A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Psalm 111
It was the spring of 1997. I know that because our daughter Jocelyn was an infant. She was a healthy and happy child, but when she was grumpy she was one of those kids who had to be walked, and walked, and walked – sometimes for hours – always in the middle of the night. Well, it was the morning after one of those carpet-worn-out nights that I was supposed to go and meet Rob. Rob McConnell is one of Canada’s great musicians. He is world famous for writing and arranging for his jazz big band called “Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass.” His numerous Grammy awards were on display as I walked through his house – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Why was I there?
Rob had recently moved to Peterborough, where I taught high school music at the time (and had my own jazz band – not quite as good as his). A few doors down from Rob lived one of my trombone players, and Rob had hired him to cut his grass and do yard work. As they chatted Rob learned that this teen played trombone (which was Rob’s instrument), and played in the school jazz band. Now, Rob was just learning about computer music software at the time and was getting frustrated, so he asked the student if his music teacher (me) knew anything about it and might help him.
And that’s why I was knocking on jazz legend Rob McConnell’s door that morning – bleary eyed and sleep-deprived from the night before. He opened the door and I said, and I quote: “Hi Larry, I’m Rob!”
Thankfully, he laughed and didn’t just shut the door in my face! And eventually, he came into my school and worked with my band and even gave us one of his original jazz charts to play.
It was all just awesome.
And I was awestruck!
Here was a giant in the field of jazz music, the most famous person I’d ever met, wanting my help, and on the day I met him the best I could manage was an embarrassing, “Hi Larry, I’m Rob!”
I don’t know if you’ve ever been awestruck meeting someone. Hopefully you did better than me. To be awestruck, to be in awe of someone, is to feel positively overwhelmed and reverent at the same time. Impressed and intimidated. I think this is exactly what the psalmist was trying to convey in Psalm 111. At first glance you won’t see the word ‘awe’ in the psalm but it’s actually all over it. And specifically it’s used in verses 5 and 10, but it doesn’t look that way.
Psalm 111:5 God provides food for those who fear him.
Verse 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
Did you catch it? The ‘awe’?
It’s hiding in the word ‘fear’.
This one of the great lines in all of scripture (The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom), but our modern ears usually misinterpret the meaning of it, because we hear the word ‘fear’ and our minds think ‘afraid’.
The Hebrew word is yar’ and it doesn’t mean to be afraid – it means to be awestruck!
The fear of the Lord doesn’t mean we’re supposed to cower in the corner afraid that God is going to do something terrible if we’re not good little children.
It’s not fear like that – it’s awe.
It’s about being reverent – with a tinge of feeling overwhelmed – and, yes a bit scared at God’s awesomeness – a holiness so wondrous and all-encompassing that it makes our knees go weak, and our heads feel light, and we find ourselves babbling like fools. [lip flicking – bbbbbbb]
It’s a crying shame that this concept has been so terribly misused by religious leaders over the centuries.
If I threaten you with the ‘fear of God’ as a punisher then you are pretty likely to fall into line and do what I say – or else.
That’s good crowd control – and it’s horrific theology!
And I have to say my line again and again – God is not a punisher.
God is love – and as Love God can only love!
God cannot act against God’s very being, which is love. Hellfire and damnation are not love. So I reject them.
Cowering is a very sad and misguided response to God’s awesome, holy Presence.
Being awestruck, dumbfounded, blown away, reverently overwhelmed, and agog – these are what it means to ‘fear’ or be in ‘awe’ of God.
And that, my friends, that feeling, that openness, that surrender, that awestruck-ness, truly is the beginning and the foundation of wisdom.
And awe is the foundation of this psalm too. It’s just gushing out of the psalmist, literally from the first word of the psalm, which is Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
And then the psalmist gushes about the awesomeness of God and how thankful all of us in the congregation are. Listen to the descriptors of God in this psalm. God is: honourable, majestic, wonderful, mindful, powerful, giving, faithful, just, trustworthy, upright, redeeming. How awesome is that!
It kind of reads like God’s spiritual resume – God’s position, God’s accomplishments, God’s attributes. I don’t know about you but upon hearing about our God who is honourable, majestic, wonderful, mindful, powerful, giving, faithful, just, trustworthy, upright, and redeeming the first words that pop into my mind aren’t terror and fright – it’s reverence, gratitude, delight, praise, peace, and yes, awe!
At least that’s my first thought. But then I ponder that list and I start thinking that if God is all those things – and God truly is – and I’ve got God-stuff at the centre of my being, made in God’s image, embodying God’s light and love – then how do I actually feel about God’s holiness in my presence?
