Sunday, February 9, 2020

Wisdom's Path, Wisdom's Treasure: Sermon on Proverbs 2-3

Far in the east, there's an old, old custom – a way to celebrate a child's first birthday. It used to be that, when a child reached that age, the family would gather a collection of objects and put them in front of the child; they'd then watch to see what the child grabbed for first, convinced that the child's choice said something about the destiny and character one could expect from that child. Legend has it that one Chinese emperor used this custom to decide which of his grandchildren was worthy of becoming the new crown prince. The custom may be foreign. I can't put much stock in its predictive prowess. But all this to say, deep truths about ourselves can be revealed by what we instinctively reach for.  I'll say that again: Deep truths about ourselves can be revealed by what we instinctively reach for.  Tuck that into the back of your brain - we'll come back to it later.

Last week, as we began to explore Proverbs, we considered how God created the world with his wisdom – how he wove wisdom into the very fabric of creation, how wisdom became the stitching that binds the whole quilt of the world together, and how God invites us to become wise, meaning to become skilled at living God's-image-bearing lives in the real world around us. In Proverbs 2-3, God now tells us more about what it takes to become wise, and why we should. And he explains, through the voice of a human father teaching his child, that wisdom is something we have to open ourselves to: “Making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding” (Proverbs 2:2).  (It isn't automatic. By default, most wisdom will fly past or crash into us if we aren't intentionally open to it.) Wisdom is something we have to call out toward: “Call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding” (Proverbs 2:3). Wisdom is something we have to actively hunt down: “Seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures” (Proverbs 2:4).  That means digging for it. And yet the start of the process can be as simple as opening up this book and paying attention: “Receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you” (Proverbs 2:1). The strenuous hunt for wisdom begins here. The attitude we need for getting wisdom is just this: be open, be vocal, be active, pay attention.

If we do that, then there's nothing to stop us from embarking on the first four steps into wise life. And the first step, which we mentioned last Sunday, is this: the fear of the Lord, the fear of Yahweh. As the father says here, if you receive these words and listen for wisdom and call out for insight and search for it as something valuable, then you will understand the fear of Yahweh and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:5). And that's the first step into wisdom, because “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10; cf. 1:7). Wisdom is skill for navigating the world. And we can't do that effectively by working off the wrong map. The right map has a built-in compass that points God-ward, points toward God. It reminds us, no matter which way we step, that the world was created and is continually sustained by one God – this God, the God whom Israel knew from the Law and the Prophets. This God is the Source of Wisdom, the Wise God, and he is at the top of the Chain of Being. He is self-defined; everything else is inherently defined in terms of him. If we were wiser, God would be mentioned in every single entry in the dictionary, because he is essential for a true understanding of anything.  (Example: What's a house?  A house is a structure within the world God made, erected from materials that God provided, meant to serve as shelter for creatures God made in his image, and in which he purposes to be present and dwell with them.  Repeat for all other words.) And that is the most basic fact about the world there is. So to recognize that, to be in awe of God's omni-relevance, God's relevance to and involvement in all things, is the first step in the path to wisdom.

Building on that, Proverbs reminds us, as we keep reading, that this supreme God is the one who gives wisdom as a gift. “For Yahweh gives wisdom: from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6). Ah, there we have it: How does God give wisdom? We know he can bestow it in an instant as he did for Solomon, opening Solomon's eyes and mind somehow. We know he can fill us with the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Wisdom. But also, he gives wisdom by speaking. We acquire it by listening to his voice and really considering what he's said. And since his words boom through the pages of one very special book, ignorance of that book is avoidance of wisdom, whereas actively digging around through the pages of this book – with an ear open for God's voice – is an important way to learn what it means to do well at being a person.

God also gives wisdom by the way he acts. “He stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and watching over the ways of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path, for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul” (Proverbs 2:7-10). God is the root of wisdom, and if we're open to his wisdom and aim to live by what the Lord speaks, “you will walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous” (Proverbs 2:20). And God will act as a protector on that journey.

If we set out on this journey with God as our shield, then it's important for us to not only hear these words, but remember them. “My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and man” (Proverbs 3:1-4). Remembering is swimming against the tide. It takes effort. It means memorizing and internalizing. I once heard a speaker at a pastors' conference talk about how he tries to read and recite a section of Proverbs every single day, and memorize the entire book. That way, he carries it with him at all times, and has it available for every situation. Whatever happens in his life, a proverb comes to mind. That's not a bad way to retain this teaching! It's also good preparation for the day when the memories of the mind start to fail. There's a reason the teacher here stresses writing these things on the tablet of the heart – the deep core of the self, the center of the will, the seat of life and action. There, it may endure.

