Sermon 12-04-2022: “Two Kinds of Fear”

December 28, 2022

Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-9

Today’s sermon is about what Isaiah refers to as “the fear of the Lord.” But “fear of the Lord” can be easily misunderstood. So I want to make two points about it. In Point Number One, I want to talk about the bad kind of fear. Then, in Point Number Two, I want to talk about the good and healthy kind of fear.

In order to do so, I want to begin with an urgent message for “kids from one to ninety-two. Although it’s been said many times, many ways…”

Santa is watching you!

Isn’t that often the message during this season?

“You better watch out/ You better not cry/ You better not pout, I’m telling you why/ Santa Claus is coming to town… He sees you when you’re sleeping/ He knows when you’re awake/ He knows if you’ve been bad or good/ So be good for goodness’ sake.”

Listen, there’s no bigger fan of Christmas music than yours truly—whether it’s Christmas hymns and carols…or more secular celebrations of the season—like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silver Bells.” I tend to love all kinds of Christmas music. But can I be honest and confess? I hate “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” I mean, it’s not because I have anything against Santa—I love him. But that song does not communicate the truth about the Santa that I know! 

Because when I was a kid, I was “bad”… plenty of times… I was bad even after my parents warned me, as they inevitably did—starting around Thanksgiving—that Santa wouldn’t come to my house if I was “bad.” 

Or even if he still decided to come to my house, I should expect him to bring me far less than what I would have otherwise received… if only I had been good.

All of us kids back then just sort of accepted this truth. It was part of the propaganda of Christmas. 

But here’s the thing: I never saw any correlation between the extent of my “badness” in the months leading up to Christmas and the amount or quality of amazing gifts with which Santa unfailingly supplied me on Christmas morning—thank heavens for that! 

My point is, the Santa Claus that I experienced growing up was not the Santa Claus described in “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”; like the good Christian saint he is, Saint Nicholas operates on the basis of pure grace!

And far more importantly, of course, the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about grace… 

But… if we’re not careful, I confess that this may not seem perfectly clear in today’s scripture… We may think the message is, “He knows if you’ve been bad or good/ So be good for goodness’ sake.” 

Verse 1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” 

What or who is this shoot or branch?

Well… in the chapters leading up to Isaiah chapter 11, the prophet has been describing the failure of God’s people Israel—how, instead of trusting in God and fulfilling his mission for them, they have rebelled against him; they have broken God’s laws again and again—they have committed idolatry over and over. And as a result of the unfaithfulness of God’s people, Isaiah prophesies that, soon, both the northern kingdom of Israel and—a little later—the southern kingdom, Judah, will be destroyed. 

In fact, in the two verses leading up to today’s scripture Isaiah compares God to a lumberjack: In Isaiah 10:33, he writes that God “will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the great in height will be hewn down, and the lofty will be brought low. He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe…”

And then we get to today’s scripture…

In verse 1, one of those trees that God chops down is what remains of God’s people, Israel. Isaiah says that what will remain of Israel in the near future is like a dead, lifeless stump. The rest of the tree is gone

But that seems to present a problem… Because in 2 Samuel 7 and elsewhere, God promises David that his kingdom shall be established forever, that someone will sit on the throne of David forever.

But how can that be true… if the kingdom of the last remaining part of God’s people Israel is destroyed… the way Isaiah says it will be? 

In other words, how can God punish his people for their sins—which means the destruction of the kingdom—while at the same time keep his promise that there will always be a king in the line of David?

Verse 1 of Isaiah chapter 11 begins to answer that question: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…” Jesse, of course, if David’s father… I’m not a botanist or arborist; so I had to look this up to make sure. But there are species of trees that will produce shoots or branches even after the tree has been cut down. That’s what’s happening here.

In other words, Isaiah says that a new king from the line of David will sit on the throne once again. There will be new life for God’s people once again. Except this time, God’s people will be ruled not by weak, corrupt, unfaithful kings like the ones who ruled Israel before—and eventually led them to misery and death. No, this time they’ll be ruled by the perfect king, King Jesus, described in verses 2 through 5. Among other things, the Holy Spirit will rest upon him; and, as I said, he will rule with perfect justice. Look at verse 4: “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

But if that’s the case, how is this good news for bad people like me… and you? This king will “kill the wicked”? Again, that sounds at least a little bit like the song: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake.”

