First Wednesday in Advent: Better to be feared or loved?

First Wednesday in Advent

Psalm 90; Isaiah 1:24-31; Luke 11:29-32

I struggle with the Old Testament’s depiction of God as the bad guy in a gangster movie.

I understand the sentiment. In pre-scientific culture, the world was enchanted. God was in everything—trees, the earth, animals, even behavior was attributed to God. The only way to make sense of the world at the time was to figure that if things were good, God was happy. If things are bad, God isn’t happy. If things stay bad, God is trying to teach you a lesson. If things are good for an extended period of time, God is giving you the almighty high five of approval.

Trying to wrestle with these texts in a modern world can be confusing. Over a couple of decades in youth ministry I’ve seen teens walk away from their practice of faith over an inability to bring reconcile the God of love expressed by Jesus in the New Testament with the rage-prone, mood-swing God of the Old Testament. Where’s the hope in that?

Let me explain the gangster movie reference. I love gangster movies. I always have. Particularly ones set in the prohibition era. In those you get a lot of bad guys willing to do anything to escape the law alongside good guys trying to figure out how far they’re willing to stretch the law to triumph over evil. In the best ones, it’s difficult to determine who’s good and who is bad. Many times the loyalty of characters rests purely on what neighborhood they’ve grown up in, and you watch them struggle to figure out if they’re choosing the right side.

My acid test for where I’ll place my loyalty comes from a Robert DeNiro/Chazz Palminteri movie called, “A Bronx Tale.” In it, a kid growing up asks each of his two role models, “Is it better to be feared, or loved?” The neighborhood gangster replies that, while it would be nice to be both, he would choose fear. Fear, he says, lasts longer than love. That’s an observable characteristic across almost any bad guy character relationship. The cronies are motivated by fear. Sometimes with respect thrown in. But ultimately, fear.

Perfect love casts out fear. 1 John 4:18 tells us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

Which sounds like the God who comes at Advent? Which sounds like hope?

For reflection:

How do you bring together what can appear to be radically different understanding of God in scripture?

In what ways is your approach to faith motivated by fear or love?

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