Harrowing Of Hell
December 4, 2016

Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Today we’re going to meet three characters: King Solomon, Uncle Jon and Niece Nancy. King Solomon, you may know as the author of the Book of Proverbs, and a very wise man. He is going to help us understand humility and the role it plays in bringing about unity where there is division. And Uncle Jon and Niece Nancy will help us, I hope, understand how to better navigate complicated family gatherings. These three will be our guides through today’s sermon.

We’ll start with King Solomon. My mind turned to him when I heard the line from Isaiah today: “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” (Isa 11:2b) Solomon said the same kind of thing at the beginning of the Book of Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov 1:7a) We’ll get back to what fear of the Lord means later, but needless to say, it is a fundament concept that helps us find unity in division, and can give us a steady state of equanimity when cranky Uncle Jon and high-energy Niece Nancy start to get into it, whatever “it” is, during the holiday meal.

But first a story about King Solomon. It comes from Jewish folklore, and teaches how humility rightly orders us in relationship to God and creation. The story goes like this: King Solomon sensed there was some discord in his court, and it came, he thought, from the arrogance of the captain of his Palace Guard, Benaiah. So to teach Benaiah a lesson in humility he called him into his presence and gave him an impossible task. “I have heard,” Solomon said, “of a fabulous ring that has unique power. When a sad man gazes upon it, he becomes happy. But when a happy man gazes upon it, he becomes sad. Find this ring and bring it to me!” So Benaiah sets out in search of the ring.

He travels from town to town to town inquiring as to its whereabouts. But no one had ever heard of such a ring. And just as he was about to give up he spotted a junk shop, whose proprietor was sitting out front. So, Benaiah approached the man and described the object of his search. “A ring that cheers the sad, and saddens the cheerful?” said the junk dealer. “Come inside with me.” They entered the shop, and from a boxful of jewelry the junk dealer plucked a plain, silver ring. He then engraved some words on it and gave it to Benaiah. Benaiah read the inscription and nodded and thanked the junk deal and headed back to the palace.

Now Solomon was expecting an unsuccessful and humbled Benaiah to return,
so when Benaiah strode in and handed him the ring, the king was taken aback.
This was not what he expected. He took the ring and read the inscription, and sighed. He then took off all of the rich, costly rings that adorned his fingers and put on this simple, silver ring. Then Solomon said to Benaiah, “It was I who needed the lesson in humility. This ring reminds me that even my power is fleeting.” Upon the ring was written: “This too shall pass.” “This too shall pass.” The happiness shall pass. The sadness shall pass.

It was Solomon’s arrogance that under-minded his Palace Court. It was his trust and confidence in his own position and leadership and ideas and perspective and power that gave him cause to judge Benaiah for some perceived failing… and then he read the ring: this too shall pass. (story taken from The Book of King Solomon)

It is a statement to hold in the back of our minds this holiday season when Uncle Jon and Niece Nancy begin the dinner table debate. This too shall pass is a statement that strikes against false idols. It holds them up to remind us of their fleeting influence. It strikes against arrogance and self-centeredness and strong opinion proclaimed, louder and louder, as absolute truth. This too shall pass gives perspective on the Presidential election, and the President-elect,and the opinions of Uncle Jon and Niece Nancy…

In and of its self “this too shall pass” is a universal truth because whatever “this” is,
it too shall pass except in one, singular case… God. As Jesus says: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away.” (Matt 24:35)

Which brings us back to where we began this sermon with, “the Fear of the Lord.”
To get our minds around this idea of the fear of the Lord, let’s first, think about what fear does; then second, look at the nuanced definition of fear in the context of Proverbs and Isaiah. To help us understand what fear does think back with me, for a moment, to elementary school. Maybe there was a bully in your class? There was in mine. And fear of this bully made me acutely aware of him, and what he was doing, and where he was, and where I was in relationship to where he was at any given moment in time. It was a survival technique that worked… I survived elementary school!

Well, fear of the Lord is sort of like that. Fear increases our focus and attentiveness. Now the difference, of course, between God and a bully is that God is good, God loves us, God has our eternal best interests in mind. And we know that most assuredly when we are paying attention to God. Fear focuses our attention, which is why it is the word used here by Isaiah and King Solomon. But it is important to note, also, that fear in this context has nuanced meaning. The Hebrew word for fear, in these readings, can be translated as awe or respect or profound reverence. Fear used this way is like the experience we have when standing in front of master work of art, or hearing an amazing aria, or witnessing a bicycle kick that scores the winning goal, or watching a child sleep… Fear is like one of those emotions, except to the power of 100, which is why Isaiah says: “His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Solomon claims that this fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

What he means here is the same thing Jesus meant when he said: “heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of God will not pass away.” Solomon is saying that paying attention to God, first and foremost, puts everything else in the right perspective.
It is humbling to know that when all of the powers and principalities and priorities and politics and pundits and any other “p” word you can think of passes away, God remains. God is the foundation. God is the thing upon which everything else rests, even Uncle Jon and Niece Nancy’s political opinions… both are included in the oneness of God. That is the vision. That is God’s vision. It is so big and inclusive that it looks like “the wolf living with the lamb; the leopard lying down with the kid; the calf and the lion and the fatling together; and the little child leading them…” (Isa 11:6) That is the radical metaphor of unity, our unity, which includes everyone, together uncles and nieces, Republicans and Democrats, even Russian, Iranian, American… and even Canadians.

God is at the center, the point omega, and beginning, the thing to pay attention to.
God is the foundation upon which other ideas and interests and perspective
not only rest, but were founded. Knowing this, and believing this, The fear of the Lord, this is the beginning of wisdom, so delight in it.

Now let me finish here by saying one more thing so you don’t leave here today believing I’m only an advocate of sitting passively and gazing upon God. I am not.
Fear of the Lord is active. It means looking for God, seeking God, thinking about God, studying the ways of God, which leads to knowing the vision of God, and what role you or I are to play in it. It is a beautiful vision; it is a vision of unity in relationship, that gives us clarity about how to live and how to act, and what to do.

Which is helpful as we sit down for Christmas dinner with Uncle Jon and Niece Nancy. Wisdom will tell us (and you can take this to the dinner table) that there is nothing we can say or do or show either one of them that will change their minds
about whatever the “it” is that they are arguing about. Nothing. So instead, settle into God’s vision, into this unity of relationship, by just loving on them; humbly and gracefully loving on them. Yes, actions matter; so do arguments, but not with relatives. Just love on them. That is why God put them in your life; not to change their minds, but to fill their hearts with love.

This Advent and Christmas season fear the Lord, be attentive to God; and ever mindful that God is the foundation upon which all else rests. Be wise, like King Solomon, so that you can have a delightful time with your uncles and nieces and friends this holiday season.

Sermon Reflection Questions
• Think about a time when you got caught up in a political debate,
and by the skill of your argument you changed the other person´s
mind. If that´s never happened, consider why not, and consider
the outcome of that conversation.
• What are the things you do to help you remember that God is the
• How would you describe the “fear of the Lord“ to someone?