The Beginning of Wisdom

August 19, 2012

There is a great story in Faulkner family lore about one of the author’s forebears. William Henry Faulkner was the oldest son of the Old Colonel Faulkner. Henry was a “handsome ne’er do well….a gambler, a womanizer and pretty much worthless.” When a crippled jeweler found out that Henry had taken up with his wife, the cuckolded husband shot and killed him. When the Old Colonel was told about his shiftless son’s murder, he is said to have responded, “I’m afraid I would have had to do it myself anyway.” Yikes!

Sometimes, most times really, things have a way of taking care of themselves without our help. I’m pretty sure this is related to the sermon today, but even if there isn’t a tidy tie-in, the story was worth the telling!

As the academic machine cranks back up for another school year next week, with people going to college seeking knowledge, I would like to preach on Psalm 111 this morning, particularly the verse “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  You’ve probably heard this quoted before – the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

What can this mean? And why should we fear a God who loves us, a God whose first risen words to his disciples huddled in terror in an upper room are “Fear not”? If we rightly read in the New Testament that “perfect love casts out fear”, what can the psalmist mean by saying that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? In fact, just a few verses earlier the psalmist himself tells us “the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.”  Why fear the Lord?

Our human experience of fear doesn’t really help us understand what the psalmist means here. If you’ve ever had a panic attack or been gripped by worry or anxiety, you know that there is nothing good, nothing wholesome and edifying about the experience. The comforting words of scripture offer little comfort. Your faith feels impotent. You are just consumed by, drowning in fear.

Nights are usually the worst. Worries that by day are manageable, transmogrify into monstrous threats. A harmless little growth on the skin of someone you love turn into a deadly tumor at the stroke of midnight. Forget sleep, you are in the grip of fear. If this kind of fear is the fear of the Lord, then ignorance is bliss every time.

But this kind of debilitating fear is not the fear that is the beginning of wisdom. Instead the fear of the Lord is the recognition of who He is. And along with the recognition of who He is comes a concurrent recognition of who we are.

Who is the Lord? According to the text this morning, He is the One whose name is “holy and awesome.”   Who is the Lord? He is the One whose “works are full of majesty and splendor”. “Great” and “powerful” are His deeds.  As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God”.  To fear the Lord means to be in awe of Him, to revere Him in His majesty.

I love to go out West because that is where a trout fisherman is the happiest. But I also love to go out West because out there I viscerally experience the grandeur of God. I’ll never forget walking out of the Jackson, Wyoming airport for the first time and seeing the Tetons. I was so overwhelmed I had to sit down on the tarmac. Sitting there on the ground in my khakis, penny loafers, and freshly pressed button down from Eljo’s, I thought, “I’m just a joke!”  One can’t help but feel small and insignificant when surrounded by God’s “majesty and splendor.” All we are is dust in the wind.

I just can’t resist referencing Monty Python’s movie, “The Meaning of Life” taking its usual potshot at moments like these. The setting is chapel in an English boy’s school. The chaplain leads the boys in antiphonal prayer. He intones, “Let us praise God. O Lord, O, You are SO Big.“O You are So Big” parrot the boys. “So absolutely Huge”, prays the chaplain, followed by “so absolutely Huge” by the dreadfully bored boys. This goes on until they sing their hymn,

O Lord please don’t burn us, don’t grill or toast your flock

      don’t put us on the barbecue or simmer us in stock.”

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Understanding that God is God and we are not. We do not have to fear that He will toast His flock, but the beginning of wisdom does involve the accurate appraisal of ourselves. Revering God means not revering ourselves. Being in awe of God means not being in awe of ourselves.

I’m definitely not saying that we should think badly about ourselves or that we are worthless creatures ready to be simmered in stock. We are made in God’s image and loved more than we can possible imagine. I am saying, however, that the beginning of wisdom always involves deep humility. And any honest appraisal of the self will end in humility. As Shakespeare says in As You Like It, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”. The beginning of wisdom says, “I think this is right, but I might be wrong. What do you think?”

My experience with people, especially myself, is that we are habitually defeated by our own compulsions. Anger, lust, the need for affirmation, the need to control – these and others are the billboards that dot the journey of life. They are as numerous as the South of the Border billboards on 95 south.  Just when you’ve passed one and thought it was put behind you, another pops up, and another and another.

Jesus says that these problems come from within ourselves – they are not the products of our environment.  The problem isn’t out there – the problem ultimately isn’t the school system, or the economy or the government. The problem is in here. We sometimes call this orginal sin, which as Paul Zahl says, is nothing more than “human nature replicated and evenly distributed.” We all have areas in life where are simply unable to help ourselves in any lasting manner. This is what the Episcopal Prayer Book prayer means when we confess that, “there is no health in us.”

The purpose of this recognition of who we are is not to cast a gloomy pall over our lives, or to lead us to a sense of worthlessness, or to make us grovel before a “absolutely Huge God.” It is only to relieve us of a false narrative about our own power, to disabuse us of our own sovereignty, and to place us where we, in fact, find the true and lasting balm of life. This is the place of the beginning of wisdom – at the foot of the cross saying, “help, I need you, God.”  I am in absolutely bereft need of a savior.

That’s where and when the miracle of deliverance happens. It is to recognize, as the psalmist says today, that the Lord “has sent redemption to His people.” That’s where and when we discover the beginning of wisdom.

Again, none of this is meant to suppress human initiative and action and creativity. I think that we are capable of extraordinary things.  Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president, once said, “Faith is the great motive power, and no man realizes his full possibilities unless he has the deep conviction that life is eternally important, and that his work, well done, is a part of an unending plan.”  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

St. Paul tells us the God’s foolishness is wiser than the world’s wisdom. He is someone who understands the majesty of God and the shipwreck of himself.  He is someone who glories in his weakness and exults in His Savior. One of the finest minds and most enduring minds the world has ever seen is content to be what he calls a “fool for Christ.”  Paul is a fool for the One who foolishly died for the fools, fears, and failures of the world.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I believe that everything I’ve tried to say to you in this sermon is good and right and true. But, you know what? I just might be wrong.


Bible References

  • Psalm 111:1 - 10

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