(Proverbs 9:10, Exodus 3:4-6, Odes of Solomon 8:1-6, 7:1-5)
“Reverence for the One Beyond Name is the beginning of wisdom”
This One, Whose Name is beyond any name, whose name is like the wind, like the breath, like the stillness of deepest ocean or the farthest void in space, this One has been known to have come close enough that some have been swept into the hem of God’s hurricane, and some have felt deep within them the stirring of God’s tremendous even terrible love.
“Do not come any closer,” the Voice said to Moses. “Remove your sandals, for you are on holy ground.”
Moses hid his face, for he was too afraid to look.
Reverence is the beginning of wisdom.
Reverence. Often this is mistaken as “fear” – “fear of the Lord” – and it’s often mistaken to mean fear of punishment. But the Hebrew here means “reverence,” “awe.”
It’s a posture of our entire being, one that comes from being struck by awe: our mouths dropped, our arms thrown wide, our hands opens, body bowed to kiss the ground, as grace, sweet thundering grace rains over us.
This posture of being – this act of reverence – is the beginning of wisdom, because it empties us of ourselves and opens us to receive what we may of something that is so large it contains multitudes.
We call things “holy” when they put us in this posture of reverence.
The glories of God’s creation: standing before the peak of Mr. Rainier we feel reverence, or gazing down into the canyons of the Snake River. Sitting in the open space of a sanctuary we feel reverence, or sitting in the stillness of a chapel or a temple, or in a spot nestled in the roots beneath the canopy of a willow beside a stream. Holy places evoke reverence.
Great music evokes this reverence … great stories and testimonies … true acts of love and courage … honest prayers.
The birthing room evokes this reverence.
Graveyards evoke this reverence.
On this day, I must remember to us how the 9 11 memorial is a place that evokes this kind of reverence. The footprints of the Twin Towers are now deep empty spaces. Water flows across the brink and into the giant gaps. The flow soothes the edges but never fills the void. It is awesome and awful. It evokes, provokes reverence. We stand, confronted by memory, and feel the connect of life to death to life anew, feel our collective belonging, feel beauty and brokenness, feel the weight of sin and folly and tragedy, and feel the lift of the possibility of redemption.
Reverence is not just a solemn attitude. These moments of reverence are moments when our perspective widens and we know how brief we all are and how beautiful, how fragile and precious, and how connected we are with something, Someone that is much, much greater than ourselves. From that can come great peace. And from that can even come great joy and delight.
“Open! Open your hearts to the dancing joy of the Lord,” says the Odes of Solomon. These are early Christian prayers, the Odes of Solomon.
“Open your hearts to the dancing joy of the Great One, the Supreme One, the Lord. And let your love abound from heart to lips. Stand and be restored, all of you who were once flattened. Speak, you who were silent, because your mouth has been opened. From now on be lifted up, you who were destroyed, since your justice has been raised.”
This is most awesome thing about this Holy One, this One Beyond Name: God does indeed come close to us, to connects with us as we are to free us and lift us up.
As the Odes of Solomon put it:
“Indeed God’s kindness has shrunk God’s immensity. He became like me, so that I might receive him. She seemed like me in form so that I would put her on. So I did not tremble when I saw the Great One, because they were compassionate to me. They became like my own nature, so that I might join with them.” This compassion, this lowering, this joining of Godself to us is the phenomenon we call “Christ.”
If we don’t turn back from that, if our awe and our desire draw us closer, and we say “Yes,” we can experience how God is with us as we are. This kind of experience leaves us awestruck, uplifted, uncorked. And so we grow in wisdom.
The beginning of wisdom is reverence for the One who is Beyond and yet is Here.
This wisdom is a joyful kind of wisdom, as much as it’s a solemn kind.
As the Odes of Solomon put it, the opposite of irreverence is joy.
So there is a kind of reverence in revelry, you could say, in sharing joy, as we are now … in basking together in the light and the fresh air of God’s creation, in singing together, dancing together, praying together, breaking bread together … all with the knowledge that this all is brief, and beautiful, and full of precious fleeting opportunities to taste what is eternal.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla’s Picnic in Wildwood Park Service, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg, on September 11, 2016)
(Image: Dance orchestra of death (La grant danse macabre des hommes et des femme), Nicolas Le Rouge, 1496)