Fear Is The Beginning
We’re going to talk about two themes this morning: fear and wisdom.
They move throughout our scriptures this morning, and are connected in one controversial Bible verse in our psalm: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
It’s controversial for good reason.
For centuries many Christians were trapped in a concept of an angry, vengeful God, a God who demanded restitution for their sins, a God who seemed almost to hate them.
It was a tragically narrow view of God that kept people afraid and made them judgmental because they were so sure they themselves were being judged and found wanting.
The more you feel you don’t measure up, the more likely you are to find fault in others.
It was a desperately insecure Christianity, and it felt the fear of the Lord in a visceral, literal, unhealthy way.
I do not think we should fear the Lord in that way.
But I don’t think we should just get rid of the concept altogether.
I’m very conflicted on this issue, actually, which is why I’m hoping we can talk about it and pray about it together.
While part of me knows that my loving God is always ready to embrace me with open arms and I need never be afraid of God, the fact remains that there is a part of God that is inapproachable and terrible in majesty.
God is not merely my buddy, and we do both God and ourselves a disservice if we reduce God to being merely user-friendly.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Let’s look for the examples of both fear and wisdom in our scriptures today.
Our lesson from 1 Kings says that Solomon loved the Lord, that is surely wisdom.
But he also offered over a thousand sacrifices on the altar at Gibeon, that sounds like there might be some fear mixed in with that devotion.
And the joining of fear and wisdom is so apparent in Solomon’s prayer: “And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
Solomon was afraid.
He doubted his ability to take on this huge task of governing the people.
But he used that fear to connect with God.
When God reached out to him, he spoke to God honestly about his fear and in that, asked for the wisest blessing of all, wisdom itself.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We find this theme played out in our Gospel as well.
The Jews are deeply uneasy with what Jesus is telling them, and if you’re not used to sacramental and incarnational theology, it is quite startling to be told you are to eat flesh and drink blood to live forever.
They are afraid.
They have seen Jesus do great signs and teach great truths, and they want to give up their hesitation and follow him freely, but this flesh and blood stuff is just too much.
But look where their fear brings them.
It leads them to question Jesus, to find out more, to enter a deeper encounter with him.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they ask.
It was because they were afraid that they demanded a fuller explanation, and they got one. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
If they had not feared, they would not have sought knowledge to ease their fear, and never have gained wisdom and a more intimate encounter with Christ.
And I think that intimacy is at the root of our true fear of the Lord, a fear of the Lord that will lead to wisdom.
It may cross our minds from time to time if we’ve been particularly badly behaved, but most of us have been in a nurturing church environment long enough to no longer fear the vengeful God of our childhoods raining down thunderbolts upon us every time we sin.
No, what we really fear is God knowing us.
God knowing us truly, deeply, with nothing left to hide.
That old fear takes a more subtle route in our adult, mature spiritual lives.
We look down on those poor immature Christians who think God is dangling them over the pit of Hell all the time, but what we don’t realize is that we are just as trapped by fear every time we think God can’t possibly care about our small problems, every time we are ashamed to approach God in prayer, every time we try to hide parts of ourselves from God.
Where the fear of the Lord becomes unhealthy and destructive is when it stops there, when we become stuck in a fear that limits our ability to experience God with trust and openness.
The fear of the Lord is only valuable if it leads somewhere.
The scripture does not say, “The fear of the Lord is good, full stop.” It says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
There is no part of our human experience that is alien to God. Jesus understands every part of being human, and that includes fear, and God embraces us in our humanity.
And there is no part of our human experience that is not valuable to us, because everything we go through can be used as a path toward God, and that includes fear.
Think about your fears. How can they lead to you to seek wisdom? How can they lead you to God?
We all have the usual fears, of loved ones being injured or ill, perhaps heightened when a family member of our own has suddenly had to face the worst. In that fear, I can ask God to help me learn to love and cherish my family and friends more and better each day because I don’t know how long we’ll be together on Earth. My fear can help me ask for wisdom.
Sometimes we fear becoming ill or experiencing physical pain. We fear growing old.
In that fear we should go to God and ask for revelation, just as the Jews did in our scripture.
Help me, God. Show me how experiencing this pain can awaken my compassion for others, can illuminate the days without pain with a golden grace, can teach me how to move more slowly and see more details of this blessed life on the days when my body won’t let me move at full speed.
And what better illustration of our verse can there be than the fear of death?
The essence of the fear of death is the fear of the unknown.
We have scripture, we have Jesus’ teaching and promises, we even have things like accounts of near-death experiences to reassure us, but that final fear never leaves us.
Will we really be okay?
I’m saying that that fear is actually a good thing.
It’s certainly no fun in the moment, but it forces us to ask questions of God, to seek deeper knowledge of God.
And every time we are able to acknowledge our fear honestly and openly to God, we are one step closer to living in full and complete trust of God.
And notice one more aspect of this verse. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Our fear is the spur that drives to go deeper with God, to open ourselves to new knowledge of God.
Our fear is a frontier of exploration, and opportunity to confront the places within ourselves that keep us trapped and unable to move forward in discipleship.
It is a beginning.
So what is the next step? Where is the fear of the Lord, the beginning of wisdom leading?
I believe the next sentence would be, the trust of the Lord is the center of wisdom.
It is in fully experiencing and dragging our fear out into the open before God and everyone, that we will open the door to full and honest trust.
If we keep denying our fear, we will never have the chance to fully trust God with ourselves and our lives and our future.
And I believe the full account would be written as follows: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the trust of the Lord is the center of wisdom, and the love of the Lord is the end of wisdom.
Fear opens the door, trust pushes us through when we finally decide to quit waiting to be truly ready, and love is what makes us want to reach back through that door and beckon others forward.
God’s trust and love of us is so great that God never fears whether or not we’ll make it.
I’m not so afraid to be afraid anymore, if I know it’s the first step on the path home.
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