Monday, August 20, 2012

begin with fear


A sermon on Psalm 111, Manassas Church of the Brethren, 8-19-12


1Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
3Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.
10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.


What are you afraid of? I asked that question on facebook earlier this week, and was pretty surprised at the diversity of responses. A BVS volunteer kicked things off by joking that he is “afraid of people that ask me if I'm afraid of something, in order to hear that I'm not afraid of anything, even though they know that I'm afraid of something, but I'm not going to tell them, because I'm afraid that they know that I'm afraid of something.” The flippancy pretty much stopped there, though, and people started answering with honesty that surprised me, for the internet. Some of the responses:

“I’m afraid of missing what really matters, every day.”
“Heights.”
"Not making a difference...and mice!”
“The dark.”

“The IRS!”

“Public speaking...or maybe public embarassment.”

“Something tragic happening to someone I love.”

“What if I’ll never be able to retire?”

“Bees. Everything else I can respond to in one way or another, but bees? I got nothin’.”

“Snakes!”

“‘Candid’ photographs of myself with a mouth full of food.”

And, last but not least:

“I’m afraid of almost everything, but I tell myself that being afraid isn’t a legitimate excuse for avoiding action...”

What are you afraid of?

Psalm 111 goes on for 9 verses exclaiming the mighty power of God: Exultations of righteous and majesty and greatness, fidelity and justice, holiness and might. God is GREAT. And then, somewhat abruptly, surprisingly, in verse 10, we get this weird commentary:

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.”

Huh? Where did that whole FEAR bit come from? Weren’t we just praising God’s name, listing his awesome qualities, annotating exactly how GREAT she is? What’s up with fear and wisdom? And, really? The psalmist is going to connect THOSE two things? Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What does that MEAN?

Honestly, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I really fear God, and I don’t know that I want to. The idea calls to mind images of the classic Jonathan Edwards sermon from 1741, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. There are plenty of contemporary sermons designed to strike the fear of God into people’s hearts, too, but I don’t so much like them. Obedience to God isn’t borne of fear of punishment, it’s borne of love and relationship.

So, then, what IS this fear thing about?

I think there are at least two kinds of fear: there’s terror: fear of punishment and pain, and then there’s awe: more like fearsomeness, the way we feel in the face of something vast and inexplicable. Given the context of verse 10, coming after that list of how incredible God is and what amazing things God’s done, we’d do well to choose that second interpretation.

Maybe we can say that “awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But we’re still left with this weird connection. How does fear, or awe, lead us to wisdom? What does it mean that fear is a beginning?

The youth went to King’s Dominion this week, and a few of our seventh grade girls spent the morning riding some of the older, wooden roller coasters. These middle schoolers are not seasoned coaster afficionados. In fact, they’re really just getting their thrill ride legs under them - starting with the smaller coasters and working their way up to the big crazy ones. As we stood in line for the Rebel Yell, I could see the anxiety and, yes, fear on their faces. I remember when I felt that about roller coasters, when I stood in line, anxiety building and fear mounting, watching batch after batch of riders leave the launch area, be spun in the air a few times and return, inevitably, smiling and laughing.

The laughter was not reassuring, as I remember. And, true to pattern, these girls got more anxious the closer we got to the front of the line. We chatted incessantly to cut the tension. “Why are roller coasters so scary?” I asked. “What are we afraid will happen?” Rose replied, “I’m afraid I’ll throw up! Or, I guess, I’m afraid I’ll just die!”

That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what most of our fears boil down to: being hurt, embarrassed, or killed? But we also talked about how fear changes, standing there in line together. Sometimes, you’re really afraid the first time, but a little less scared the second time, and even less scared after that. Sometimes, the cure for fear is just trying out the thing that scares you, inching closer to it and giving it a go. Seventh grade wisdom, y’all.

We finally got to the front of the line, and Rose and I climbed in next to each other. The coaster made its way up to the top of the first drop, and then we were off! Rose, still clinging tightly to the crash bar in front of her, screamed at the top of her lungs, with that particular mixture of irony and sincerity, a combination of awe and cynicism that we are only capable of when we’re in Middle School: “I’VE CHOSEN TO LIVE!”

