“Should We Fear the Lord?”
1 Praise the Lord!
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 honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.
When we usually heard the word “fear,” we think of something bad. We fear thieves breaking into our homes. We fear an illness coming upon a family member. Or we fear the loss of a job. We fear things that are destructive, hurtful, and bad for us.
But here in Psalm 111, and again in Proverbs 9:10 we are told to fear the Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And this command to fear the Lord is not just found in these two passages, but throughout scripture.
For myself, at least, this is hard to understand. I believe that God wants good for us, and not harm. I believe that God is not full of malevolence and hate and destruction, but wants to heal us and lead us into a more full life. And while we are told to fear the Lord, we are also told throughout scripture to not be afraid, to be full of faith and hope and good news and live bold and fearless lives.
So today I think it is worth exploring what “The fear of the Lord” means. What did it mean to these writers of Psalms and Proverbs and the Law? And what can it mean for us to Fear the Lord and also live lives full of courage and daring?
The first place to start is with what that word fear actually means. The Hebrew word for it in this passage and in proverbs is yirah. It literally means a “flowing of the gut.”
This past week our youth group went to Busch Gardens. And I can tell you that as I climbed up one of the roller coasters, The Griffon, I experienced that feeling in my gut. It was my body telling me to get ready. Hold on. This is going to be special and scary and awesome.
My gut wasn’t telling me that something bad was going to happen, but instead that I was about to experience something strange and crazy and powerful and unforgettable. It was telling me that this was going to be a moment when I was not going to be in control.
In scripture, when yirah is combined with the Lord, it doesn’t mean God is bad or evil or harmful. In our Psalm today, everything before the phrasie “the fear of the Lord is a reminder of how good God is, how much God has protected us, delivered us, watched over us, loved us and forgiven us.
Nor does yirah mean that we should live in terror, and in run away and hide. That’s not what God wants from us. Adam and Eve do that when they realize they are naked in the garden, and God is disappointed when they do. God wants to be with them, just like God wants to be with us.
Instead of yirah means that you are about to experience something totally different and strange and wonderful from what you know on a daily basis. Yirah is realizing that you are not the one in complete control. Yirah is knowing that there is one more powerful than yourself, and that one cannot be limited or boxed in or controlled – by anything, but especially by us humans. Yirah is what happens to people like you and me when we meet the One who made heaven and earth, who created the creatures of the sea and the stars in the sky, who speaks in towers of fire and who casts out demons. It is what happens when we meet the very source of all that is all that will ever be. Yirah is our stomach telling us, “get ready for something life changing.”
There is a great scene in the book the Chronicles of Narnia. The four Pevensie kids have walked through the wardrobe and found themselves in Narnia. While hiding from the White Witch, the keep hearing rumors of Aslan, a figure who is coming back to claim this land as his own. They think he is a human, until Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who are helping them hide, tell them he is a lion, and not just any lion, but “the great lion.”
Hearing there is a lion coming back into this land, Susan, the oldest and wisest, asks about Aslan, “Is he quite safe? I shall feel very nervous about meeting a lion.”
In response Mr. Beaver laughs and simply says, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king.”
Like Aslan, God is not safe. God is not a simple grandfather who pats us on the head and gives us treats whenever we want. Instead, God rolls down justice and speaks truth to corruption. God lifts up the lowly and brings down the haughty. God speaks and mountains move. God challenges us, moves in us, corrects us, rebukes us, but fills us up again with mercy and grace. Hearing God’s message can shake us to the core.
But God is always good. God uses yirah not to turn us away, but to draw us near and change us from the inside out. The Fear of the Lord does not mean to hide from God as if God is some evil tyrant ready to attack and destroy. It means instead to get ready, because you are about to see something extraordinary and your life will never be the same.
One of the most powerful scenes of this fear, Yirah, is when Moses goes up to Mt. Sinai. He is going up there, not to receive something bad, but to receive something very, very good. He is going up there to receive the Covenant of the Lord, the promise of God’s love and fellowship and support. It’s Gods promise to always be alive and at work in this world.
But as Moses goes up to meet God and receive this gift, he realizes that this is going to be a moment unlike any other. And even he is unsure about seeing so much of God’s glory and power.
Exodus 19 describes the scene this way:
“16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast… Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”
Thunder. Lightning. Fire consuming a mountain. Smoke coming down and covering all we see. A trumpet blast and the very earth trembling.
About this scene, Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“The God of Moses is not the grandfatherly type, a kind old deity who can be counted on to take the kids places without ever letting them get hurt. The God of Moses is holy, offering no seatbelts or safety features to those who wish to climb the mountain and enter the dark cloud of the divine presence. Those who go assume all risk and give up any claim of reward. But those who return say the dazzling dark cloud is reward enough.”
We are called not to pay homage to an idol of stone. But we are called to come and see and discover this God who shakes the earth, parts the skies, and moves our guts, saying “Get ready. Because I am about to really show you something.” The fear of the Lord is a reminder that The Lord’s power and might, love and mercy, creativity and wonder, demands every part of our lives.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That message for us this day is not to hide from God or run away. It is instead the exact opposite. Be filled with courage and hope. And approach God with a readiness to be amazed. Yirah is an invitation to meet God, as someone who more beautiful and holy and good and loving than we could ever imagine.
Is God safe? No. Meeting God is will forever change your life. You are going to be flipped upside down and inside out. Everything is going to be different. But God is good. And God is ready to show you something that will truly get your gut flowing. Amen.