Sermon for Sunday next before Lent – 2014 – Year A
“The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”
As most of you know, my family celebrated my 50th birthday by throwing me out of an airplane at 15,000ft! Perhaps that is toying with the truth 🙂 Actually they knew that I harboured a wish to skydive, but weren’t too keen on the idea . . . and for their concern I was and remain, duly grateful 🙂 So rather than offer me simply a skydive, they offered what to their minds were two less risky alternatives – lying in bed for a day – or lying in bed for two days 🙂 I jest, although the stats would show that I am far more likely to die in bed than skydiving 🙂 Actually they offered me parascending and hang-gliding. They were I think a little unhappy that I still chose to skydive – even though my careful research had revealed that it was by far the safest of the three options available!
Our society is a tremendously fearful one. Revealed in many ways, not least our idolatry of good management. We idolise management and pay good managers well because we are afraid of the alternative. On Friday I spent what should have been my day off at a Governance workshop for the Diocesan Council – it was a good workshop, but the more I immerse myself in the narrative of the Scriptures, of the Life of God with his people, the more alien such things seem to be in terms of the Kingdom of God. We seem in the church to imagine that Good Management and sound governance will usher in God’s Kingdom. However loudly we proclaim this Not to be the case, our actions reveal the truth about us. The Church spends far far more time in management than prayer. The Fear of the Lord far less evident than the Fear of ‘getting things wrong’. It sometimes seems to me as if we believe we can actually ‘manage God.’ As if the Holy Spirit can be directed into the plans and strategies we have so carefully put in place. And to be frank, God laughs.
The French mathematician Laplace once presented to the Emperor Napoleon his mechanical model of the Solar System, The Emperor who was clearly not an insensitive man asked Laplace – Where does God come into this?’ the mathematician answered ‘Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis’. Put another way, The Universe can get on quite happily without God. And if often strikes me that we would at best struggle to begin to describe How God fitted into our life in the church. Certainly the ‘visitor from Mars’ would be hard put to find any evidence.
As a result of which we are afraid, for now everything is utterly in our hands . . . we bestride the world and confront the great moral issues of our time – We have to figure this all out by ourselves, which is a terrifying thought. So we try and manage things and if we are of a religious bent we get on with our managing and ask that God might bless it, but in our heart of hearts we do not actually think that things come about other than by our efforts. This is revealed not only in lack of prayer (we are perhaps the most prayeless age of the church), but also in self congratulation when our plans come to fruition, or self condemnation when they fail. God is small in our consciousness. Even though the One who ushers in the Kingdom of God explicitly tells us not to worry about what tomorrow will bring, after all, you might die in your bed tonight . . . but I’m back where I left off last week, how we avoid concrete obedience to Jesus, because after all, what does a first century Galilean know about the reality of our modern lives.
The Bible knows a Lot about Fear. It reveals it as the condition of humanity separated from God. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
Separated from God, we are afraid. We are afraid of God himself, for He is a stranger to us, and all HIs world is strange to us and we are afraid of that also – we are afraid of growing old, we are afraid we shall not have enough to live on, perhaps we are afraid we will not have enough to eat, we are afraid of losing our faculties . . .
The Lord God called to the man, and said to him “Where are you?” Perhaps the most poignant words in all of scripture. I read this week of a child who was lost in Paris for four days, because his father had not managed to get on the same Metro train as him. I shudder at the thought not least because I too once lost one of my children in a town, it is a truly awful thing. The cry of our Parent – from whom we are hiding “where are you?” is an agonised one, which will lead to the agony of the Cross.
And our reading from Isaiah finds that parent seeking out his hiding children, trying to coax them out of their places where they have hidden from Him. Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; 9saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” to those who are in darkness, “Show yourselves.” God’s Saving help is announced in every word of Scripture – God continues to speak of all the goodness he wishes to shower on his children “They shall feed along the ways on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down. for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. I am seeking to bring my children home!! Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. God seeks his exiled children to bring them home
So why, we may well ask is the Fear of the Lord understood as the beginning of Wisdom. If our Fear of God is misplaced? If God only desires Good for his children? And it is true that Being Afraid of God is not human. There is Fear and there is Fear. The English language at times is so poverty stricken. We need to move from fear to Fear. Our ‘Being Afraid’ needs to be transformed
Jesus commands us to abandon our worries about food and the rest. And immediately fear stands at the gate. ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’ Money is a harsh master. We try and take care of it – we are afraid it might leave us. Because we hide from God, money which seems to loo so large in our consciousness terrifies us. It distorts our loves and destroys our lives.
