240225 – Wondering – Fear

Lent 2 ~ Proverbs 1:1-7

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. [3:5]
Train up a child in the way they should go: and when they are old, they will not depart from it. [22:6]
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. [27:17]

Today we’ll be wondering about a book of great wisdom and learning – a book that’s heavily quoted but rarely studied. It’s the book of Proverbs. This is where we get a lot of our biblical one-liners from, but we often only quote half of them. Ever hear “spare the rod / spoil the child?” It’s actually:
Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them. [Proverbs 13:24]

Ever hear “pride goeth before the fall?” It’s actually:
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. [Proverbs 16:16]

Then we get some of the odd ones. Things that kinda make you go hmm.
31:6 Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress.

Or this rather colourful one:
26:11 Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to their folly. (Gross)

Or this bit of decidedly politically incorrect wisdom!
27:15 A continual dripping on a rainy day and a contentious wife are alike.

So Proverbs is about advice for life – earthy, practical, straightforward. But it’s also much more than that. It’s also a treasure trove of deep wisdom. Listen to this one:

Proverbs 30:18-19 – “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand:the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a person with their partner.”

What do you make of that? Does it make you…wonder?

Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand… eagles, snakes, ships, and sexuality. What do these things have in common beyond being wonderful? Notice, it’s not just eagles but the “way of an eagle,” and the “way of a snake.” The way – suggesting movement, a journey, a purpose. It’s not the “how” of a ship on the waters, or the “how” of sexuality – it’s the way. Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand. I wonder which one is hard to understand but not too wonderful for the author?

The book of Proverbs is a wisdom book. It’s a way to teach about family, values, moderation, and one’s ‘way’ in the world. The implied reader is a child, a son, but of course, it’s really us! The implied speaker is usually a parental voice, but sometimes also the voice of Wisdom herself. Wisdom is personified and is written purposely and decidedly as a feminine character in the bible. I wonder why?

Proverbs ends with chapter 31 which is usually subtitled “the excellent or capable wife,” but the Hebrew is more accurately a “woman of strength/ valour/ substance.” The chapter is an acrostic poem (one line for each alphabet letter) – that goes on and on about the attributes of an ideal wife – well, an ideal wife 3000 years ago! I encourage you to read it. Yes, it’s from another time and cultural reality, but it’s still pretty interesting – especially to see how the status and role of women has so dramatically changed over these many centuries.
I wonder why it took so long?

Proverbs starts with nine chapters of instruction for a son from a father. Proverbs 1:5 says it’s about “learning the ropes.” So that’s how it begins and then in chapter 31 it ends with a picture of the goal of it all – to marry well! Some scholars think the feminine Wisdom character becomes embodied in the character of the woman of substance at the end – and the boy child follows the ‘proverbial’ teachings and becomes an adult who in turn marries the wise woman of substance, and they have children, and the cycle begins again.

Those first nine chapters don’t seem all that wondrous really. It’s mostly just instructions for growing up, not being a fool, not falling in with the bad crowd, and learning to follow the wisdom of your elders. But chapter 8 is really different. Here Wisdom (Hokma in Hebrew or Sophia in Greek) – Wisdom/Sophia herself does much of the talking, telling her story of how she came into being – created by God – and how she became a co-creator with God.

Proverbs 8:30-31 – “then I was beside God, like an artisan; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always,rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

Isn’t that a wondrous and curious image? Wisdom as a child, delighting, playing, rejoicing before God. Wisdom as God’s child. It almost reads like God carefully designs the world – orderly, safe, secure, a refuge – for her, and for us. So all of creation is Wisdom’s playhouse, safe to play and grow in, maturing and delighting.

This idea of play, which you can only do if you feel safe, is really interesting. We all think we learn our big stuff when we get older and smarter, but really we take in phenomenal amounts of information and learning when we’re young – and the usual way we do it is through play. We play our way into knowing about the world, and we play our way into knowing about God. What a delightful, wondrous image.
I wonder if you can see yourself playing before God.

How did you learn how to interact with the world? How did you acquire the information required for growing up and maturing? Who showed you “the ropes?” The primary source has always been one’s parents. We learn by watching them, imitating them – a fact which should give us all pause! Our parents are the ones we spend the most time with and who hopefully we learn to trust to provide that safety and refuge in which we can learn and play.

I wonder if we’ve forgotten what it was to be young and learning.
I wonder if we’ve lost our sense of wonder and play.

We’re so serious and tight so much of the time. We’ve commodified and systematized everything in place of wonder and play. I think we’ve forgotten one of our modern proverbs: all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy!

Sadly, I think we even bring this into church with us. We want the kids to play, and dance around during praise songs, and experience wonder and delight, but what about us? Maybe that’s why kids’ time is such a popular part of the service – because it gives us all permission to wonder and delight, and maybe even play a little.

What if we thought of all this [worship] as playing before God?
What if we came into this sacred space every week ready to play?

