Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Meaning of Life

Ps. 111; Eph. 5:15-21[1]

We live in an amazing era. We are surrounded by more information than at any other time in human history—literally at our fingertips! There is virtually no fact or information that you cannot look up on the internet. On-line encyclopedias, which were once frowned upon, have become wonderful learning tools. In fact, I’ve said numerous times that the internet is one giant encyclopedia! And yet we seem unable to translate all that information into making our lives more meaningful—and we all tend to struggle with the whole question of meaning in life. That’s not a question you can “Google” or look up on the internet and expect to find answer in 30 seconds or less.

Part of the problem is that there is a vast difference between information and wisdom. Information is as accessible as a reliable source. If you have a readily accessible source, it’s easy to get information. Wisdom, on the other hand, is something very different. Wisdom is like learning a skill, where you have to develop “muscle memory.” That’s what athletes and musicians strive to achieve in their practice routines. But “muscle memory” doesn’t happen overnight. It must be learned and developed over time and repeated practice.

Wisdom is like that. The wisdom that translates into a meaningful way of life must be cultivated. The writers of the Hebrew Bible called it “the fear of the LORD.” I dare say that’s not your favorite phrase from the Bible, because we don’t much like the whole association between religion and fear. After all, fear only goes so far as a motivation—when the one we fear isn’t looking, we tend to do whatever we please. But we should not assume too quickly that “the fear of the LORD” is that kind of fear.[2]

Our Psalm for today gives us a hint in the right direction. It’s a curious Psalm in that it praises Yahweh for all the wonderful attributes that make our God so unique—faithfulness, righteousness, and compassion. Then it concludes by saying, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Ps. 111:10). That seems like a strange way to conclude a psalm of praise for God’s wonderful deeds! And yet, the implication is that “the fear of the LORD” is to understand that the whole way of being demonstrated by God’s actions is “the will of the LORD”—and then to put it into practice in our daily lives.[3]

What does it look like, then to practice “the “fear of the LORD” in daily life? It seems to me that Jesus is one who lived his whole life in reverence to God. As one of our recent confessions puts it,

“Jesus lived with a constant sense of his Father’s presence. He put God’s claim on his life above all else. He joined others in God’s worship and praise. He drew strength from the Scriptures. He prayed and taught his disciples to pray.”[4]

That sounds like an excellent description of the way of life defined as “the fear of the LORD.” Jesus summarized this lifestyle in different words that are familiar to us all: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] I can think of no better way to define “the fear of the LORD” than to say that it is a way of living that puts those two great principles into practice in all of life.[6]

I think this gives us some background to Paul’s admonition to “watch carefully how you live, not as fools but as wise” (Eph. 5:15).[7] In the Bible those who are “foolish” blatantly do that which leads to their own demise.[8] The way of wisdom, on the other hand, is a life filled by the Holy Spirit[9]—bearing the fruit of the Spirit, serving in the strength the Spirit provides, adopting the attitudes inspired by the spirit, attitudes of joy and gratitude and humility and respect. It’s a way of life that is defined by the grace and mercy that we extend to others as a result of our experience of God’s generous grace and mercy. It’s a way of life that is defined by the faith by which we entrust ourselves to that mysterious and wonderful power of love that surrounds us all. It’s a way of life that is defined by following Jesus’ example of selfless love and sacrificial service to others. It’s a way of life that is truly meaningful.

Call it what you will—“the fear of the LORD,” the way of wisdom, following Jesus in discipleship, the life of the Spirit—that’s where true meaning is found in life. It’s found by living the life of loving God and loving others.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/16/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] There is a sense of awe in the “fear of the LORD,” awe inspired by the recognition that God is far beyond our ability to grasp or even imagine. Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 357; R. E. Murphy, Proverbs, 255.

[3] This observation is reinforced by the fact that most scholars will say Psalm 111 and 112 go together. The gist of Psalm 112 is a beatitude about those who “fear the LORD” by keeping the commands, and living the qualities of faithfulness, compassion, righteousness. Cf. Mays, Psalms, 355, 357. Cf. similarly ibid., 360: “This correlation between the praise of the LORD and the commendation of the upright is the Psalm’s way of teaching that the works of the LORD can and should shape the life of the righteous.”

[4] Declaration of Faith, 1978 PCUS; adopted by PCUSA in 1991. Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 34: “Because ‘the LORD reigns,’ human beings may and must praise in wonder and joy, pray in dependence and gratitude, and practice the piety of trust and obedience.”

[5] Remember that Jesus said the whole of the Law and the Prophets was summed up in these 2 commandments. Cf. Mays, Psalms, 357: “wisdom comes from learning and living torah, the instruction of the LORD.”

[6] Cf. Gerhard Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 67-68; cf. also Murphy, Proverbs, 257; Mays, Psalms, 35: those who “fear the LORD” are the “the righteous” whose “character and conduct [are] shaped and guided by trust in and loyalty to the LORD as God and King.”

[7] We hesitate to use the word “fool” due to the influence of the KJV rendition of Jesus’ statement, “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22)! But there is a difference between the language Jesus was prohibiting—language that demeans and diminishes another human being—and the language of the wisdom tradition of Scripture.

[8] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs, 20: the “foolishness” in Proverbs is “not simple lack of knowledge but an active aversion to it, an aversion arising from cowardice, pride, or laziness.”

[9] Cf. similarly in the Psalms, where wisdom is the fruit of a relationship with God—wisdom “begins with knowing and obeying the LORD” (Mays, Psalms, 358).

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