Truth and Fear
Scriptures: Jeremiah 38:1-13, 14-23
The 1966 Academy Award for best picture went to a movie
about religion and politics. It was called A Man for All Seasons, and it told about the confrontation between Sir Thomas More and King Henry VIII. Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his wife Queen Catherine so he could marry one of her young ladies in waiting, a girl named Anne Boleyn. Besides good old fashioned lust, Henry had another reason for wanting a divorce: Catherine's failure to produce a son. She had produced a daughter, but no son, and Henry thought he needed a son to inherit the throne. Ironically, it turned out that Catherine's daughter Mary ended up inheriting the throne after Henry died, and she was followed by another daughter: Elizabeth I, one of the most powerful monarchs in England's history. But Henry could not imagine that. He thought he needed a son, plus he wanted a new young wife. So Henry wants a divorce, but the pope won't give him one, so he wants Thomas' support in lobbying the pope. Henry actually comes to Thomas' home to talk to him about this.
Henry: Thomas, touching the matter of my divorce, have you thought of it since we last spoke?
Thomas: Of little else.
Henry: Then you see your way clear to me?
Thomas: That you should put away Queen Catherine, sire? Alas, as I think of it I see clearly that I cannot come with your Grace.
Henry (shouting): Then you have not thought of it enough.
He then goes on a tirade lamenting the fact that Catherine has failed to give him a son, interpreting this as a sign from God that he should divorce her.
Henry: Never have I seen the hand of God so clear in anything. It's my bounden duty to put away the Queen and all the popes back to Peter shall not come between me and my duty! How is it that you cannot see? Everyone else does.
Thomas: Then why does your Grace need my poor support?
Henry: Because you are honest.. And what's more to the purpose, you're known to be honest.
I share this because there is a remarkable parallel in this
movie to our Bible story for today. Zedekiah plays the role of Henry VIII, and Jeremiah the role of Sir Thomas More. Like Sir Thomas, Jeremiah has an unpopular message which he unflinchingly delivers to the king. He tells Zedekiah that the Chaldeans, which is another name for the Babylonians, are instruments of God's judgment, and that the only way to be saved is by surrendering to them.
That was not the message the king wanted to hear. In fact the king's
officials consider it treason, for which they want Jeremiah killed. By the way, Sir Thomas More was also accused of treason for opposing Henry VIII and eventually executed. Both Jeremiah and Sir Thomas were arrested because they believed in a truth higher the king.
Then there is King Zedekiah. Like Henry VIII, Zedekiah is
presumably the one in power, the one who ought to be in control. But he is not. Notice what happens in verses 4-5. The officials come to King Zedekiah and tell him, "This man [Jeremiah] ought to be put to death because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people." And King Zedekiah says, "Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you."
Zedekiah is the king, but he is afraid of his own officials,
so afraid of them in fact that later when he decides to talk with Jeremiah, he does so secretly so that the officials won't find out. And then when Jeremiah tells him to surrender to the Chaldeans or Babylonians, Zedekiah says, "I am afraid of the Judeans who have deserted to the Chaldeans, for I might be handed over to them and they would abuse me." Zedekiah is afraid of his officials who belong to the anti-Babylonian party, but he is also afraid of the Judeans who belong to the pro-Babylonian party. Like many politicians he is paralyzed by special interests.
You wonder why Zedekiah spoke to Jeremiah at all if he
already knew that Jeremiah opposed him. I suspect it is the same reason that King Henry VIII wanted the blessing of Sir Thomas More: because he knew him to be an honest man. Both Zedekiah and Henry VIII respect someone who has integrity, who tells the truth. But they are afraid of what the truth might mean to them.
Of course, Jeremiah also has some degree of fear. We see
that in verse 15. When asked for a word from the Lord, Jeremiah says to King Zedekiah, "If I tell you, you will put me to death, will you not?" Jeremiah does not want to go back down into that well. He does not want to die. Neither did Sir Thomas More. Both of them were afraid of what might happen to them for telling the truth, but they did it anyway.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear that
has said its prayers. I got that line from Anne Lamott at a lecture I heard at Whitworth University. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Courage is believing in God more than you believe in your fear.
Which brings me to the interesting case of Ebedmelech, the
Ethiopian servant. Isn't it interesting that the least powerful person in the whole story-an immigrant slave from Africa-is the one person who shows the no fear? Without blinking he goes to King Zedekiah in verse 9 and says, "My lord king, these men have acted wickedly in all they did to the prophet Jeremiah by throwing him into the cistern to die there of hunger." This is a rather bold thing for an African slave to tell the king of Israel. In effect he is saying, "You, O king, have acted wickedly by letting your officials do this to Jeremiah." And here is the greatest irony of all: the courage of this African slave gives Zedekiah the courage to do what is right and order Jeremiah's release.
The remedy for fear is to fear God. I know that sounds
strange. We don't normally talk about fearing God. We talk about loving God, about being friends with God, about being close to God. But the Bible often talks about fearing God. The word "fear" is used in connection with God over 100 times in the Bible, as in the phrase "fear God" or "fear the Lord." Yes it is good to love God and feel close to God. But sometimes it is good to remember the awesome universe creating, kingdom shattering, life altering, raising from the dead power of this God we believe in. When talking about the attitude we should have toward God the Bible often uses the word fear.
And yet when God is speaking in the Bible or when an angel speaks for
God the first thing they often say is "Fear not." Do you see the connection? Repeatedly the Bible tells us to fear God, but when God actually speaks to us God often says, "Fear not." When we fear God we need not fear anything else. When you finally realize that your hope, your future, your meaning in life is in the hands of an all-powerful God who loves you, then nothing else need make you afraid.
I began with a great movie about speaking truth to power. I
want to end with a great novel about speaking truth to power. Toward the end of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, there is a scene where Simon Legree, the slave owner, orders Tom, one of his slaves, to beat another slave into submission. But Tom refuses. He says, "I'm willing to work night and day, and work while there's life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can't feel it right to do; and, Mas'r, I never shall do it,--never!"
That's Ebedmelech telling King Zedekiah that what he did to
Jeremiah was wrong. That's Sir Thomas More telling King Henry VIII that what he wants to do to his wife is wrong. That is truth speaking to power.
Simon Legree says to Tom, "What! ye blasted black beast!
tell me ye don't think it right to do what I tell ye! What have any of you cussed cattle to do with thinking what's right? . Ain't I yer master? Didn't I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An't yer mine, now, body and soul?" he said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot.
"No! no! no! my soul ain't yours, Mas'r!" said Tom. "You
haven't bought it,--ye can't buy it! It's been bought and paid for, by the one that is able to keep it;--no matter, no matter, you can't harm me!" "I can't!" said Legree with a sneer; "we'll see,--we'll see!" And Legree orders two of his slave drivers to beat Tom into unconciousness (pp. 386-387).
But the next day Tom still won't obey Simon's order to beat
one of the other slaves. He says to Simon, "Mas'r, I know ye can do dreadful things, but after ye've killed the body, there an't no more ye can do. And oh, there's all ETERNITY to come, after that!" (p. 412).
When we fear God, we need not fear anything else-neither bosses nor
bullies, neither illness nor job loss, neither failure nor rejection. When we fear God, we need not fear anything else, because God is love, and perfect love casts out fear. That is the truth that will set you free.