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26 January 2015

A Frowning God? (Septuagesimae / Fourth Sunday after Epiphany)

Psalm 111

God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform ..." William Cowper began a famous poem with these two lines that are quoted so often that some people are tempted to think they are straight from Scripture.

A bit further down, the poem continues:

"Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face."

When I grew up as a pastor's kid, that was how I thought a preacher looked: "Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face." Along with a powerful voice there would be a frowning face.

When we were asked in seminary to videotape one of our sermons, to get a sense of our body language, the first reaction the instructor had to my video was this: "Those frowns of yours could terrify almost anyone!".

In the conversation that followed I remembered how it had been sometimes hard for me to figure out whether my Dad spoke to me as just Dad or the preacher or even God. As the instructor reminded me that research has shown that children form their early images of God based on their parents, it began to make sense why I frowned a lot when I was preaching.

A frowning God? A God who terrifies? This Sunday's psalm, Psalm 111, contains that line that traditionally has been translated as "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Verse 10).

1 Praise the Lord! / I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, / in the assembly of the godly and the congregation. 2 The Lord's deeds are great, / eagerly awaited by all who desire them. 3 His work is majestic and glorious, / and his faithfulness endures forever. 4 He does amazing things that will be remembered / the Lord is merciful and compassionate. 5 He gives food to his faithful followers / he always remembers his covenant. 6 He announced that he would do mighty deeds for his people, /giving them a land that belonged to other nations. 7 His acts are characterized by faithfulness and justice / all his precepts are reliable. 8 They are forever firm, / and should be faithfully and properly carried out. 9 He delivered his people / he ordained that his covenant be observed forever. / His name is holy and awesome. 10 To obey the Lord is the fundamental principle for wise living / all who carry out his precepts acquire good moral insight. / He will receive praise forever.

What is that: "The Fear of the Lord"?, and how could fear possibly be the "beginning of wisdom"?

How could fear be the beginning of anything good? People who are afraid tend to be rigid and anything but creative; they can't accomplish much, and they certainly are not happy. We have no positive associations with fear. Fear is counterproductive; it's an obstacle and sometimes it makes people destructive. And if the object of such fear is God, well, that makes it even more ominous.

The word fear carries no positive meanings for us; the word itself seems frightening.

But ... the psalm that culminates in that ominous statement about the Fear of the Lord is not ominous at all. The text of Psalm 111 is, in fact, full of joy and affirmation. It is, technically, a song of praise and thanksgiving. The first and the last verse prominently carry the word "praise". Yet there is that line in Verse 10 about the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom.

The Hebrew phrase translated as "fear of the Lord" is יִרְאַת יהוֺה. Our Hebrew scholars tell us that the word יִרְאַת (jrah) is a feminine noun meaning fear, but add that the word usually refers to the fear of God as a positive quality, such as in reverence or awe.

When the second half of Verse 9 states about God, "His name is holy and fearsome", the positive sense of fear -- reverence and awe -- gives us an idea where the psalmist is trying to take us. For almost nine of the ten verses he celebrates the history of Israel's salvation: the covenant, being fed in the wilderness, the gift of the land, the establishment of God's rule.

The whole psalm is an exercise in remembering the many and miraculous ways God has taken care of the People of God. The God revealed here is not fearsome, but loving; not high and inaccessible but caring and redeeming; not majestic and lofty but faithful to his covenant. And then in Verse 4 we read, "He does amazing things that will be remembered / the Lord is merciful and compassionate".

As the psalmist speaks of God as merciful and compassionate, we can't help but think of God's ultimate move toward our salvation: the incarnation.

"For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)

It turns out that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" precisely because God offers us a healthy and wholesome dependency: a loving relationship between parent and children. Inviting us to become daughters and sons of God, God offers us kinship, salvation, a way to make sense of our lives in ways that human wisdom cannot, an eternal home.

"God wants me to surrender.
His will I cannot spurn.
I rest in my defender,
to his kind Word I turn.
I'm safe in all that matters
by list'ning to his voice.
God loosens all my fetters,
God self makes me his choice."
(Jochen Klepper, 1938 tr. F Wendt, 1996).

Because our God is Love, obeying him is utter joy. Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord.

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