The God of Terrors, and other nightmares

By Joe LaGuardia

The Bible says that God is love, but it also says that God is terrifying. In a recent study on covenants of the Bible, my congregation and I read Genesis 15 as a refresher on the promises God gave to Abram. The covenant ceremony which God initiated states:

“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him” (Gen. 15:12).

We think that the promises of God are beautiful, that the land and offspring set aside for Abram was bountiful and blessed. We forget that the promise was just as much a nightmare as it was an inheritance whereby God assured Abram that the Lord would be a “shield” of protection (v. 1). Protection against what?

At the time, Abram was well on in years. He doubted God’s promise of offspring because his wife Sarai remained barren.

“I remain childless…you have given me no offspring,” Abram told God. And the biblical text is sympathetic. Genesis 16 begins, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children.” Besides, God said that Abram’s offspring was destined for slavery, not for one season, but for several generations–400 years. What kind of promise is that?

We spend many hours if not days avoiding those things that terrify us. We spend large amounts of money alluding death and vulnerability. We encourage one another, as if to exchange favors so that we sustain the illusion that we are not fragile, that life itself is not terrifying.

Perhaps, in all of this bluster, we fail to recognize that it is God who resides in the terror as much as in the celebrations of life. We do not sleep because we are afraid of the nightmares. We are afraid that God might answer our prayers and show up.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard quoted mystic Jacob Boehme: “The whole Deity has in its innermost or beginning Birth, in the Pith or Kernel, a very tart, terrible sharpness, in which the astringent Quality is very horrible, tart, hard, dark and cold Attraction or Drawing together, like Winter, when there is a fierce, bitter cold Frost, when Water is frozen into Ice, and besides is very intolerable.”

That is the writing of someone who has experienced the presence of God, an intimacy with God and an urgency of one who recognized his own fragility in the face of God. It is the writing of someone who also knew the hardships of cold winters–a season very much a part of God’s creation as spring or summer. It is the “know this for certain” of God (Gen. 15:13), a conviction that not every calling or anointing or divine intervention is set to the music of Chris Tomlin or Cheers.

Boehme’s reflection is not words crafted to talk about divine experience, but crafted to describe the experience itself, in its most honest poetic horror.

If God is not terrifying, then why avoid God as much as we do? Why not pray more or kneel more or intercede more? Why not listen more or dig deeply into God’s Word beyond the mere parts we enjoy reading, the ones that make us feel good or reinforce our preconceived notions of who we think God ought to be?

Perhaps it is because God is a God of nightmares as much as visions and dreams, that God is in the darkness as much as God is the “Light of the world.”

God is the “smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” that passes in night, threatening to scorch those who get too close or wander carelessly into Presence with too much hubris. It threatens to consume anyone who yearns to domesticate that Fire and wield it to do her bidding.

It is easier to look at what we long for — our longings are safer than God. We find the Hagar in our household who can bear the offspring promised to us. We pass each other off as invaluable pawns to the powers and Pharaohs that exploit us. We laugh when God returns to us yet again, even when we pass on God’s promises to us. We are too old to birth something new, to raise a child. We are too frightened to tell the truth that the one we claim as sister to Pharaoh is in fact our wife destined for something greater than settling on the shores of the Nile.

We want to be left alone, but God does not leave us alone. God does not seem to have it or want it that way. So God visits again, and deep darkness settles upon the earth.


The spiritual discipline of “waiting upon the Lord”

clock-midnight-webSermon preached for lectionary, 2013 September 1.

Texts: Genesis 15:1-6, Luke 12:32-40.


I had a preaching professor who once told us to rarely, if ever, use our family for sermon illustrations…But, I must tell you about my son’s first day of school this past month!

You know what its like on the first day of school.  Excitement is high.  There is joy, but also a little anxiety.  My daughter, ready to start her day, practically ran ahead of my son and me to get to her class.  By the time we joined her, she was already sitting, and I had to bend down pretty low to give her a kiss.

My son, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure about his new adventure.  He seemed to get closer and closer to me as we neared his classroom.  By the time we reached his room, I was practically tripping over him.

As any father would do, I tried to put on my best game face.  I unpacked his book bag and commented on how exciting everything looked.  I pointed out all the toys spread throughout the room, and “Wow-wee, this is going to be a great day!”

But his eyes were puffy, and I saw tears well up in his eyes.

Before entering the building I told my children that I would visit them once more before leaving to work.  Now that I dropped off my son, I had to go back to check on my daughter one last time.  I told my son that I had to visit her, that I would be back to see him too before I left.  He was a bit clingy, but he let me go.

Well, I checked on my daughter and all was well with her; but, when I turned the corner to go back to my son’s room, I could see him and his teacher standing at the threshold of his classroom door.  I heard his teacher say, “See, I told you your dad would come right back.”


That whole day, I couldn’t get my son out of my mind—that look that he had on his face while I walked down the hall on my way to visit him again, how he stood at the threshold with anticipating, anxious eyes—eyes that trusted in the single promise that I would return.   Trusting, waiting, anxious eyes full of anticipation.

Psalm 27:14 tells us to “Wait upon the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.”  Like my son waiting for me in the threshold of the classroom, we have found ourselves waiting eagerly for the Lord so many times in our own life.

