Fear and Wisdom

Sermon for January 28, 2024

I know most of you all can’t relate to what I’m about to say. But the older I get, the more I misplace things. That is to say, I simply forget where I put them. One of the main things I forget is my cell phone. At any given point, it might be anywhere in the house. Now, there are certain places where it’s most likely to be found, so I check those first. But if after all that I still can’t find it, I actually have an app on my laptop that will show me where it is on a map.

So if things go far enough that I have to open up that app, then I click on “Find My” and then I click on “Sam’s iPhone,” and I just pray that it points to some location in the house. About half the time, though, it points to the building next door (aka “the church”) and I have to trudge over here in the rain or snow to retrieve something from my office that I can’t seem to live without.

There’s something else I frequently misplace, and that’s my glasses. As you can tell by what happens when I’m standing here in front of you, I need them to see at a distance, but they do more harm than good when I’m trying to see up-close. And so I’m very likely to leave them in the kitchen or the pantry or at my desk. But since I have no app to help me find them, it’s sometimes more of a crisis when I lose them.

Anyway, so this was on my mind when I had my annual physical a couple of weeks ago. I told my doctor that I seemed to be forgetting things. So he asked me when this started. “When did what start?” I asked him.

This whole setup has been my way of admitting to you that I’m about to begin this sermon the same what I began the last two, and that is, admitting that I’m about to repeat myself. Now the truth is, I don’t remember whether I’ve used these sermon illustrations before or not. But I know I’m repeating myself a lot more often than I used to, and so it’s pretty safe to just admit to you up-front that you’ve heard this before. And let’s face it, a lot of you won’t remember if you’ve heard this or not. So here goes…

There’s a common phrase—it comes from the Bible—that used to be a lot more common (a lot more popular) than it is now. And that phrase is “the fear of the Lord” or “the fear of God.” We’re pretty sure we know what that phrase means, and we’re pretty sure we need to subscribe to it—it’s in the Bible dozens of times, after all, and it’s pretty self-explanatory. Be afraid of God… be very afraid.

But is it really so self-explanatory? What happens when we think more deeply about the expression, “the fear of God.” Well I once read an explanation of what that means. Picture yourself on vacation on the coast. You get up early and you go down to the beach. And guess what! You’re the first one to see the sand after the tide has receded. It’s perfectly smooth and flawless. You know you’re there to take a walk, but at the same time you dread being the one whose footprints ruin the perfection of the undisturbed sand.

Or how about this—another situation that most of us find ourselves in several times each winter: We get up to find a new-fallen snow on the ground, and we put on our coat and hat and scarf, our boots and gloves, and we have to go outside. Maybe we have to walk the dog, or maybe we have to go out to the garage and start the car. But what we see before us is so white and smooth that we just don’t want to be the first to make footprints in the snow.

So maybe we need to re-think the whole idea of fear. There’s the fear of being victimized or hurt. And there’s the fear of disturbing what’s perfect. And that’s how I think the Bible is inviting us to think about the fear of God. Is God like a vicious master or an abusive parent that we’re afraid of upsetting? If so, our fear must be akin to paralysis. Doing anything must surely result in pain.

Or is God like a parent whose love is so pure that we don’t want to disappoint? Or if not a parent, then a friend or mentor or teacher who’s never caused pain and would never say an unkind word. This takes us back to being the first person on a beach in the early morning, or facing a new snowfall free of footprints. We’re not afraid because it will hurt us. We’re just very aware of the fact that we’re looking at perfection.

Have you ever seen a movie called Bridge to Terabithia? There was a little exchange in that movie that I want to draw your attention to. Jess and Leslie are two kids who’d become friends. Jess was from a strict, fundamentalist family, while Leslie’s parents were free-spirited writers. One Sunday, Leslie goes to church with Jess, and on the way home, she’s riding in the back of an old pickup with Jess and his little sister, May Belle. Leslie said, “That whole Jesus thing, it’s really interesting, isn’t it?”

May Belle replied, “It’s not interesting; it’s scary!”

Leslie then said, “You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.”

So don’t be the kind of afraid that results in hate—the fear of retaliation or punishment or pain. Be afraid to disappoint One whose love is beautiful. In the Bible, God responds to human fear with profound mercy and unconditional love. This is the perfect love that casts out fear, as John told us in his first letter (4:18).

And so to speak of—or even believe in—the fear of God isn’t about fear of violence. It’s about holding something beautiful in awe. It’s about thinking seriously before you set forth on a journey into God’s unknown. It’s about not taking for granted God’s gifts of creation and love. And so the fear of God isn’t preaching hellfire and damnation. It is taking God’s gifts seriously and to be in perpetual awareness of the beauty around us.

And there’s something else that I want to talk about, and that’s the connection between the fear of God and something talked about both in Psalm 111 (which we used for our call to worship) and Proverbs 2 (the scripture we listened to earlier). And that something is wisdom:

Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom. All who obey his commandments will grow in wisdom.
—Psalm 111:10
Then you will understand what it means to fear the Lord, and you will gain knowledge of God. For the Lord grants wisdom!
—Proverbs 2:5-6a

The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13 that faith, hope, and love were what would remain after all else is gone, and that the greatest of those three is love (13:13). The Old Testament doesn’t quite have an equivalent of this verse, but if it did, it might tell us that God’s greatest gifts—the three things humans might possess that reflect God’s image—are wisdom, justice, and kindness, and that the greatest of those three is wisdom.

Wisdom is incredibly important in the Hebrew Bible, and it goes beyond the meaning most of us would usually assign to it. We might think of it as the way we might apply our knowledge and experience in a way that’s beneficial to ourselves and others. But the Bible sees it as something created by God before anything else (Prov. 8:22-31). Wisdom is the means by which the world is ordered, and it is wisdom that makes it possible for people to live together in peace. Wisdom, combined with kindness and justice, equals civilization.

And so when the Bible makes such a close connection between the fear of God and wisdom, there’s no way it can be talking about a fear of punishment or damnation. Clearly, wisdom comes from a profound respect for who God is and what God does. God is the source of all good things, and to remember that—to take that into account before setting forth on the journey of a lifetime—or even a day’s journey—is profoundly wise. To fear God is to think twice before disrespecting the image of God in any of our fellow human beings. To fear God is to take seriously our responsibility to care for the earth as God’s agents. To fear God is to be at peace with other people and the world around us.

Today’s theme verse is Psalm 111:10, Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom. Let’s carry that with us into the days of the coming week. Let’s transform a misunderstood concept of our religion from one that congers up cringing fear to one that creates within us a profound respect for the grace of God, the beauty of God’s creation, and the relationships God’s grace and God’s creation make possible in our lives.
—©2024 Sam Greening