How can I be sure that I’m not among the wicked that the Messiah will kill?

And it’s not just me who should be concerned… Listen to what the apostle Paul says about himself in Romans 7: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway… I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me.” 1

In other words, Paul says he can’t help but be bad, he can’t help but to sin and to do evil!

Earlier in the same letter, Paul writes, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 2

If that’s the case, where does that leave people like Paul and me and everyone else who’s ever lived except for Jesus?

How can we be saved?

Isaiah answers this question later on—in Isaiah 53:5 and 6. And in that passage, Isaiah describes Jesus once more:

But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. 3

These verses describe the great exchange that takes place on the cross: Jesus Christ took our sins upon himself—and he suffered the punishment that we deserved to suffer for them. And in exchange he gives us his righteousness in return through our faith in him. As the apostle Peter says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” 4 The apostle Paul writes, “He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 5

We give our sins to Christ; he suffers for them. He gives us his righteousness in return. That’s a good deal!

Now let me show you just one more scripture about what Christ did for us on the cross. It’s found in Colossians 1:14 and 15. Paul says that God “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” We owed a debt to God because of our sins. Christ paid our debt by his death on the cross. That’s clear enough but listen to the next verse, verse 15: “He [Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities”—that’s another way of referring to Satan and his fellow demonic forces—“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him”—in Christ.

How does Christ’s death on the cross triumph over the devil? If we are “in Christ,” Paul says, this triumph happens because Christ has disarmed Satan.


By taking away the chief weapon in the devil’s arsenal… one that he loves to use against us believers. And what weapon is that? The devil’s ability to accuse us and condemn us and make us feel guilty because of our sins. This is what Satan does more than anything! Satan loves to point us to verse 4 of Isaiah 11 and say to a believer, “with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” And since the “wicked” includes you, then that means that God is going to kill you. It means God is mad at you. God doesn’t love you. God wants to pour out his wrath on you. You know you’re a sinner, after all!” 

That’s what the devil wants us to believe… 

But that argument can no longer work for those of us who are in Christ: By all means, verse 4 is true: “by the breath of his lips God will kill the wicked,” but don’t you see? God became human at Christmas in order to be killed! God became human to make himself “killable.” So that he could die this death of the wicked in our place!

As a result, if we’re in Christ, we no longer stand before God as sinners; God doesn’t view us that way. We no longer stand condemned. When God looks upon us, at this moment, he doesn’t see our sin; he sees only the righteousness of his Son Jesus—which completely covers us!

My point is, if we are in Christ, we no longer have anything to fear. If we are in Christ, there’s nothing about standing before God in Final Judgment that should frighten us! God is not “making a list and checking it twice.” In fact, Colossians says that list has been nailed to the cross with Jesus! Besides, if he were making a list, the list that he makes for us believers would only have entries on the “nice” side of the ledger, because, again, we are covered with the righteousness of his Son Jesus!

The gospel of Jesus Christ—and remember, gospel literally means “good news”—the gospel isn’t about anything that we have to do—other than to “receive” this new through faith. If it were something we had to do, it wouldn’t be good news at all; it would be more like “good advice.”

Listen to the way pastor Tim Keller distinguishes “good news” from “good advice” in his book Hidden Christmas. He writes:

Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.

However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers… The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything. 6

God has done something for us in Christ that has forever taken care of our problem with sin! So we don’t have to be afraid… 

Now, to be sure, if you have not yet received Christ as your Savior and Lord, that’s another story… Jesus says you should be afraid. He said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” Matthew 10:28. 

But if you’re a Christian, you don’t have to be afraid… And that’s Point Number One.

But here’s Point Number Two: Without contradicting anything I just said, there is a good kind of fear… that we Christians should have. We see it in two places in today’s scripture. Isaiah tells us in verse 2 that the Spirit who rests upon Jesus is the “Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” Then verse 3: “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

To say the least, if the life of Jesus himself is characterized by “fear of the Lord”—so much so that he takes “delight” in it—then this isa good kind of fear that we also should possess!