Inspired? Convicted? Nudged? Guilty?
Yeah, all of that and a few others, no doubt.
I mean, it’s so much to take in.
And to be fair, it’s pretty hard to compare oneself to God – and God would never want that – God being only love, and all. But it does get one pondering that if Psalm 111 is God’s spiritual resume – what would mine read like? What would yours read like?
Enthralled and overwhelmed by God’s awesomeness how does Psalm 111 suggest faithful folk in the congregation might respond?
It’s just about God.
So where’s the application part? It’s a trick question.
The answer is you have to read Psalm 112.
Psalms 111 and 112 are kind of a pair. Interestingly, they’re both written as acrostic poems – meaning each line starts with a successive letter of the alphabet. So structurally they’re twins, or bookends, and thematically 111 functions as a ‘call’ and 112 functions as a ‘response’.
111 – God is so great and awesome. 112 – Here’s how I might respond.
I’m going to leave Psalm 112 for you to look up on your own.
Today, I’m sticking with just Psalm 111.
Today, in this present moment, awe and wonder are enough.
I actually love that these two psalms are separate, yet related.
If they were together in one psalm we would instinctively listen to the awesomeness part but then focus on the response part. Because that’s what we can control, or do something about.
But having them separate, and having us just focus on Psalm 111 today makes us do something that can be challenging for us. It makes us linger in the present moment. It makes us pay attention to God’s awesome holiness and not shift our gaze away to our own concerns or actions.
There’s plenty of time for that – and it’s absolutely necessary – but not in this particular moment.
This moment is sacred enough on its own.
And it deserves to be revelled in. And if we can stay in this moment we will immerse ever more deeply in God’s awesomeness.
Being in the moment is hard. Practicing being present to God’s Presence in this present moment is not our usual way. For some bizarre reason we seem to prefer to be distracted, rather than to bask in God’s holy light. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard way too many sermons saying that God is meant to be feared so we’re scared to stand there for fear of being judged or punished. And you know what I think of that.
The thing is, you can’t be present and can’t notice all this awesomeness in the present moment if you’re stuck fuming about a past moment or distracted fussing about a future moment!
The past and the future are out of our control, but we tend to invest a ton of energy in them.
But this moment, this sacred moment, this present moment, is entirely within our power to do something about.
We can run away from it, and let the past and future steal us away – or we can stand here – open, vulnerable, grateful, awestruck, and breathe God in more deeply.
Psalm 111:10 The fear of the LORD – being awestruck in the LORD – is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.
Being awestruck is where it begins.
Staying awestruck is what we’re called to practice. Practice – as in a disciplined, and intentional, and dedicated approach to keeping at an activity until you get better and better at it. Better and better at sensing and savouring God’s Presence.
That’s my kind of homework! We practice by noticing.
So, where do you notice and experience awe, and wonder, and sacredness?
In nature? In beauty? In art? In music? In work?
In acts of service and compassion? In examples of justice and character?
What about in people?
Are you awestruck by the wonder of our bodies (heart, lungs, brains, muscles, blood) – awestruck by our relationships (friendship, family, colleagues, lovers) – awestruck by our capacity for love (affection, care, supporting, romance)? How about right now – in worship?
Are you awestruck right now? Feeling God’s loving warmth right here in this present moment?
And in addition to WHERE you experience awe, and wonder, and sacredness we should also ask WHEN do you do these things? When do you notice that you’re in the very Presence of God?
Not just sometimes, I hope, but in every present moment!
Not just at church, or when praying, or doing churchy things.
Every present moment is a potential conduit of God’s holiness, and strength, and peace, and love.
Isn’t that fantastic?!
Doesn’t that just boggle your brain, and wobble your knees, and make your heart go pitter-pat?!
It’s all just… well… awesome!
1 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honour and majesty is God’s work, and God’s righteousness endures forever.
4 God has gained renown by God’s wonderful deeds; the LORD is gracious and merciful.
5 God provides food for those who are in awe of God; God is ever mindful of God’s covenant with us.
6 God has shown God’s people the power of God’s works, in giving them the heritage and inheritance of the nations.
7 The works of God’s hands are faithful and just; all God’s precepts and commandments are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 God sent redemption to God’s people; God has commanded God’s covenant forever. Holy and awesome is God’s name.
10 The fear of the LORD – being awestruck in God’s Presence – is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.
Such is the awe of the present moment.
Help me notice.