Pentecost 16c

Preached: September 12, 2010

Wisdom Learns in Reverent Fear
Proverbs 9:8-12

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit brings us wisdom is Proverbs 9.

Don't correct a scoffer, or he will hate you; correct a wise person, and he will love you. Give [instruction] to a wise person, and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous person, and he will add to his learning. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord; knowledge of the Holy One is discernment. For through me (wisdom) your days will be many, and the years of your life will increase. If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it. (Proverbs 9:8-12)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

Stephen Hawking has just authored a new book. He's arguably the most renowned physicist since Einstein. He suffers from a neuro-muscular dystrophy that's related to ALS but has become a public icon in his motorized wheelchair and with his voice synthesizer. He's a very smart man. Much smarter than any of us.

But he has no true wisdom. In his new book, The Grand Design, he declares that under M-Theory many, many universes spontaneously have come into existence and the one that happened to have the right set up for life is the one we're in. So you no longer need a god. You don't even need him to light the fuse to get things started or to explain why the laws of nature are just right for human life. It all would eventually happen, given enough universes. So his new book declares.

But, dear friends, the very beginning of wisdom, its fundamental principle, starts with the fear of the Lord. No matter how smart, intelligent, bright, gifted, skillful, knowledgeable, insightful a person is in the ways of the world, he or she has no true wisdom without the fear of the Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10 NIV). So don't be deceived by them.

But we're not here to criticize a great physicist. In fact, even mentioning what I have tempts us to an arrogance that figures we've got it made since we know the Lord. That's the kind of pride that leads us to fall from God's family and end up worse than someone who never was a child of God. So watch yourself. True wisdom has no place for such pride or arrogance. Rather wisdom learns in reverent fear. That's the theme this morning.

A. Humbly receive the Lord's correction

You see, true wisdom humbly receives the Lord's correction. “Rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still; teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning” (Proverbs 9:8, 9 NIV). True wisdom is not complacent with what already know. It wants to know the Lord better. That's why we love the Lord's correction and discipline. It adds to our wisdom.

It's the fear of the Lord that brings us this mindset that is ready to learn his wisdom more and more with humbleness and eagerness. So let's talk about what that phrase means: the fear of the Lord.

The slave cringes as his master's whip slices across his back. That's not the fear of the Lord that brings wisdom. That kind of fear brings only terror and hatred. It wants to run away, as far way as possible. It wants to hide, as Adam and Eve hid after they sinned against God. This is the fear that fills the unforgiven heart, the fear that's brought by guilt and the consciousness of the punishment that's justly deserved.

The fear of the Lord that brings wisdom does not swim in those icy waters of terror, hatred, and guilt. Rather it bathes in the warmth of the Lord's overflowing love and forgiveness. Maybe that sounds like a contradiction. We often pit fear and love as working against each other. And yet, how often haven't you recited the explanation to the commandments: “We should fear and love God . . .”? Have you pondered how those two fit together?

Such fear and love exist in harmony only in the heart of faith that trusts God's forgiveness in Jesus. For he is the Lord, who freely made his promise of forgiveness and faithful kept it on the cross. If we try to just focus on God's love and forgiveness ignoring the fear of the Lord, Satan easily misleads us into abusing God's love and forgiveness. You see that so much in the world day. No doubt, like me, you have struggled with it in your own heart. How easy to begin to imagine that since God loves us, he must be like a good buddy. He'll be there for me. He'll support me. He'll see me through, no matter what I do. So I can just do as I please, and if I feel like it, I can give him a call. How that abuses God's love and turns his forgiveness into a license to sin!

But faith doesn't say, “Since God loves me and forgives, I can do as I please.” Rather faith says, “Since God loves me and forgives me, I want to serve him. I want to obey his commands. I want his word to be my will. I want to stand in awe and reverence of his holiness.” Now you are beginning to understand the true fear of the Lord that brings wisdom. Wisdom learns in reverent fear.