What is this good and healthy kind of fear of the Lord?

Perhaps an illustration will help… My favorite Christmas-themed movie of all time is Miracle on 34th Street, the original black-and-white version with Natalie Wood. Spoiler alert—I’m going to give away the ending. But the movie was made in 1947, 75 years ago, so don’t be mad at me! But… you probably know the premise of the movie already. A man who identifies himself as Kris Kringle has to prove in a court of law that he is the real Santa Claus. Otherwise, Kris will be committed to a mental institution… because authorities believe he’s crazy. And why wouldn’t they?

As you can imagine, it seems highly unlikely that Kris will be successful in proving that he’s the real Santa. 

And yet he is: against all odds, his attorney, Fred Gailey, gets the state of New York to legally recognize that this man calling himself Kris Kringle is, in fact, the real Santa Claus.

In the very last scene of the movie, Fred the attorney is bragging to his fiancée about his amazing legal skills—after all, who imagined that he would ever win this case? Not his law firm. They fired him for taking it in the first place!

To be sure, throughout the course of the trial, Fred doesn’t really believe that Kris is Santa. I mean, sure, he loves Kris. He thinks he’s a kind, gentle, if very eccentric man who, even if he is a little crazy, doesn’t pose a threat to anyone. Fred thinks that Kris embodies the “spirit of Santa” the generosity of Santa, even though of course he’s not Santa… 

But believing Kris was Santa was never the point; the point was, can Fred win this case for his client?

And at the end of the movie, he’s delighted because he does win the case.

But then, suddenly, just before the closing credits roll, Fred sees hard evidence—magical evidence—to suggest that, yes, not only is Kris the “real Santa” in the eyes of the law, but Kris is the real Santa, period!

And the expression on Fred’s face, when he realizes that his client is really Santa is not one of relief and joy… it’s more like shock… it’s more like awe… The discovery of this truth unsettles him. Fred is awestruck. Suddenly he sees that there is a much larger reality here than he ever imagined! This kindly, gentle, sweet old man whom he was defending in court—who seemed so harmless—was actually far greater, far more powerful,far more important than he ever imagined! 

The expression on Fred’s face said something like this: “Here I was, congratulating myself for winning this case. But who am I compared to him?”

Fred was humbled. He was even… afraid… He was afraid with the good kind of fear!

And I know this is just a fictitious movie about Santa, but that final scene puts us in the ballpark of what this healthy kind of “fear of Lord” is all about.

We experience this healthy kind of fear when we experience awe at the greatness and the wonder and the beauty and the power and the glory and the sovereignty of Almighty God!

Do you believe that we come to worship on Sunday mornings in part to experience this awe—and to give voice to the wonder that we feel in God’s presence!

That’s what we’re supposed to do!

We see this healthy kind of fear in the gospels, by the way, in many places… Here’s one place: Mark chapter 4, the disciples are on a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee see and hear Jesus say, “Peace! Be Still!” to the wind and the waves, and Mark tells us, in Mark 4:41, “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” 7 Another gospel says they fell down and worshiped him. 

That’s the good kind of fear!

Like the movie I mentioned, the disciples suddenly realize that Jesus is much bigger, much greater, much more powerful, much more glorious—much more everything—than they previously imagined. And it fills them with fear… the healthy kind of fear, a kind of fear that changes their perspective: Suddenly Christ seems so much bigger, so much more significant, andthey, in turn, seem so much smaller, so much less significant. 

John the Baptist also had a healthy fear of the Lord when he said of Jesus, in John 3:30, “He must become greater; I must become less.” 8

It’s good for us to feel small in the presence of the Lord!

Practically speaking, when you have a healthy and reverent fear of the Lord, other things in life don’t seem nearly so frightening. Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” Romans 8:31: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

On February 24, 1791, six days before his death, John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist movement, quoted this exact verse, Romans 8:31, in the last letter he ever penned before he died. It was a letter of encouragement to William Wilberforce, the English politician whose fearless leadership would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery in Britain, along with Britain’s participation in the slave trade.

