“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” As I speak and as my brothers and sisters listen, give us a deeper sense of reverence for you, that in so speaking and doing, we would love you more as we know you more. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
What does it mean to know something, or someone?
Our temptation is to equate familiarity with knowledge. We think that because we are familiar with something, we know it. We think that because we see someone regularly, we know them.
But I want to suggest today that there is a world of difference between familiarity and knowledge.
It’s the difference between reading a recipe and eating the very first bite of crème brulee.
It’s the difference between reading a guidebook about Greece and getting off the plane.
It’s the difference between reading someone’s online dating profile and asking them to marry you.
In my case, it’s the difference between reading about a seminary in Toronto and moving here with my husband Kyle six months ago. We picked out classes, we researched where to live, but that only got us familiar with Toronto. To know Toronto, we had to leave behind our lives in Dallas, get in the car, and drive.
Today, our lectionary passages show us that knowledge is much more than familiarity, especially when it comes to knowing the triune God. Because when it comes to knowing God, it’s about a knowing that is a form of love.
In today’s epistle, we find Paul writing to a church that is locked in conflict over a question that, at first glance, seems to have little relevance to what it means to know something or someone. Yet, as we dig a little deeper, this passage gives us a critical lens for thinking about knowledge, especially knowledge of God.
The discussion at hand is whether or not the Corinthian Christians are free to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. The context of this sacrifice was the pagan worship, common to the culture around them. Eating this meat most likely meant eating in temple dining halls, a practice that many of these now-Christians had left behind when they left these pagan religions to follow Jesus. The group writing to Paul is on Team Freedom: because they know that these “idols” aren’t really, they think they should be able to eat as they please, including leftovers from idol worship.
But instead of directly addressing the question of meat-eating, Paul addresses what he sees as the heart of the issue: how they are thinking about knowledge. Interestingly, the problem isn’t the rightness of their knowledge. Their knowledge isn’t wrong, but it is limited. They are focused on questions of food and idols and are missing what’s happening to their brothers and sisters in Christ, who are confused and even turning away from the faith because they see their fellow believers participating in. Paul’s insight is to look on the situation with love. He urges them to see that these “theologically right” are putting in jeopardy believers “for whom Christ died.” Paul, never one for putting things mildly, says, if food is an issue for my brothers and sisters, then I will never eat meat again.
The Corinthian Christians are familiar with all the theology around this issue. They’ve given it real thought, asking how their knowledge of God should shape their behavior. But in all their theology, they have failed to look at the issue through the lens of love.
Knowing God is different from knowing other things out in the world. God is not an object that we remove ourselves from in order to study it objectively. Paul reminds us in verse 6 that we can’t remove ourselves from God, since we and everything we will ever experience exists because of him and for him. Instead, New Testament scholar NT Wright suggests that a different kind of knowing is needed. He says, “What we are called to, and what in the resurrection we are equipped for, is a knowing in which we are involved as subjects but as self-giving, not as self-seeking, subjects: in other words, a knowing that is a form of love.”
This is the kind of knowledge we see on display in our Gospel passage. Two weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’s baptism; last week, he called fishermen to be his disciples. Now, he enters the synagogue in Capernaum and begins to teach.
The temptation that Jesus’s listeners faced is the same one we face this morning: familiarity. Like us, Jesus’s audience is familiar with what they are likely to hear when they show up to worship. They’ve been taught week in and week out by the scribes, their religious authorities. They probably didn’t come that sabbath expecting to be astounded or astonished – but that is just what happens. Jesus disrupts their familiarity.
First, an unexpected teaching: Jesus breaks down the Hebrew Bible in a way that they’ve never heard it taught before. Presumably the scribes taught accurately. Just like the Corinthians, they had the right theology, the right thinking. What they didn’t have was authority.
It was common practice in Jewish teaching to cite a list of authorities to prove one’s point, the way I cited NT Wright a minute ago. By contrast, Jesus was direct: instead of relying on the authorities of other sources, he argued from his own understanding. This easily could have made his teaching fall flat, but it had the opposite effect; it became clear from his teaching that he had a different relationship with his subject matter.
But before Jesus’s listeners can ponder the question of what this different relationship might be, a man with an unclean spirit interrupts with a cry: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
At one level, this unclean spirit knows Jesus better than his new disciples, because he knows something about Jesus that his own disciples don’t know, that they won’t know fully until the Resurrection: that Jesus of Nazareth, this man among them, is the Holy One of God.
But his reaction to Jesus demonstrates the limits of that knowledge: though he knows Jesus at one level, his knowing is not a form of love. He has the right answers, but he wants nothing to do with Jesus. He looks on Jesus with fear, precisely because he knows that Jesus is one with authority, one who has power over evil, including unclean spirits.
It is not accidental that Mark connects Jesus’s authoritative teaching with his authoritative action: from the very earliest moments of Jesus’s ministry, Mark wants us to see that Jesus is filled with God’s power in both word and deed, in his preaching and in his healing. Jesus is engaged in high-stakes show-and-tell, giving a comprehensive picture of God and his intentions towards the world. He shows those watching that it is possible to know the God of the Scriptures directly, to know him as a someone.
Where do we turn to know God in this way, to know him as a form of love? We turn to Jesus, the Holy One of God, who was and is God-in-the-flesh, who is full of God’s power and God’s love. Each year, we turn to him by orienting our calendars around his life as we move from Advent to Epiphany to Lent to Easter. Each week, as a community, we turn to him in the Gospels. And each day, we turn to him in prayer, asking that he would fill us with his Spirit and deepen our love for him.