We’ve waited on the Lord in so many situations: For employment, for retirement, for that doctor’s appointment we’ve been anticipating, or for that diagnosis or prognosis.  I’ve known so many of you who have waited for results on biopsies or MRIs; and through it all, your waiting has turned into a slow prayerful waiting, a waiting upon the Lord.

Waiting is hard work.  And, too often, we end up moving on and doing our own thing because we get so impatient or anxious, and we take matters into our own hands.  I can only imagine what would’ve happened if I didn’t return to my son’s class that day.  How would he have felt and what would his teacher have said to comfort him?  How would his trust in me and my promises been compromised or stifled?

So many of us in the church have heard a sermon or two about “waiting upon the Lord,” and some of us have waited so long—have toiled while the Lord has tarried—that our own trust and faith is waning and on the brink of decay.

When it comes to waiting on the Lord, I can’t help but think of the story of Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise to let them bear a child.  God’s promise came to Abraham in the middle of his life.  I’m sure, because of his age, Abraham expected that promise to come to fruition quickly; Sarah had been barren, and she certainly wasn’t a spring chicken, after all.

By the time we get to Genesis 15, we find a very anxious and very uncertain Abraham trying to sleep.  He tossed and turned, tried to get his pillow just right and his back in a comfortable position, tried to escade the weight of having to wait so long for those words he expected to hear, “I’m pregnant.”  It was in his darkest and most worrisome hour, however, that Abraham received a vision of the Lord.

In the vision, Abraham pleads with the Lord to let him know when God’s promise of offspring will come to pass.  His anxiety is thick and his fear great, but God still encourages him to wait: “Do not be afraid,” God told Abraham, “I am your shield, and your reward will be great…You shall have an heir and your offspring shall number as many as there are stars in the sky.”

I could picture Abraham standing at his threshold door even after that night like my son, waiting for the return of the Lord and the promise that some time, some day, God would follow through with allowing Sarah to bear a child.

Lynn Clark Callister, a professor of nursing at Brigham Young University, can relate with Abraham’s and Sarah’s anxiety.  In an article she wrote for the school’s online journal, she recalls her experiences with parents or soon-to-be parents who have to wait upon the Lord.

She encourages her most anxious patients to take heart in Isaiah 40:31, “But those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Now, not many of us in this room are waiting for a child or for a pregnancy, but there are things that we’ve prayed about in which the only word from the Lord we received was to “wait.”   We have to wait because God’s timing is different than ours, and his demand for our trust and obedience is more rigorous than we are sometimes led to believe.


In Luke 12:32-40, Jesus told his disciples that waiting upon the Lord is an important part of our faith.   In the entire chapter, he gives certain commands that point to living a patient, prayerful life that anticipates God’s actions rather than demanding that we take matters into our own hands.

He tells them in Luke 12:22, for instance, to not worry about tomorrow.  How many of us worry about tomorrow rather than bringing things in prayer before the Lord and letting Him work in our lives in his timing?

He also tells them in Luke 12:27 to “consider the lilies,” to slow down and be sure to hear what the Lord needs to tell them today rather than look elsewhere for some sign or symbol as to what the Lord will do.

Then, in Luke 12:31, he says that we should turn all that anxiety we have about our future into seeking the kingdom and allowing God’s sustenance be enough to fill us for today.

In our scripture lesson for this morning, Luke 12:32-40, we get words from Jesus that are similar to God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 15.  Like God’s words to Abraham, Jesus told his disciples to not fear, that those who trust in the Lord will find blessing.

Like God who promised Abraham an heir, Jesus promised that God’s advent, God’s salvation, of all humankind would be realized.

And, like Abraham, the disciples were to be ready and expect that God would fulfill what God promised.  They were to be, according to Jesus, “Dressed for action,” and be vigilant in seeking God’s will.  They were to stay awake and not give up hope.  They were, like Abraham, called to wait even if God took years to act.

It’s the years that get to us.  Some of us have prayed about things for a long time—the salvation of our children or grandchildren, the strength to make it through a certain illness—and we continue to have to wait upon the Lord.   It’s difficult having to wait, and our faith is often tested in the interim.


Instead of seeing our wait upon the Lord as a journey with our Lord and Savior, we think of having to wait as being in a spiritual traffic jam in which our lives move at a snail’s pace.   We get frustrated and tired, we are tempted to take the next exit and turn around to head back home.  We loss sight of the destination and fail to see that God’s timing doesn’t cause a traffic jam so much as it forces us to see what beauty the journey holds for all of us who place our trust in Christ.

Waiting is not passive, and it’s more than simply hoping that something might happen.  Waiting, at least in the biblical sense, is pregnant with purposeful anticipation.  The Hebrew and Greek words for waiting have as their root words a sense of promise and an expectation that God will show up no matter what.

When God’s Word encourages us to “wait upon the Lord,” it is an active waiting that makes us aware of where God is at work.  It fine-tunes our spiritual ears to hear what the Spirit might be telling us.   It’s filled with a hope to expect the unexpected at the least expected hour, and to place our trust in Christ every step of the way.

I think it will always be frustrating to us that we can’t set our watches by the Lord’s comings and goings.   The Spirit blows where it will, and God’s timing is very different than our own.  So, although you may have to throw away the watch altogether, you can rest assured that when God makes a promise and is active in your life, he will show up.  God will follow through and work miracles in ways that will transcend all our hopes and dreams.

In the meantime, I picture the Holy Spirit, with hands upon our shoulders, whispering in our ears, “See, I told you your Father would come right back.”