This fear of the Lord delights in his commands and hates what is evil, just as he hates evil. It does not think of using his forgiveness as a license to sin. For the fear of the Lord holds him in too high of regard to think of abusing his love in that way. He is the Lord, who out of pure grace has freely made his promises and faithful keeps them. In him alone there is forgiveness. He alone is the Savior-God. Why would I dishonor his name? Why would I assault his holiness? Why would I break his commandments and go against him? Rather hold him in the highest regard. Esteem him with the greatest awe. Fear the Lord. Wisdom learns in reverent fear.

Maybe the closest comparison we have are children to their father. Children know how much their father loves them, but they also know that when necessary he disciplines them. He corrects, rebukes, instructs them. Rather than destroying their love for him, this confirms and builds it. There we see that childlike fear working hand-in-hand with love. How much more so when we look to our heavenly Father in that childlike fear and love!

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For then we humble ourselves under our heavenly Father's discipline and instruction. We know that his love does not fail. For he is the Lord, the unchanging I-AM. So as harsh and hard as life may be, he is training, teaching us true wisdom. So humbly receive the Lord's instruction. For wisdom learns in reverent fear.

B. Continue growing in wisdom all your life

But all we've talked about is just the beginning. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10 NIV), the text said. We don't come to a point like Baptism or confirmation or graduation and say, “Now I've learned enough.” Even if you had the entire Bible memorized word for word and could answer any trivia question about it, you would still be at the beginning of wisdom. In fact, if all that knowledge was not combined with the fear of the Lord in faith, you wouldn't even have started with true wisdom yet. For true wisdom not only knows the facts it cherishes God's truth. It treasures his message. It gladly hears his Word. It daily practices his commands and whole-heartedly believes his promises. It honors him in our choices and decisions. It glorifies him in our words and actions. His wisdom becomes more and more a part of the way we think, feel, speak, and act. It shapes our character, thoughts, emotions, attitude, wants, disposition, and behavior. How far we have yet to grow in this wisdom! In fact, our entire life on this earth is just a beginning. So, dear friend, continue to grow in wisdom all your life -- not in the wisdom of this world, but the wisdom that's built on the fear of the Lord.

Someone else cannot do this for you. Yes, the Lord sends us pastors and teachers to proclaim his Word, but they cannot make you take that word to heart so that you grow in wisdom. You reap what you sow. Or consider how Proverbs puts it, “If you are wise, your wisdom will reward you; if you are a mocker, you alone will suffer” (Proverbs 9:12 NIV). Your growth in wisdom happens inside you. If you grow, you yourself benefit. If you regress, you're the one who suffers.

For example, if you send your children to Sunday school, that's good. They are growing in wisdom as God's Word is brought into their hearts. But if you aren't growing in God's Word as well, your faith will not benefit, no matter how much your children learn. Just as a wife cannot believe for her husband, or vice-versa, we cannot grow in wisdom for someone else. And if you stopped growing in wisdom because you got confirmed and figured you were done, you've been dying since that day. That kind of thinking is type of mockery, as if you were saying, “God I put in my time and got confirmed. You'd better take care of me as I live my life my way.” “If you are a mocker, you alone will suffer” (Proverbs 9:12 NIV), Proverbs declares.

But how often haven't each of us missed opportunities to grow in wisdom? We watched another TV program instead of taking a little time to spend with our God in his word. We let the busy activities of life interfere with studying his Word with our god-given pastor or hearing it publicly preached in worship. Or maybe we do we put in our time Sunday morning, but leave the message at church, never thinking about it during the week or putting it into practice in our daily lives.

You and I are guilty. We deserve for God to leave us. But instead Jesus, who is divine Wisdom, declares to you, “I came for you, sinner. I became flesh and blood and died in your place. My sacrifice pays for your sin. For see, I rose from the dead, the pledge and seal of your forgiveness. I now come to you through my Word and Sacraments. Don't despise me by neglecting them. Take to heart my message of forgiveness. For that is the Good News that brings you to delight in my commands and to grow in true wisdom.”

Yes, dear friends, continue to grow in wisdom all your life as you humbly receive the Lord's instruction. For you see, wisdom keeps on learning in reverent fear. (That's the theme to take home.) For “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10 NIV).

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313