where and how we live -- have some fears about meeting someone else. If we have this fear, we adopt rituals and procedures for ourselves to ensure that such a feared meeting will not take place: We don't go certain places, or we go only in daylight, or only in groups; perhaps we avoid wearing certain kinds of clothing. If we are faithful to these rituals, we believe that we will be safe.

As Christians in this modern world, we know God in Jesus as our friend. But we also know God can live within us -- and isn't that a little bit frightening? We know that our thoughts might take a turn toward truth and that suddenly we could be face to face with the Absolute Truth. We too have ritual worship and formulaic prayers, habits of thought and powerful diversions that help keep us safe from facing God. In actual reality I'm not sure that finding God "in our hearts" is that much different from running into God at the side of the tent.