On Thursday this week I spent a good part of the day with folk from ‘Christians against Poverty’ – an unashamedly Christian organisation recently come to these shores from Bradford – the Diocese from where I came! Indeed we saw a video of their premises, tucked in behind my old cathedral 🙂 They are devoted to helping people out of debt, that condition which reveals most clearly the nature of our enslavement to money. And we saw some wonderful testimony of folk who had been helped (It brought a tear to my eye, not something of which I am often guilty, not least because we were told of many who have become Christians through their explicitly Christian work (CAP NZ has looked after over 500 families in debt – 247 people have become Christians through their work))
[Here is a Video of the Work of CAP in the UK – I am very proud to say that my eldest daughter works at Jubilee Mill 🙂 ]
So the power of money is a thing of Terror to us – we fear it. But Jesus goes on to explain what serving God is like, in terms of lack of worry. Do not worry what you will eat or what you will drink or what you will wear for the Gentiles rush after all of these. Jesus is of course speaking here to Jews, God’s people, like Isaiah speaking to them of God’s Loving search for them – as I said last week, only re-inforcing what they have always known. For God, Jesus says ‘feeds the birds of the air’ – he clothes the lillies of the fields such that even King Solomon was never so attired (how sad we spend so much time on our own appearance when there is infinitely more beauty in a single leaf or flower than in all the latest designs from the Paris cat walk . . .)
So we must ask – If Fear is transformed, what new form does it take? What is this truly Healthgiving ‘fear of the Lord?’ Well I think the best way to explain it is to use an example most of us will have experienced, but few if any will remember. When we were born and indeed if we were fortunate, for the first years of our lives, our parents, especially our mothers dominated our perception. They were our life. We had little sense of ourself except our basic needs for food, warmth, protection and if we were blessed, we received all of these. Our Parents were our World. Jesus says you cannot serve God and wealth – one or the other must consume your imagination, one or other will entirely shape your world. You will love one or the other. But love of wealth leads only to anxiety – it is a nervous fear. Love of God is Holy Awe – the perception of who God is, His profound Love for us so fills our imaginations that all worry disappears. In the way that a tiny baby knows no fear but only the overwhelming of the compassionate presence of its parent
the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 14But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Are we hearing these words of the searching compassionate God of the Old Testament? Or is our imagination still poisoned by the lies of the evil one? God says through his prophet, yes, even a nursing mother may forget her child, yet I will not forget you ‘Look you are inscribed on the palms of my hands . . .behold my hands, my side, my wounds of Love, the glorious fruit of my search for you.
Lent starts on Wednesday. In the minds of most of us, this can often be seen as a time for beating ourselves up – terrible sinners that we are – we cry out ‘Lord have mercy’ because we imagine God with a huge stick desiring to punish us for our wickedness – again where Does that image come from? Not the one who has Pity on us. When we cry out in Lent, ‘Lord have mercy’ it is not as one who cowers in fear, but as one who has seen in Jesus that God is the one who takes away our fears. That we cry out like the blind man, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me. And he answers – They shall feed along the ways on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down. for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.
As we go through Lent we will be joining together to think about what it means to be the church, to share in this Life of God, to know the true fear of the Lord. As I hope to show, this Fear that radically frees us from our fears. That being so Set free to Fear God in this way, we might begin the journey towards being the people He would have us be. Until that happens we cannot begin to imagine what it might be to Seek the Kingdom of God . . .
Earlier this week I was reminded in our daily bible reading of the fact that an old name for God was ‘The Fear’, specifically The Fear of Isaac, which led me to this beautiful passage from the writer Frederick Buechner with which I close. It comes from his novel The Son of Laughter, who is of course the Patriarch Isaac. “The Shield was another of the Fear’s names. According to Laughter, it means he shields the seed of Abraham the way a man starting a fire shields the flame. When Sarah was about to die childless, the Fear gave her a son. When Abraham was about to slaughter the son, the Fear gave him the ram. He is always shielding us like a guttering wick, Laughter said, because the fire he is trying to start with us is a fire that the whole world will live to warm its hands at. It is a fire in the dark that will light the whole world home.”
The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, it is the doorway to seeking his Kingdom, it is the beginning of our journey towards home,.