N.B. This homily was written for the Community of Hope International at their annual retreat, during the Saturday evening Taizé service, October 8, 2022 at Camp Allen, Navasota, Texas. The readings included Psalm 66:1-12, Psalm 111 and Luke 5:12-16.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” This is a powerful statement, capstoning the beautiful song of praise that we find in Psalm 111. But what exactly does it mean?
If you are like me, you may remember knowing people — or at least, knowing of people — who were described as “God-fearing.” A God-fearing Christian was someone who took their faith seriously. They did not mess around. There was no hint of presumptuousness in their faith, they did not take their salvation for granted, and one might assume that their fear of God was intimately part of an overall spirituality shaped by reverence, moral rectitude, and an utmost respect for the power and judgment of God.
But you know, we live in the age of sociology and psychology, and the fear of God, as a religious concept, has fallen on hard times. We have begun to question if fearing God can really lend itself to loving God. As a friend of mine who is a Mennonite theologian once said, “Many people keep an eye on God the way the mouse keeps an eye on the cat.” We may do a perfectly good job of fearing God but remain entirely unmoved by any possibility of loving God.
The plot thickens! Recent scholars of Biblical Hebrew have made the case that the Hebrew word that gets translated as fear — yir·’aṯ — really should be understood as implying awe. We may fear an abusive parent, but we experience awe when we contemplative the Milky Way galaxy. I live in Atlanta where there is so much light that we rarely can see many stars, even on the clearest of nights. But a couple of years ago my wife and I were on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico during the Leonids Meteor Shower; we read online that the best time to see it was about 4 AM. So like Trappist monks we got up before dawn, bundled up — that November morning was quite chilly, even in Florida — and we made our way to the beach, where we sat, gazing south over the gulf, hypnotized by the steady drone of the surf, and entranced not only be the dramatic meteors that kept streaking across the sky, but by the unexpected delight of clearly discerning the Milky Way, dancing across the firmament like a ribbon of ancient light. Immediately, we felt awe: awe at the sheer beauty of it all, awe at the vastness of the universe and our corresponding tiny-ness, awe at the immeasurable unlimited dimensions of space and time to which we were privileged to be given this tiny glimpse at a specific moment in time. I don’t know if it was made us wise, but I do know that we tasted awe that autumn morning — and it felt nothing like fear.
Still, I can understand why “the Fear of the Lord” is a thing. Believe it or not, I was a timid child, and I grew up in a very traditional gendered household where mom was the nurturer and dad was the disciplinarian. My relationship with my mom was very intimate, warm, and cuddly, whereas my father and I had a very formal and rather distant relationship. Mom and I hugged, but Dad and I shook hands.
So why would someone fear God? Let me hasten to say that I don’t think God is particularly turned on by the idea of us fearing him. But I do think that a person who is amending their life, perhaps coming to face some hard truths about themself and their tendency toward selfishness, narcissism, and perhaps even lack of caring for others, might find that being afraid of God’s terrible judgment may be part of the process of compunction, contrition, and repentance. Those are tough words, so let’s take a closer look. Compunction is like getting poked by a sharp object — it’s a jabbing sensation of pain that comes from recognizing that one’s behavior has been, well, sinful — or to put it in more contemporary language, unkind, unloving. Our Buddhist friends would say it is inevitable that human beings cause suffering. Compunction is feeling the pain that our behavior creates, both for ourselves but especially for others.
The next step, contrition, is feeling sorry for what we’ve done. In the Roman Catholic world, you need contrition in order to participate in the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession In other words, it’s not enough to admit you’ve done something wrong — you need to be sorry for it. This does not and should not be a matter of intense or long-lasting shame. When we are contrite, we are called to do something to alleviate the unpleasantness. Just as having a headache means it’s time to take your Acetaminophen, feeling contrition means it’s time for that most misunderstood of spiritual processes: it’s time to repent.
Many people equate repentance with compunction or contrition. But if they were the same thing, we wouldn’t need all these big words, would we? No, repentance is the solution to the problem of compunction and contrition, which in turn are problems that arise out of our sinfulness. To repent, you see, is to take your spiritual aspirin to counteract the pain of your aching contrition.
What is repentance? The Greek word for it is metanoia — which literally means “beyond the mind.” To repent literally means to adopt a new or higher level of consciousness — to go beyond the limitations of the old mind, conditioned as it is toward selfishness and fear. It means to adopt the Mind of Christ: a mind shaped by God’s presence, compassion and love. To repent is to exchange the old ways of seeing things that are based in fear and dualism, for a new way of approaching life grounded in trust, kindness, mercy, forgiveness — and the love of God.
