I have what I think of as a healthy fear of mountains. It’s been fashioned by a good deal of experience climbing them in the Lake District. It’s a fear that recognises their danger. How they need to be treated with respect. How one should not set off to climb them without being prepared.
So even on the sunniest day, treading familiar paths, all weather gear and the right maps are in my rucksack. Importantly however this fear of the mountains is a good thing. Without that fear I might take stupid risks.
Fear then though we might often think otherwise can be a good thing, it can help us. Job in our first reading had discovered that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ So I want us tonight to think a bit about how fear and wisdom belong together.
If we hand in mind images of God solely based on some verses we could highlight from the Bible, then we would understand fear in a very particular way. Indeed we’d likely be here with knees knocking ready to hear a bit of fire and brimstone from the pulpit, “We’re all doomed!”
Thankfully we hold those texts alongside that of what we know of God through Jesus. The fear we know then comes to us in a human face, a face who looks on us with love.
And whilst that shouldn’t undermine the potency or sense of reality of what might happen if… (think climbing the mountain on a winters day in trainers) or as if we don’t know our place, we are not God after all – this Godly fear, understood properly, helps shape our living and in some mysterious way fashions in us something of the wisdom of which Job spoke.
It seems to me that we human beings all seek wisdom. A wisdom that gets beneath the surface and helps make sense of some of the muddles of this life. And though we might think otherwise I’m not sure we have to look that far to find it, for we know something of it ourselves.
Whilst we sometimes complain that our church congregations are aging and see that as something solely negative perhaps we need also to recognise and celebrate the depth of wisdom amongst us. A wisdom that in some way has been acquainted and shaped with and through fear.
Just think of our history over the last 75 years, fear has been present as we have moved from the end of the Second World War, to the cold war.
From being on the brink of nuclear war through the Cuban missile crisis, to the oil crisis, power cuts and the dead being left on the streets.
And though we seem to make the same mistakes again and again, remarkably we are still here. We didn’t engage in nuclear Armageddon, the cold war has ended, the wall did fall, and apartheid was overturned.
These experiences should help us take the long view. Should give us a wisdom that invites us to dare that bit more in each other, to always be hopeful even when faced with the fears of today. Think of the Gospel’s and of how fear often accompanies something new happening.
That brings me to the reading from Hebrews, in which the writer is highlighting for the reader the long view. He talks of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, great figures in Israel’s history who all knew fear and so says of their stories ‘By faith, By Faith, By Faith.’
That sense of by faith is something which, if we think of our own stories can echo for ourselves. For though we have known fear we have not been defined by it. We might even say that those times when fear have been present have with hindsight been a good thing, have helped us grow given us a bit of wisdom to share.
That is, if we are listening both to God and each other. Though we seek deep wisdom, we are surrounded by a society obsessed with youth. We want leaders with good looks, full of vim and vigour. And whilst they have their place, we also need to make space to listen to those who have been there before. The wisdom forged by the past, applied with grace, care and thoughtfulness can help shape the present.
Isaac, Jacob and Joseph who lived to grand old ages were revered for their wisdom. Perhaps as a society we need to find ways to hear afresh the wisdom of those so often put out to pasture.
Fear and Wisdom. So fear isn’t all bad. We need it in terms of remembering who we are in relation to God. We are not everything, we are chaff, dust and ashes. And yet remarkably that fear of the Lord doesn’t diminish our living but informs it and as our fear is transformed by faith somehow wisdom emerges.
When Job says ‘truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom’ he does so having lived, having pondered the earth and all that he hears and sees. He has come to recognise that there is no place, no experience where God does not dwell. If we believe that then we do need to be reminded time and again ‘that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.