THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 5, 2014; 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Exodus 20:1-20; Philippians 3:1-14
“[The people] said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen;
but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’”
My, but these are fearful times!
That’s what a lot of us have been thinking, the past couple weeks, isn’t it? Glance at the TV news. Listen to the car radio. Scan the email subject lines piled up in your inbox. Even have a chat with your neighbors, in the checkout line or beside the water-cooler at work. You can’t get away from it: two words seem to be on every tongue: Ebola and ISIS (or ISIL, if you prefer).
The fear, in both cases, has a focus. The focus is: a grisly death. Take your choice. Either you bleed out from every orifice in your body, or some black-hooded terrorist puts you in an orange jumpsuit, pushes you to your knees before a video camera and slices off your head with some God-awful medieval scimitar.
As exaggerated as they may be, we can’t escape those fears. How could we, with the 24-hour news cycle blaring them in our ears? (The news media loves to incite fear, by the way, because fearful stories drawmore viewers, which in turn draw more advertisers.)
You and I live in fear of these things, even though — practically speaking — the fear is scarcely rational.
Every infectious-disease expert assures us Ebola is not very contagious. Yes, healthcare workers who handle blood or other body fluids need to take very careful precautions. But that doesn’t mean the virus is going airborne, traveling on the puffs of air we breathe. Yes, one single case has made it across the ocean to America — just one so far, and that patient is in strict quarantine. It’s very, very unlikely, say all the experts — so unlikely, it doesn’t even make it onto the statistical charts — that Ebola’s ever going to break out in North America the way it’s broken out in West Africa.
As for ISIS, we’ve been talking about them in hushed tones for months — ever since they morphed from the “j.v.” terror team to the varsity. Yet, as terrifying as those grisly execution videos were — and as alarming as are the tales of the still-small number of Americans who have traveled to Syria to join that Satanic army — the group just doesn’t have the reach to bring murder and mayhem on a vast scale to the American continent.
But still, we remain a nation gripped by fear of these twin catastrophes — as unlikely as they are.
That’s what fear does. It grips the imagination, sends reason fleeing for the hills and sets up housekeeping in our otherwise rational minds.
Fear of the Lord
We read about fear in our Old Testament lesson this morning — though you may have missed it. After our reading of the Ten Commandments, we came to this peculiar line: “[The people] said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’” The people aren’t saying Moses has control over God. What they are suggesting is that, if Moses will just intercede himself between them and the almighty, they just might live to see another day.
To most modern-day people, the thought of God as a power to be feared seems to belong to the dark ages. Quite the contrary, to hear many religious folks talk, you’d think God was their neighbor across the back fence: a cheerful, comforting presence — and besides, you can always go over there and borrow a cup of sugar if you run short.
Yet, that’s not the view of a goodly portion of the Hebrew scriptures. The Lord banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden by sending an angel to brandish a flaming sword. When all the people of the earth grow wicked, God smites them with a devastating flood, causing genocide on a mass scale — sparing only the faithful Noah and his family. When Moses asks the Lord for a convincing argument to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go, nothing seems to work: until the Lord dispatches an angel of death to walk amongst Egypt’s middle-class subdivisions, slaying every firstborn son but passing over the children of Israel in the low-income neighborhoods.
Just before the passage we read this morning, God tells Moses, at the foot of Mount Sinai: “You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live.’” (Ex. 19:12-13)
A few verses later, God instructs Moses: “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them.” (19:20-21) A Lord who “breaks out against them” and causes some to perish? Hardly a warm, fuzzy, touchy-feely God, here. This God is dangerous.
You may remember, too, an incident that happens later on in the story of God’s people, from the days when they carried the tablets of the law around inside a wooden box known as the Ark of the Covenant. A Levite named Uzzah was transporting the ark on a cart, and when it started to slip off, he reached his hand out to catch it. No sooner did he do that, says 2 Samuel, but “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah…. David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?”(2 Samuel 6:7–9).
In an old Seinfeld episode, George Costanza gets it into his head that he’s about to die, just as he’s starting to see some real success in life. He goes to see his therapist, complaining that he just knows, somehow, God will never allow him to succeed.
His therapist is surprised by that remark. She says to George, “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
“I do for the bad stuff!” he shoots back.
Well, the God of these early books of the Old Testament sounds an awful lot like God of the bad stuff!
The Beginning of Wisdom
In the Call to Worship, we spoke that famous line from Psalm 111: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Well, there are some who interpret that verse by saying, “The word ‘fear’ is really just a synonym for awe or respect.” In light of the verses we’ve just examined, though, I’d say no. It can’t be only that. Fear — terrifying, nail-biting fear — does seem an appropriate emotion in the presence of this dangerous God of ancient Israel: flooder of the earth, slayer of firstborns, high-tension spiritual power line you touch at your peril.
If this sort of fear is indeed the beginning of wisdom, then I know more than a few people who would say: “I want nothing to do with that!”
Well, I think the truth is, God wants nothing to do with that, either. God seems to have a higher purpose in mind than just scaring the bejeebers out of a bunch of middle-eastern nomads.
Surely the Lord comes to realize this is a big, hairy problem. If God’s deepest desire is to interact with the human inhabitants of this earth in a loving way, and just showing up sends them running for the exits, screaming, then it’s time for a new approach.
God simply can’t come in the usual way. God can’t come in strength. God can’t display the pure, raw essence of divinity. God wants to show love for humanity, but this is impossible under the usual circumstances.
So, God tries something very, very different. No more smiting. No more pillars of fire. No more cosmic cataclysms. Just a baby, weak and crying, born to a human mother. That baby grows up to become a man who displays rare gifts of healing and compassion, who teaches wisdom, who feeds the multitudes. He’s still got that fire in the belly, though. It comes out as he crusades for justice, turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple.
Yet, what does this man, Jesus, say over and over, as his most favored greeting — especially after he’s come back from the dead? “Do not be afraid” is what he says. He doesn’t want us to be afraid — not anymore, not as in the days of old. He wants us, rather, to taste love, to know love, to learn to share love with others.
There’s a scene in C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy (one of the Chronicles of Narnia) when a mare by the name Hwin is meeting Aslan, the lion, for the first time. Aslan, of course, is the character in those novels who symbolizes Jesus Christ.
“Please,” she says to him — observing this mighty lion in all his terrifying power. “You’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.”
Yet here’s the wonder of it all. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of that deadly, terrifying God of the Hebrew scriptures. Yet, he has no desire to devour us. Instead, our Lord hands us a piece of bread, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.” Then he passes a cup of wine, deep red in color: “Take and drink, this is my blood, the blood of the new covenant.” It’s not like the covenant of old. This is not a covenant built on fear. This is a covenant of love.
O taste and see that the Lord is good!