What does the phrase, “free to worship God without fear” mean? In both modern political philosophy and American civil religion, where everything tends to be viewed from the perspective of keeping both church and state out of each other’s business, it implies that we supposedly have the God-given right to worship God without fear of state interference or persecution in general.
But the phrase isn’t political in its origins; it comes from the Canticle of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), and specifically from the standard metrical form that is often used in worship in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches alike. Verses 74-75 (NRSV) read, “… that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” The metrical version, translated specifically with worship in mind, reads, “… to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”
I would argue that this liturgical setting gets at the meaning of Zechariah’s words better than the literal translation. Zechariah worked in the temple. This song was sung over the infant Jesus in the temple. In that place the word “serve” almost certainly means service around the altar specifically in the context of temple worship.
Temple worship was a fearful thing. The two things that illustrate that fear better than anything else, as you know doubt remember (this has to be one of the best Sunday School stories ever!), is that on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place, he wore bells around the bottom of his robe and a rope around his leg. The bells, it seems, were so the Levites could hear him working. If the bells stopped jingling for any amount of time it could be assumed that the sacrifice was unacceptable and God had struck the high priest dead … which brings us to the rope. Being the Most Holy Place, no one but the High Priest on his annual entrance, was allowed in. If the sacrifice was found unacceptable and the people’s representative was struck dead, the Levites needed a way to get the priest out of the Most Holy Place. This is what the rope was for. (There is no record, by the way, of a High Priest being struck dead on the Day of Atonement.)
Everyone agrees – Hebrew and Christian alike – that only God can make us holy. Nothing we do on our own can be acceptable to God. But as long as we humans are responsible (as we were under the Old Covenant) for getting the God-ordained sacrifice just right, worshiping God is a frightful thing, because if we don’t follow the laws of sacrifice to the letter and get it wrong, physical death might ensue.
And this is where Jesus, the Promised One, comes in. Although Zechariah probably didn’t understand it down to the last detail, he recognized he was witnessing a new thing. This was God carrying out God’s plan (rather than a mere human carrying out God’s plan). This changed everything. Zechariah could see the day when the people of God would be “free to worship him without fear,” because the people of God would be “holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.” Zechariah was saying we didn’t need the rope around the ankle any longer.
Now, let’s go back to the question of the opening paragraph: What does the phrase, “free to worship God without fear” mean? The contemporary idea that it refers to freedom of religion is reductionist to the extreme. Of course the idea of “freedom of religion” itself is hardly Christian; sure, we can worship God any old way we like, but “any old way we like” is not acceptable to the true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and the Father of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Keep in mind that freedom of worship implies freedom to enjoy the consequences of our tragic little idolatries as well.
No, freedom to worship God without fear has nothing to do with any human institution. What frees us from the fear of government, family, tribal, or military intervention is neither the Constitution nor the World Court in the Hague, it is rather the boldness of the indwelling Spirit, as illustrated by Paul and Silas singing hymns in a prison cell after being tortured for their faith. It is freedom that comes from knowing it is better to serve Almighty God rather than kings or emperors.
True freedom can be expressed in dungeon chains as easily as in the comfort of a church sanctuary.
What frees us from the fear of the wrath of God (and this is what Zechariah was talking about) is Jesus Christ, who is God made flesh on our behalf. The relationship between God and man is fundamentally changed. Any attempt to reduce this idea of “freedom to worship without fear” to a relationship between man and human institutions thus becomes a subtle idolatry, a change of focus from God to man, a mistaken assumption that what we have to fear is powerful people.
In contrast to the fear is the promise. And is that promise we seek based in a constitutional guarantee that we can go to church on Sunday morning? God forbid! Rather, listen to Zechariah’s words, as he continues his paean of praise: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”
Now that’s freedom without fear!