Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sermon: "It's Time to Wise Up", 1 Kings 3:5-14/Proverbs 8:22-26, 30-31/James 1:5-8 (November 12, 2017)



Wisdom is a slippery topic. It’s one of those things we think we understand, but if we were asked to define it, most of us would stammer until we came up with an unsatisfying answer. When I asked some pastor friends this week for a definition off the top of their heads, most offered many examples of what wisdom looks like, or factors that contribute to wisdom; very few were able to tell me what it IS. And yet, it’s crucial to our understanding of God and our calling as Christians. There are 180 mentions of the word “wisdom” in the Common English Version OF THE OLD TESTAMENT ALONE. Wisdom literature is its own genre in the Bible. Wisdom is even personified in the book of Proverbs. But it still remains an elusive concept.

Of course, as my pastor friends demonstrated, examples of wisdom come to mind far more easily than a definition. If someone were to ask for an example of Biblical wisdom, most of us would immediately think of King Solomon, right? He’s the epitome of wisdom. Most of us have heard the story before, about how Solomon’s wisdom regarding wisdom directly translated into even MORE wisdom as a reward from God (plus, riches, honor, and a long life as a bonus).

Many of us also know the story that follows, about how Solomon’s wisdom was immediately put to the test: Two women came before him with one baby. They had each had a child, but during the night, one of the women rolled over and killed her son. Each woman insisted that the remaining baby belonged to her, and they had come to ask the king to judge who was the true mother. Instead of holding any sort of recognizable trial, Solomon offered to cut the baby in two with his sword so that the women might share him. Of course, the true mother was horrified, while the fake mother considered that a fair solution. (This raises all sorts of questions about parenting in the 10th century BCE, but I guess that’s why Solomon is known for his wisdom and I’m not…) So there you have it; two solid examples of biblical wisdom.

But even these detailed accounts don’t answer our question about what wisdom is. These are the Biblical stories most readily associated with wisdom; if they’re no help in defining it, then what are we supposed to do? Since there’s unfortunately no canonical “Book of Dictionary Definitions” (man, would that have been handy!) our best bet is probably to turn to the book of Proverbs. The opening verses claim that its purpose is to teach wisdom and help us understand wise sayings,[1] so it seems like it’d be a good place to start.

Before we dive in, a disclaimer: pastors don’t preach from Proverbs very often. This is largely because the book largely consists of short sayings that don’t really lend themselves to significant examination. YOU try writing a 20 minute sermon on Proverbs 12:15, for example, which says: “Fools think their own way is right, but the wise listen to advice”…Yep…no argument there…so…um…don’t be a fool? Or something? Doesn’t really require a lot of deep, theological thought. But hidden among the aphorisms are passages that provide us with clues as to what wisdom actually is, albeit in a biblically poetic way.

For example, in our reading from chapter 8, we learn that wisdom was the very first thing that God made. She—because wisdom is personified in scripture as a woman—came into being as a partner for God’s creative work, a “master crafter” who informed the shaping of the mountains and the fields, the waters and the dry land. By design, all of creation was and is infused with wisdom. Reading this passage, I imagine this first, perfect tool that God called into being as a ruler or plumb line, helping make sure that everything exists according God’s will. I envision wisdom as a sort of holy “quality control”. Not the kind of impersonal quality control that slaps a repetitious label on item after item saying, “Inspected by number 6”. No, wisdom is a skilled craftswoman, one who takes intimate delight in each thing that she examines, who finds purpose in ensuring that all of creation conforms to God’s intention. So if WE have wisdom, then, it means by extension that we’re able to do this same thing: to perceive God’s desires for the world, and to conform our choices and actions in accordance with divine intention. Wisdom is to see through heaven’s eyes, so to speak.

As it turns out, the Bible tells us again and again that wisdom is inseparable from God. Later in Proverbs, we’re told that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”[2] In other words, true wisdom is impossible without first knowing God in some way. Arguable? Maybe. Scriptural? Definitely.

Understandably, this view of wisdom might make us uncomfortable. It might rub us the wrong way because it implies that we can’t become wise without help. We’re a nation defined by self-sufficiency. We were born out of a deep yearning for independence. Our social and economic systems are built around the idea that anyone can “make it” as long as they work hard and believe in themselves. These are all important aspects of our identity as Americans, but as confessional Christians, we also name and claim our dependence on God. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches…apart from me you can do nothing.”[3] So we exist in this tension between our love of autonomy and our complete reliance on God.

Unfortunately, instead of embracing this tension and figuring out how to live into it authentically, we tend to emphasize one end and ignore the other. Guess which one usually wins out? Because knowledge is something that we can accumulate on our own, we idolize it instead of revering wisdom as many ancient societies have. Having the most information, establishing the most “accurate” facts, pursuing black-and-white realities…that’s what we value. That’s what we see as the highest pursuit. But knowledge can only take us so far. Facts can tell us a great deal about the world around us, but they can’t tell us what we should do with that information. They can’t tell us why it’s important. Facts can’t, in and of themselves, provide meaning or purpose; they simply inform.

