The Fear of the Lord
2nd Sunday After Trinity
June 5th/6th, 2016
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
What are you afraid of? What terrifies you? What is it that haunts your dreams? Is it spiders? Clowns? Birds? Is it cancer? Heart Disease? High Blood Pressure? Is it war? Terror attacks? Nuclear weapons? What are you afraid of? Is it Donald Trump? Or Hillary Clinton? Or Bernie Sanders? Is it the unknown? Is it the known? What are you afraid of? What fills you with fear? While we sometimes like to be scared, like riding a roller coaster or watching a Hitchcock film, people generally don’t like to be afraid. Truly afraid. Filled with the kind of fear that grabs your very soul. That kind of fear we try to avoid at all costs.
And yet in today’s reading from the book of Proverbs we are told that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” There’s that word: fear. And it’s not talking about fear like being scared of spiders. It’s talking about the kind of fear that grabs the bottom of your soul. That doesn’t mean it’s talking about terror or dread. There is a difference between healthy fear and unhealthy fear. Unhealthy fear cripples us so that we cannot move. Phobias like being afraid of crowds or sicknesses can paralyze people or send them into panic attacks. That is not the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is a healthy fear, and it is the beginning of wisdom. The fear of the Lord “is reverence for God and spiritual worship of him.” The fear of the Lord is a healthy fear, like the fear of heat or electricity. A healthy fear of heat protects you from grabbing the roasting pan out of the oven without oven mitts. A healthy fear of electricity can save your life.
Notice how each of these healthy fears requires a certain amount of knowledge and experience. A child does not understand the danger of heat, so it’s the parents who become a nervous wreck whenever the over door is open. A child does not understand the danger of electricity, so it’s the parents who fret about outlet covers in the plugs throughout the house. They say ignorance is bliss, and they might be right – for there is no fear quite like knowledge.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Knowledge of the Lord is the beginning of fear. It’s like a person who sets up a tent to camp in a forest completely oblivious to the fact that there’s bears in those woods. If someone asks them, “Hey, aren’t you afraid of the bears?” Their response will be, “Well, I am now!” Fear of the unknown is real, but fear founded on fact can be even worse. No one feared cancer until they knew what it was and saw what it can do to a person. Knowledge of the Lord will inevitably lead to fear of him. That may sound strange to say, but it bears repeating. Knowledge of the Lord will inevitably lead to fear of him. How could it not? How numb have we become to the notion that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present God who is sustaining each breath we take! I am completely powerless to sustain my own existence. Are we afraid of cancer or disease? Isn’t it the Lord himself who controls those things? Shouldn’t we fear him more than them? Even if I’m the picture of health, I don’t cause my heart to beat or my lungs to work – I am totally and completely at the mercy of this all-powerful God every second of every day.
And it’s not just me. It’s not just you. It’s not just people. The universe itself would either collapse in on itself or expand to the point of explosion if this all-powerful God were not upholding it’s every instant. To make matters worse, this creation has been ruined by sin, sin of which I am a part, sin for which I am responsible. I remember how scared I was as a child when I had to tell my parents that I ruined the flowers in the front yard when my football went sailing into the flower bed. I know how upset I get when something I’ve worked hard on gets ruined. Now we have to deal with the almighty creator and sustainer of the universe whose creation we have broken?
Yes, I think it is indeed fair to say that knowledge is the source of much fear, and that knowledge of the Lord certainly ought to frighten us a little. But the fear of the Lord is not an end unto itself. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I once heard another pastor describe it like this: Imagine yourself driving home from work. Your mind is filled with different fears and anxieties. Some of those fears are immediate. You are afraid of how upset your spouse or will be if you’re late. You’re afraid, on some level, of what will happen if you get into an accident – that’s why you stop for red lights. You’re afraid of running out of gas or having your engine fail – that’s why you watch the gas gauge and get the oil changed regularly. Maybe you’re afraid that the store will be out of the specific brand of tea you like to drink. Maybe you’re waiting for test results and you fear they won’t be good. Some of those fear are more existential. Maybe you’re afraid of the heart disease that runs in your family, or wondering what that exhaust billowing from all the other cars will do to you. There are any number of fears that buzz around in your mind like flies on a cow. You may raise your tail to swat one away, but it will inevitably return to resume its place beside the others that never left. Fears buzzing everywhere. Then, as you are stopped at a red light, you hear a tapping on your window. You look over to find yourself staring down the barrel of a gun. Suddenly, the buzzing stops. All the other fears drop out of existence. The only thing that matters now is that gun, the person holding that gun, and what exactly that person holding that gun expects you to do. One fear takes precedence. The rest fall away.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Knowledge of the Lord leads to fear of the Lord. Knowledge of my sin and the judgment I deserve conjures fear in my heart. The simple fact is that God is our most pressing danger. Everything else pales in comparison to him. Recognizing that is the beginning of wisdom.
When the gun is pointed at you, all other fears drop out of existence. Their buzzing is silenced. In that silence, when the Lord has your full attention and fear, he points you to his Son. He proclaims your forgiveness. He says to you, “Now that I have your attention, now that nothing else matters, now that you aren’t worried about your job or your health or anything else, now that you fear me alone, look to my Son, for there you will see how much I love you. Now that you fear me above all else, fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of your salvation.”
It’s truly a remarkable shift, an incredible gift. The Lord consolidates all our fear and then removes it. That is the beginning of wisdom. Fear of the Lord, not terror or dread, but fear of the Lord drives us into his word. It drives us to repentance. It drives us to the gifts he freely gives for our forgiveness and reconciliation. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but wisdom has more to say. The book of Proverbs lays out for us the joys and blessings to be found in the wisdom that comes from God. That’s what verses 8 and 9 of today’s reading remind us. “Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be wiser still. Teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning.” The Bible’s definition of wisdom is being willing to hear our Lord’s word and to be shaped by it. To take instruction. To be rebuked. Our world teaches us to follow the desires of our heart, but the desires of our heart will always end in death. Everything in this world ultimately ends in death. The wisdom of the Lord is to hear and receive the eternal gifts he brings. To have our relationships shaped and formed by reconciliation and forgiveness. How can we hold grudges against each other when our Lord has forgiven so much in us? The fear of the Lord shows us our own sin. The Word of the Lord shows us our forgiveness. The wisdom of the Lord teaches us to forgive others.
So while it may sound odd to say, rejoice in the fear of the Lord. Rejoice in the wisdom of his Word. For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were out in the streets and alleyways, our Lord brought us into his banquet. We who were once separated from Christ have been brought near by his blood. He himself is our peace. He has killed the hostility. He preaches peace to all, to those who are far off, and to those who are near.
He binds us together in his Church, building us into a dwelling place for his love. And it all starts with the fear of the Lord. So rejoice in that fear. Fear, love, and trust in God above all things. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the holy one is insight. Insight into the forgiveness and reconciliation that is ours through Jesus Christ. May God grant such fear and wisdom would be living and active among us.
 Luther AE 19:13
 Proverbs 9:8-9