We also turn where Jesus turned that sabbath day in Capernaum: to the Jewish scriptures that were his Bible – what we call the Old Testament. One of the great gifts of the Anglican church is that we aren’t allowed to ignore the Scriptures that Jesus himself read, studied, memorized, and taught. Each week, we pray the prayers of Jesus in the Psalms and hear the story of God’s people Israel as it echoes our own story of life with God.
In our Old Testament reading today, we see God’s people asking questions about how they will know God – how to follow him, how to obey him – as they cross from the known paths of the wilderness into the scary newness of the Promise Land. They will no longer have Moses, their trusted leader, and they don’t know where they will turn. In their fear, Moses speaks comfort, promising that “the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people.” God will not leave his people without the knowledge and leadership that they need.
But what most struck me about this passage was what came just before it, which sets what we read in context. In the verses just before our passage, Moses warns the people where not to go for knowledge. He forbids them from seeking the knowledge they need from the sources that the surrounding nations go to. These nations practice the occult; when they need to know what to do, they consult ghosts and spirits and seek oracles from the dead. But Moses says that engaging in these practices are a question of loyalty and you, people of Israel, “must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God.”
If knowing God is knowing in the form of love, he is the only one we can turn to for what we need to know. But if knowing is about accumulating facts and ideas, if it’s about trying to figure out the future and protecting ourselves from harm or misfortune, then we will be tempted to turn to any and every source that claims to know what we don’t. For us, the temptation may not be the occult or ghosts or spirits or oracles from the dead. We are more sophisticated pagans than that! Instead, when we have questions, we Google them or read our horoscopes; we turn to soothsayers like Oprah and Dr. Phil. These are the idols of our age, and we are tempted to turn to them for every question.
But friends, God has been faithful to his promise in Deuteronomy. We know now what the audience of Deuteronomy did not know then – that God would indeed faithfully provide such a prophet for his people: first Joshua, then strong leaders like Deborah the judge and David the king, but ultimately his very own Son, who showed us that the God we seek to follow is the God who first loved us. When our knowledge of God is shaped by and saturated in a recognition of this love, then we can trust him. We can trust him to provide leadership when we feel lost or scared in a new season, as in our Deuteronomy reading. We can trust him to provide answers to hard questions about the relationship between our faith and the culture around us, as in our 1 Corinthians passage. We can trust him to be one with authority, opposing the forces of evil that would seek to destroy us, as in our Gospel reading. This kind of knowledge changes everything.
My very first year at university, I found myself in a spiritual conversation with my friend Nick. When I asked him whether or not he grew up in church, he answered by talking about God like a subject that he needed to brush up on, like a language he had learned as a child but wasn’t comfortable using as an adult. I could tell from that early conversation that God was a something to Nick, not a someone. In a certain way, he knew God, but it was not a knowing that is a form of love.
Nick’s roommate and I began to pray for Nick, that he would be open to God’s love and our invitations for him to come and experience Jesus for himself. Over the course of the next year and a half, God answered that prayer! He said yes first to coming, then to participating, and as he became part of our community, Nick came to know Jesus in the way that you know a person.
The light clicked on in Mexico on Spring Break missions trip. It wasn’t his encounter with poverty or fellowship with the global church, but something much simpler. He had discovered in Mexico something that turned out to still be true when he got home: that when he woke up in the cool, dark mornings with no cell phone service and classes to go to, when he opened his Bible to read and to pray, Jesus spoke back. He found that he wasn’t simply studying Jesus, but that he was coming to know him, coming to love him. Jesus was not a something, but a someone.
As we conclude, let’s reflect on what we sang together from the psalms: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” An easier way to understand “fear” here is reverence, the sort of awe with which we treat people for whom we have profound respect. We don’t study the Lord at a distance, as an object that we can quantify or calculate. The only way to know him is to relate to him, because that is ultimately the only way to get to know a someone.
So we shouldn’t be surprised at what wisdom, what knowledge looks like: it looks like a whole-hearted shout of praise, like the sonnet of an enthusiastic lover. In fact, this psalm is an acrostic poem, with each of its 22 lines workings its way through the Hebrew alphabet as the psalmist literally praises God from A to Zed. He praises God passionately – “with [his] whole heart” – and publically – “in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.” He praises God’s majesty and splendor and provision and power and faithfulness and justice and holiness and awesomeness.
To us, this kind of gushing is not our picture of wisdom. Wisdom to us is dignified, reserved, cautious. But when God is the subject of your knowledge, when he’s the one you know through love, the exuberance of Psalm 111 is a right and a good and a joyful thing.
I’m here, along with David, as one of your theological student interns. We are blessed to get to study at Wycliffe – but we are also here to tell you that all the study in the world can’t teach you what love can. You may never have the opportunity to hear a lecture on theology or to take a class, but you can know Jesus because he is fully available for you. It can be said of you what was said of Peter and John as they stood before the rulers of Jerusalem. These rulers were knowledgeable, much more so than Peter and John, but as they heard these ordinary believers defend their faith, there was only one way to explain the boldness they saw: that these men had been with Jesus.
There is no end to this knowing Jesus as a form of love, but there is a beginning. It begins when we admit that there’s no way to know except personally, with all that we are. It begins with all of our familiarity with church and the ways we’ve been hurt there. It begins where we meet Jesus as a someone: at the cross, where he bled and died for us. It begins a “yes” of love and obedience to the One who comes with authority, who disrupts our lives like he disrupted that synagogue 2,000 years ago, who heals us and before whom we stand amazed.
May God bless you as you seek to know and love the One by whom you are known and loved, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.