Knowledge alone gives us an incomplete understanding of the world. This is why wisdom is so important: when we admit our reliance on God and try to see things from the more complete divine perspective, our understanding expands and explodes, allowing us to see things in ways that we had never considered. God created a multi-dimensional existence for us, with things like morality and emotions and insight and discernment and comprehension and foresight and, yes, knowledge. These are the things that God sees.

Solomon was only able to resolve the issue between the two women because he wasn’t restricted to considering just “the facts”. He considered the emotions involved, the morality at play, the idea of fairness and how each woman would interpret it, the strength of the bond between mother and child. He discerned which actions would invoke which reactions, and he let all of that inform his judgment. This was the wisdom of Solomon. He was able to see the situation and the women more fully, more completely—more like God saw them.

So we’re at our most wise when we seek to reflect God’s viewpoint. But of course, it’s not that simple, because we’re really skilled at convincing ourselves that our perspective is aligned with God’s—that our own desires reflect wisdom—whether or not it’s true. I was struck by this realization earlier this week listening to NPR on my way home from work. After the horrible attack that left 26 dead in a Texas church last Sunday, a reporter was asking churchgoers about their thoughts on bringing guns to worship. Most of the responses, both for and against guns in church, were relatively bland, predictable, forgettable. But one woman explained why she wanted to bring her weapon to church in a way that stayed with me, seared in my mind.

She said, “If I’m gonna die, I want to fight.”

Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I’m not in any way questioning this woman’s right to bear arms or to bring a gun into worship. That’s an entirely different conversation—albeit an important one—for another day. What stopped me in my tracks was this woman’s reasoning. It seemed to me a painful irony that, for all the reasons she could have given (to protect lives, to feel safe, to keep evil from having the final say) she thought that the best justification for her decision to bring a weapon into the house of God was her desire to fight.

Does this sound like biblical wisdom to you? Like God’s perspective? The God who told us to turn the other cheek, to treat others as we want to be treated? The God who chose to die at the hands of his enemies instead of fighting back?

In these turbulent times, all of us—left or right, blue or red, liberal or conservative—want to believe that we’re making decisions based on wisdom, but how closely are we really adhering to God’s point of view, and how often are we actually making decisions out of fear or selfishness? I’ll speak for myself for a moment: ideologically, I think I try to seek God’s wisdom in the way I view the world, but realistically, I act (or don’t act) out of fear more often than not. I’m able to accomplish some impressive mental gymnastics in order to justify those choices as wisdom. I can be more of a “wise guy” than a “wiseman” (or wisewoman) far too often.

I know I’m not alone; this is the human condition. We all practice false wisdom in service of our own ends on a regular basis. But we’re lucky—blessed, really—that our god is a giving and forgiving god, generous and patient beyond all measure. As Andrew reminds us week after week, we don’t go to pursue true wisdom alone, but God goes with us and before us. If we really want to expand our perception, to see the world through God’s eyes, then we need to trust that God will help us.

This is where the James reading comes in. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you. But ask in faith,” it says, “never doubting…” Hm. Wait a minute. THAT sounds troubling. Is scripture saying that we shouldn’t think for ourselves? Is our independence being threatened again? Let’s go to the Greek to find out. The word translated here as “doubting” is the Greek “diakrino”, which means “to separate in a hostile way, to withdraw from”. Remember, as much as we value knowledge and certainty, it’s only a part of the picture: doubt here isn’t the opposite of certainty, as we might expect, it’s the opposite of TRUST.

Without trust, we pull away from God and rely on our own limited perspective, thereby rejecting wisdom. When we do that, we’re like a wave of the sea, tossed by the wind of our own biases and selfish desires. No matter how much God may want us to “wise up”, we can’t if we’ve chosen to put our faith in something that limits us. And when we limit our perspective to what we want to see, we limit our ability to bring about God’s kingdom in this world.

Even Solomon wasn’t immune to his human nature. With all of his God-given wisdom, all of his potential to change the world for good, he was unable to overcome his sin. Just a few chapters after our scripture reading,[4] he allows himself to be drawn away from God by his wives (who, being foreign, worshiped other deities). As a result, the kingdom was torn apart, and eventually all of the Israelites were thrown into exile.

But the good news is that God’s kingdom doesn’t rely on a single person’s wisdom. Our withdrawal from God is never the end of the story. In God’s wisdom, always greater than our own, God continually draws us back. We might seem like an unwise investment, but then, God demonstrates that wisdom isn’t always what we’d expect. Paul talks about the “foolishness of the cross,”[5] and that woman on NPR would probably agree that the cross was a foolish strategy. Paul’s point, however, is that it’s only foolish to those who can’t understand the bigger picture, who refuse to see what God sees.

If we’re going to be foolish, then, let’s be foolish in service of God’s wisdom. Let’s reclaim the world that God intends for us. Let’s see creation the way that Jesus saw it, saying instead, “If I’m gonna die, I want to LOVE.” Let’s wise up. Amen.

[1] Proverbs 1:2, CEB.
[2] Proverbs 9:10.
[3] John 15:5.
[4] 1 Kings 11, especially vv. 4 & 30-34.
[5] 1 Corinthians 1:18.

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