We all know that feeling, don’t we? Of beginning with fear, and having that fear transformed through experience. There are old fears, things that we aren’t afraid of anymore. There are persistent fears, the ones that won’t go away. And, of course, there are always new fears. Too often, I think, we allow ourselves to be ruled by fear. We get stuck there, in the fear, and it paralyzes us, keeps us from moving anywhere - forward, backward or sideways.

So what would happen if we started thinking of fear as a beginning, like the psalmist does? What if we paid attention to our fears and treated them not as emotions that shut us down, but as a possibility for something new? If we’re feeling fearful of something, that thing is, at the very least, important enough to us to make us feel something deeply. Now, this may not be the case with some of those fears people listed on facebook. It might not be true that a fear of bees or a fear of snakes is something significant enough to necessitate some further explanation. But then again, who knows?

The psalmist isn’t talking about being afraid of the dark, though. The psalmist is talking about fear of God. Fear of God, awe of God, is the beginning of wisdom. The theologian Karl Barth explains why he thinks we fear God:

“The fear of the Lord,” he says, “springs from the discovery that it might be high time to awake from sleep, to arise and live as the people we really are, God's elect and chosen people, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, set free by him from our sin and our misery. The fear of the Lord springs from the discovery that God calls us unto himself and that his calling urges us to wake up, to arise, and to begin to live as his children.”

Maybe this is how God works. Maybe fear is the beginning, an invitation into God’s calling to live as his children. Maybe, when we find ourselves afraid or in awe, we can start to treat it as a beginning, as an invitation.

Maybe. I don’t know, but maybe.

Maybe that’s how God works. Maybe the fear is the beginning - cluing us in to this great, awesome thing present here around us - and if we pay attention to that fear, that reaction, maybe we can begin to pay better attention to God. Maybe in all that attentiveness, we can live into some wisdom about the ways of the world and the ways God is at work in it.

Hear the psalm again:

1Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
3Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
8They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.
10The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.


There’s a lot of talk about fear in the bible, which might tell us how universal fear is as an emotion. Fear gets mentioned most often in scripture when humans are encountering God or God’s power. Getting close to God IS kind of scary, because God is huge and hugely powerful.

One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, has a line about how we approach our worship that’s been quoted a lot over the years.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

Now, I don’t know about crash helmets and life preservers. And if Annie were around - she’s a pretty reclusive writer - I’d argue with her some good Anabaptist theology: if we expect God to be present in worship, then we expect God’s presence in all of life. Those crash helmets would have to be permanent attire. But she’s onto something. This God of ours is big and extravagant and powerful, and when God shows up, we’re never quite sure what will happen. That’s probably why everybody in the bible needs to be reminded not to be afraid when they’re encountering God.

 And that IS the message: God’s messengers are forever telling the people they’ve come to talk with not to be afraid. Do not fear! Remember Mary, the wise men, the women at Jesus’ tomb. Remember Paul on the way to preach the gospel in Rome, Jesus commissioning his disciples, David encouraging Solomon. They were all afraid, and were all reassured that fear was not the inevitable end of this encounter. When I hear those proclamations - Do Not Fear! - I don’t hear the angels chastizing humans for their emotion. I hear them urging us not to let fear rule us, not to get so stuck there that we miss out on God at work right in front of our faces.

Think about all those biblical characters. They were afraid, and they were told not to fear. And then, immediately afterward, they were invited into something big, something new  - an invitation right in the midst of fear. Fear, and the reminder that it isn’t all-powerful, is a beginning, an invitation.

So. What are you afraid of? What is it that God inviting you into? I don’t ask lightly. Fear, especially fear of God, isn’t something to be dismissive about. We may need to don a crash helmet once in a while. But it is, the psalmist tells us, something to pay attention to. It is a beginning.

And who knows where it will take us? Ours is a God of surprises. Maybe, if we begin to pay attention, if we accept an invitation, we’ll all end up at the top of the coaster, hands thrown in the air, choosing, like Rose, to live.

 Amen.

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