What if we came in, with big bright eyes, saying “I wonder…”
– I wonder what God will show me today
– I wonder how the Spirit might fire me up this morning
– I wonder whose face I might see the light of Christ in
– I wonder how my heart might leap and jump this morning
– I wonder which song will make me tingle with delight?”

I don’t mean that I think we should be child-ish, but I definitely do think we would be utterly amazed at what we’d experience if we could re-learn to be child-like.

But it’s hard. It’s hard because we’ve got hundreds of years of a systematized and commodified version of church working against us. We’ve inherited a way of doing church, and looking at scripture, and thinking about theology that has discouraged wonder and celebrated analysis. And all that has made us read certain verses in the bible that should make us light up and soar, but instead they leave us cold and discouraged.

I haven’t given you the most important verse in Proverbs yet for precisely that reason. Most of us have heard this verse for decades now and I’m willing to bet we’ve heard it in a very unhelpful way, when it could have been a delight for us. Here’s the verse:

Proverbs 1:7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (or knowledge).

Sadly, we’ve been taught that we’re supposed to be afraid of God. Generations of preachers have stood where I’m standing, and pointed their boney fingers at their congregations, and berated them with fear and judgment. It’s horrifying – especially since that’s not what this verse means at all!
God isn’t to be feared – God is to be awed!
It just doesn’t make sense any other way.
It’s impossible to make any kind of theological sense if God is a fearsome punisher.
How can you accept the loving hand of God if you think you might get slapped if you reach for it?
How can we delight and play in safety and refuge if we’re afraid of the one providing the refuge?
It doesn’t make any sense. ‘Being afraid’ of the Lord isn’t the beginning of anything except maybe a lifetime of therapy, or an aversion to religion.

However, if we could embrace the full meaning of the Hebrew word yar’ (which unhelpfully gets translated as ‘fear’) we would see something profoundly different.
Proverbs 1:7 would become…

A reverent wondrous awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!

A reverent wondrous awe of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom!

Can you see how much more life-giving that is?
In wondrous awe we can open ourselves to God’s Presence without fear!
In wondrous awe we can enter into God’s spaciousness, God’s love, God’s kingdom, and play.
In wondrous awe we can begin to know God’s way, God’s wisdom, God’s knowledge.
Reverent, wondrous awe is how it all begins. That’s the core message of Proverbs.

Maybe we should change how we spell God from G-o-d to G’awed!

Of course, there’s still an element of fear in this – but only in the sense of the overwhelming nature of encountering something so wondrous, so holy, so powerful, so astonishing, that it buckles your knees and turns you to Jell-o. So yes, encountering God had better scare us a bit – not with revulsion or panic, but with overwhelming, reverent, wondrous awe. Rabbi Abraham Heschel said that unlike fear, awe does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but on the contrary draws us near to it.

Don’t be afraid of God, be in awe of God – not awful but awe-full – and let that wonder and awe draw you ever nearer and ever deeper. It’s the beginning of all wisdom!

As you read through Proverbs you keep encountering this phrase – the fear of the Lord. It becomes a powerful theme that is meant to remind us over and over again that wondrous awe is the key. I’m going to use the word fear each time but I need you to hear the deeper meaning of ‘awe’. And when you hear what gets attached to the fear of the Lord you’ll see that fright doesn’t make any sense because none of these things would ever happen with fright, but all of them are fueled by reverent, wondrous awe!

Proverbs 10:27 The fear of the Lord prolongs life.

14:26 In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence, and one’s children will have a refuge.

14:27 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life.

15:33 The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom.

19:23 The fear of the Lord is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm.

The AWE of the Lord is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm.

If your church taught you that God was scary and made you afraid of God then on behalf of the Church I apologize to you. Fear does not prolong life, or give confidence, or become a fountain of life – wonder and awe do!

Being scared of God accomplishes nothing good – being in awe of G’awed opens up possibilities beyond imagination. Pure fear shuts you down and closes you off – wondrous ‘fear’ opens you up!

It’s a wonder to me that the church survived and in many ways thrived in spite of such a hurtful and narrow theological view. If this is the first time you’ve encountered this way of looking at the fear of the Lord then I suspect you may be encountering some discomfort as it butts up against what may be some deeply ingrained ideas. That’s good!
Sit with the discomfort, the disequilibrium.
Let it throw you off kilter for a while.
Wrestle with it.
Let it spin your head a bit.
That’s what wonder feels like!     

And hopefully it will light you up and energize you toward wanting to learn and experience more about it.
That’s what wonder does!
And that is the beginning of all knowledge and wisdom.

What lights you up in wondrous awe of God?

Three things are too wonderful for me; four things I do not understand:
– the way of music in my ear
– the way of chocolate chip cookies on my palette
– the way of ancient scripture on my imagination
– and the way of the wondrous, awe-full Presence of G’awed in my spirit.