Wesley and the early Methodists were fiercely opposed to slavery—150 years before slavery came to end in America. The first two Methodist bishops, Coke and Asbury, met with Thomas Jefferson, urging him to end slavery! In fact, if you’ve heard of Wesley’s “three general rules”—first, do no harm; do good; attend to the ordinances of God—Wesley cites examples of “doing no harm”—chief among them was “Don’t own slaves!”

So Wesley wrote a letter of encouragement to Wilberforce. He says that Wilberforce will undoubtedly face great opposition from “men and devils.” He will be bruised and battered by the fight. He will face spiritual warfare like never before.

“But,” Wesley goes on, citing Romans 8:31,

if God be fore you, who can be against you? Are all of them together [by which he means the men and devils who oppose him… are all of them together] stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it. 9

Wesley and Wilberforce could stand against men and devils—in spite of their fears—only because they feared Someone else much, much more than men and devils!

Only if we have a healthy fear of the Lord will we find the courage to do the right thing in the face of opposition from unjust people, institutions, governments, cultures—not to mention the demonic forces who so often pervade them. “If God is for us”—and because of our faith in Christ, he most assuredly is—“If God is for us, who can be against us?”

In my own experience, when I’m afraid, as I often am—and as I’ve said before, the opinions of other people scare me the most… But when I’m afraid, it’s as if I’ve elevated people and circumstances to seem much larger than God. But that’s ridiculous! As Wesley would say, If you made a list of every devil, every person, every circumstance that’s working against you right now, all of them put together are not stronger than God!

Isaiah 59:1: “Behold, the Lord’s is not shortened that it cannot save, or his ear dull that it cannot hear.” God is always willing and able to do whatever he needs to do to ensure that his children will always get exactly what’s best for them!

One pastor shared this illustration from a Christian conference he attended:

One of the speakers at the conference was talking about the meaning of Hebrews 1:3, which says that Jesus Christ “upholds the universe by the word of his power.” She told this group of college students the following:

If the distance between the Earth and the sun—ninety-three million miles—was no more than the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance from the Earth to the nearest star would be a stack of papers seventy feet high; the diameter of the Milky Way would be a stack of paper over three hundred miles high. Keep in mind that there are more galaxies in the universe than we can number. There are more, it seems, than dust specks in the air or grains of sand on the seashores. Now, if Jesus Christ holds all this together with just a word of his power (Hebrews 1:3)—is he the kind person you ask into your life to be your assistant?”

No! He is the Supreme Lord of the universe… at whose feet you fall down in fear and to whom you surrender your life. He’s so great, so powerful, so glorious, so mighty… And I’m so small, so weak, so powerless.

What a relief… to have a God like Jesus on my side!

  1.  Romans 7:15, 18b-19, 22-23 NLT
  2.  Romans 3:10-12 ESV
  3.  Isaiah 53:5-6 NLT
  4.  1 Peter 3:18 ESV
  5.  2 Corinthians 5:21 CSB
  6.  Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 21-2.
  7.  Mark 4:41 ESV
  8.  John 3:30 NIV
  9.  John Wesley, “Letter to William Wilberforce,” Accessed 2 December 2022.

One Response to “Sermon 12-04-2022: “Two Kinds of Fear””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    A good sermon, but I am still left with a question. What about, “We must all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, to receive for what we have done, whether good OR BAD.”? Jesus also says, “Man shall give an account for every idle word.” Paul says that our works will be tried by fire, and if they don’t pass the test, we will suffer loss, though we ourselves will be saved. Also: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” I don’t think all these passages, and a number of others, can be passed off to say, “Well, consideration of anything bad is just for the non-Christians.” I think that God still “sees us” when he looks down, despite that our eternal destination has been changed by what Jesus did. So, I confess to having some difficulty in balancing out these types of passages with ones that you cite. For my part, I still have a “healthy fear” of God as someone who takes my conduct into account in how he deals with me, albeit I believe he won’t remove my salvation due to Jesus.

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