I try to avoid them, but I saw one. Someone had slipped it into an otherwise helpful article about the church in America. There it was: a graph making it painfully clear that Sunday morning worship attendance continues to slide as fewer and fewer people take the trouble to get up, shine their shoes, and come to church. You can hear lots of good excuses about why that’s true, but last week, for the first time, I thought of this one:
What if people have lost their fear of the Lord?
Remember that old proverb? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”? (Prov. 9:10). It doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to be afraid of God; it means that you are supposed to have “profound reverence and respect” for God. And maybe there is a little fear in that, in the same way I knew as a boy that I needed to do what my father told me, and that there would be consequences if I didn’t. But if God is our true father, and the Bible is his true word, do you have any sense that people these days are listening to him in the way I used to listen to my dad? Is anybody out there thinking, “I better do what he says or I’m going to be in big trouble!”?
What I’m trying to say is this: it seems more and more likely to me these days that someone could read from the Bible on a Sunday morning and say, “This is the word of the Lord,” and instead of saying “Thanks be to God” the congregation might say, “So what?” People used to come to church, I think, because someone was going to read the word of the Lord and then explain it, so they could take these sometimes difficult passages of Scripture and apply them to their everyday lives, as it might actually matter that you did what the Lord wanted you to do. These days they seem to lump the Bible together with any and all other bits of wisdom they might pick up along the way; it is only one other voice in the crowd and maybe not the most important voice. Which is to say they have lost their fear of the Lord. They do not listen for his voice with a trembling sense of expectation.
Back to that old proverb: if fear means profound reverence and respect, then wisdom means making the kind of choices that will lead to a long and happy life. Picture yourself standing at a fork in the road, knowing that the choice you make will make all the difference, that one road leads to life while the other road leads to death. Wouldn’t you stand there long enough to make the right choice? Wouldn’t you wish for someone to come along who could tell you which way to go? The proverb suggests that if you have profound reverence and respect for the Lord, if you listen for his voice and do what he tells you, you will find yourself on the road that leads to life, not death. If wisdom means making the kind of choices that will lead to a long and happy life, then this is the beginning of wisdom: to stand at the fork in the road and listen for the voice of God until he tells you which way to go.
I think that’s why people used to come to church: to hear a word from the Lord; to get some guidance about which way to go. I think that’s why they got in the habit of saying—after the scripture was read and after the minister said, “This is the word of the Lord”—
“Thanks be to God!”