Well, when you see it that way, repentance sounds awesome! When can we sign up for it!
And you notice, I said AWE-some! Yes, repentance may mean the shift from fear into love, but it is still grounded in that awe before God which the Psalm assures us is the beginning of wisdom.
You see, here’s how I think it works. The fear of the Lord — whether we are talking about awe — or dread — truly is the beginning of wisdom. But it’s not the “end” of wisdom. To find that, we need to turn to a powerful verse from the first letter of Saint John, tucked away toward the end of the New Testament. The fourth chapter of I John is a hymn celebrating the love of God, as beautiful in its own way as St. Paul’s legendary hymn of love found in I Corinthians 13. John assures us that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” He goes on to say, more than once, that “God IS love,” which to my mind remains the single best one-word definition for the nature of God. But then he throws in this delicious word of wisdom:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (I John 4:18)
What a powerful declaration! I think it makes sense that we fear being punished, whether it is a child who doesn’t want to get spanked after stealing some cookies from the cookie jar, to the wealthy business person accused of tax fraud who fights the charges as hard as he can. Even if we acknowledge that we are guilty as charged, we seek clemency and mercy.
But what if we can let go of all fear of punishment when we encounter the presence of the Living God? What if, even in our sinfulness and brokenness and imperfection, we can approach God with love rather than fear, with trust rather than anxiety, with the confidence of a child rather than the bargaining of an adult?
If fear is the beginning of wisdom, sooner or later love will come along and cast fear out, replacing the terror of the small mind with the limitless trust of the Mind of Christ. And remember, when we say “love casts out fear” — remember, God is love. If we allow God entry into our hearts, God will seek to turn us away from fear and toward the deepest wisdom of all, the wisdom of profound, trusting, love.
We see in tonight’s Gospel reading a powerful insight into Jesus. Everyone knows Jesus was a healer, and so this reading from the fifth chapter of Luke represents Jesus doing what Jesus does best: healing the sick. But as Jesus’s gift as a healer turns into a rapidly spreading reputation — even without Twitter and Facebook, word spread fast — Luke points out something really important: “he would slip away to deserted places and pray.”
Next time you sit down to read the Gospels — not just to listen to the short lessons that show up on Sunday mornings or during your daily prayer, but to really read the entire narrative — notice how much Jesus prays. It seems like he is always sneaking off to be alone with God. From the forty days in the wilderness right after his baptism to the night in the Garden of Gethsemani before his arrest, trial and crucifixion, Jesus is consistently a person of prayer. And friends, I would like to make two observations about this: first, that it is not mistake that Luke comments on Jesus’s prayer right after telling yet another story about his gifts as a healer. For Jesus, prayer and healing go hand in hand. But just as important, ask yourself: is Jesus’s behavior the actions of somebody who is scared of God? I don’t think so. Jesus prayed all the time because Jesus LOVED God, and Jesus trusted in God’s love for him. And we are asked to enter into the same dynamic when we related to God. God is love. Love casts out fear. We are able to love, because God first loved us. Think about what that implies: the more you immerse yourself in the presence of God, the more loving a person you become. Let me repeat that: the more you immerse yourself in the presence of God, the more loving a person you become. I don’t know about you, but that thought makes me want to pray as much as I possibly can.
Psalm 66 invites us to make a joyful noise to God! Even though I myself am an introvert with monkish tendencies who likes nothing more than a quiet evening at home, I can relate to Psalm 66. I think making a joyful noise to express our love for God is a beautiful thing to do — and I commend it to us all. Sing, scream, shout for joy: praise the God who loves us so much!
But you know, the psalm right before Psalm 66 — Psalm 65 — makes another powerful statement about praise. It often gets lost in English translations, but he original Hebrew of Psalm 65:1 very explicitly says, “Silence is praise.” What an extraordinary statement! Silence is praise. This is not either/or: we still praise God with our joyful noise. It’s a both/and situation: we praise God with our songs and our words, but we also praise God with our reverent, awe-struck silence. Silence can be a wonderful way to notice the love in our hearts: love that is put there by God through the Holy Spirit! Don’t believe me: check out Romans 5:5. So let’s celebrate the wisdom that might begin with fear, or better yet, awe — yet ultimately yields to the beauty of love. Just as our praise may begin with a joyful noise, but ultimately even our silence can be a way of returning love to the one who gives us the ability to love.
So let’s take a few minutes now, and be silent before the beautiful, compassionate, merciful, presence of the God who IS Love — and who loves us all, so very, very much!