Looking down the dimly lit hallway, I saw what appeared to be gouges in our darkly stained floor. Concerned that the floor had been damaged somehow, I drew closer to get a better look.
Lying motionless, the snake had remained invisible. My eyes had registered its earth-toned skin and the diamond patterns along its back as either deep scratches in the wood or an odd play of the light from the adjacent kitchen.
Startled by my approach, the creature slithered quickly toward the closed door at the end of the hall. Blocked from escape, it writhed frantically from side to side on the threshold seeking a way out.
With the first hint of movement, my chest tightened, I stopped breathing, and my heart thumped against my rib cage. I suppose that’s what it means to be gripped by fear.
Something tells me that this kind of fear is not what the Psalmist or the writer of Proverbs meant when they said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ (Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 111:10)
I was responding to a threat. And it looked to me like the snake was having a similar reaction. My own reptile brain lurched at the perception of danger, presenting me with two options: fight or flight.
I can hardly believe that the Bible says, “The fight or flight impulse is the beginning of wisdom.” On the contrary, experience shows that fear of this kind nurtures our worst selves. Instead of trying to understand what frightens us, we demonize it and seek to destroy it. Fear becomes hate becomes violence.
Jesus encountered this kind of fear. Rumors about his mental instability began circulating. The religious power structure demonized him. (Mark 3:20-22) Who Jesus was, what he said, and what he did posed a threat to their very lives. At least, to the lives they were clinging to.
Jesus had a simple message. The Kingdom of God has drawn near. Things are changing. At a deep and abiding level. Right down to the root of things. In Jesus, God is making all things new. Especially the human heart.
That’s why Jesus included repentance in his basic message. To repent is to change your mind. To change your soul. Or, more to Jesus’s point, to repent is to die to an old life so that we can lean into the life that God is already giving us.
If Jesus had stuck to sermons and lectures, had he just held a few Bible classes and led some comforting worship services, he would have been easy to ignore or to make a few harmless jokes about. But Jesus’s message came in the form of action.
He freed hearts and minds from the demons that tormented them. Leprous skin gave way to healthy flesh. Paraplegics sold their wheelchairs on eBay.
In the midst of all this, Jesus challenged stale teachings. The Sabbath, he said, is made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry succinctly captures Jesus’s central theme. If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.
Jesus’s actions more than his words teach us about love. After all, he is love in the flesh. And those actions again and again show us that love is more than a mere affection. Love is a transforming power. Love brings justice and peace. Love brings healing and restoration. Love sets things right by making all things new.
When Jesus shows up, love has drawn near. That’s the Kingdom of God: the reign of infinite love.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said that we respond with awe when we see something so powerful that it exceeds reason’s ability to understand. When viewed from a safe distance, hurricanes and tornadoes allow us to imagine what it would be like for a finite being like us to be caught up in an overwhelming, infinite power like that.
Kant calls this the Sublime. And he insists that we’ll only learn about the infinite by keeping a safe distance from it. Otherwise, the infinite will sweep us away.
In Jesus we see that God wants more for us than an idea about God. In Jesus, the infinite braids itself into the finite. The infinite God seeks nothing less than unbroken intimacy. Love intends to sweep us away.
That’s what it means to experience awe: to be swept away with infinite love. Awe of the the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
But Kant is not entirely wrong. The power of infinite love is not safe. It can feel like a threat to the life to which we’ve grown accustomed. Love will sweep away a life built on what Richard Rohr calls the the three P’s: Power, Prestige, and Possessions.
If our religion gives us power, prestige, or possessions, that religious self will die. If love threatens our status, then we have a status that has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. If what we own makes us feel significant, then the power of love will make us insignificant.
In the face of Love, the false self dies. And a new self, a true self emerges. The true self is first and last a child a God. A child of God who recognizes in everyone another child of God. This is wisdom.
Awe, being swept away by love, is the beginning of such wisdom. As C. S. Lewis said of the lion Aslan, Love is not safe. But it is good. Love leads us through death to new life.