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“The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever.”

February 22, 2021

Leviticus 19:1–2,11–18 | Matthew 25:31–46 | Psalm 19:7–14

The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever;
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.

– Psalm 19:9

Here we are again. Another period of waiting and reflection before something wonderfully joyful. And like Advent, I find myself wanting to skip to the end – to go right to “the good part”.  Forty days of serious examination is this fun-fest we call Lent. I find myself envious of our Jewish sisters and brothers who do this in only one day on Yom Kippur. They even have the perfect expression for my sentiment, “oy vey!”.

But seriously, there is something beautiful about the cadence of our liturgical year – indeed about God’s steadfast commitment to us throughout history. There is a pattern here that reveals an unfailing love for us. A love beyond any deserving. We do a deep disservice to God and grieve the Holy Spirit when we just skip to “the good part”. When we skip the time of slavery in Egypt before being led to the promised land. The time of exile in Babylon before return to Israel. Indeed, humankind’s very exile from the Garden of Eden before ultimate reconciliation on the cross. Good Friday was like a fever breaking, a way forward for all of us for all time. Easter is meaningless without it.

All these accounts all speak to the truths I find in my own heart. To the exile and abandonment I feel in my own experience. To the goodness, the holiness, that I am drawn to in my innermost being; that I constantly fall short of through my own effort. There is something about how we are made – how we are made in God’s very likeness and image – that draws us to righteousness, even while we pursue our own exiles of unfulfillment.

A passage from today’s reading from the Book of Psalms stood out to me. “The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever.” How odd to describe fear as “clean”. Scary, debilitating, anxiety inducing maybe.  But clean? But then I examined (see that Lenten word there?) my understanding of fear. My negative feelings make sense if my fear is one of punishment by one who wishes me ill. And by one who can strip me of the control I have. But God has made it so clear so constantly that it is not my ill will that He desires. For goodness sake, was not death on a cross enough proof of this for me? And despite my having to relearn this on a daily basis, the control I have over my own life is in no way equal to God’s control over all of creation. I should not fear losing it — I just do not have such control to begin with.

So the “fear” the psalmist refers to must be more like “awe”. Then this passage begins to make sense.  When I stop trying to domesticate God and recognize Him for the unfathomable power that He is.  When I remember that the arc of history has been one of God trying to pull us back from the exiles of our own doing into a right relationship with Him — it does begin to make sense. There is a cleanness, a rightness, in putting it back into proper perspective.

Another passage from Psalms comes mind when I think of the fear of the Lord being clean, and as I look out my window this morning the new fallen snow. Psalm 51:7 says “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow”.  What a beautiful image of “clean”. Brothers and sisters, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  In God’s likeness, no less. Let us claim that inheritance, as fearfully awesome as it is. Let us humbly and gratefully accept that we are made clean in God’s sight and dwell not a minute longer in our own exile.

Gary Schweizer