Having listened and written and remembered, we're now ready to take the second step. We began with the fear of the Lord (step one). We're now ready to move on to faith in the Lord. “Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). That's the second step. The first step merely asked us to recognize God as supreme over the world, and to live in awe of him. And many through the ages have sought to do so while envisioning God as a distant figure in the sky, relevant to all things but unreachable, unavailable for a personal connection. The second step invites a deeper sort of relationship, one of personal reliance. God-fear is one thing, but God-trust is a step beyond. It means to enter a real relationship with God, within which one accepts his guidance and learns to rely on him. “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths – be not wise in your own eyes” (Proverbs 3:6-7a). Again, it all comes down to how we view the world. If our view of the world is about us and the people around us, it's easy to think ourselves big – to see ourselves as the good apple in the bunch, the top dog in the kennel, the wise one surrounded by oafs and misfits. But if our view of the world begins with God, then that sets everything on a different scale. If God stays in the picture, then his wisdom overshadows all our boasting and puts it in perspective. So “fear Yahweh and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:7b). 'But,' you might ask, 'why are we still talking about fear of the Lord?  As children of God, haven't we left such things behind?' Faith does not leave God-fear behind. It builds on it without abandoning it. As Acts tells us, the early church prospered when it walked “in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31).  The latter is added in faith, for through faith we are joined to the body of Christ and receive his Spirit, a mark of that real and vibrant new relationship, a pillar on which to constantly lean when all else is prone to crumble.

So first we recognize God as supreme, the defining fact of reality that puts everything else in perspective. And second, we come to personally rely on him, from the level of our heart. We rely on him, not merely in addition to our own common-sense understanding of the world, but even in opposition to so-called 'common sense,' which tells us plenty that just ain't so. We lean on him, not our internal resources. Every wise teaching has been taught for one chief purpose, the author says: “That your trust may be in Yahweh,” the LORD (Proverbs 22:19). This trust or faith in God's wisdom and truthfulness was the guiding mode of action for biblical figures “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness” (Hebrews 11:33-34). And as we now understand, this faith is above all the faith that clings to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen! Jesus is the Lord of Proverbs, the Wisdom of God – more on that in a couple weeks. He is the Lord whom we are to trust, and every wise teaching has as its aim that our trust may be in the Lord Jesus. As Jesus himself tells us: “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1). And trusting in the Lord Jesus is restorative: “It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones” (Proverbs 3:8), now as we walk with him but especially on the day when Jesus returns and raises our flesh and bones from death and conforms them to the likeness of his glorious resurrection (Philippians 3:21).

From God-fear and God-trust, the teacher wants next to lead us on to the third step, a step toward wisdom that might surprise you. The third-step is God-generosity. “Honor Yahweh with your wealth and with the firstfruits of all your produce” (Proverbs 3:9). This step might throw us for a bit of a loop. As Americans, we very much dislike being told what to do with our money! We'll get to more of what Proverbs says about that on another Sunday, so I won't belabor that here. Suffice it to say now that, on the foundation of reverence and faith, the next thing God asks of us is to honor him by giving. And he isn't asking for the leftovers squeezed out of the cracks in our household budgets. That doesn't honor him. The firstfruits do – the portion that's first to be harvested, the certain supply when everything else is still in doubt. God wants it, the first sure thing we get, and he wants it while it's still risky to lose it. Giving it to him honors him, because it requires faith to sacrifice the first portion we get while everything else is still a bud that may not bloom.  It honors him by recognizing in a practical and tangible and costly way that God is true owner and true provider. It's easy to profess God-fear and God-faith, but fewer of us put our money where our mouth us. Yet the wise life requires sacrificial sincerity. God put this line here so that we'd be unable to harbor illusions about ourselves, for illusions are an obstacle to navigating the world skillfully. So God asks us to show him this honor, so that in the asking, he may show us our true selves and dispel our illusions. In turn, we are told, “your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (Proverbs 3:10). Living in wisdom will, in general, lead to better outcomes – if honoring God with our wealth is part and parcel of a journey to a wise life, it will generally lead, even in the scope of the present life, to sufficiency. But the real truth of that verse is in a scope beyond the present life, the scope of eternity. As Jesus says: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).  That is, everyone who has left their firstfruits, handing them over to Jesus to honor him, will indeed receive eternal barns of plenty and eternal vats of wine.  Acting on that premise is a daring step of faith, and confirms our journey into the wise life.

Finally, from God-fear and God-trust and God-generosity, the teacher leads us to the fourth step toward wisdom – God-discipline: “My son, do not despise Yahweh's discipline or be weary of his reproof, for Yahweh reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12). The path to wisdom (Step 1) begins by recognizing this God as supreme – by adopting the right picture of the world. The path of wisdom (Step 2) continued by learning to lean on this God personally, to rely on him, especially as he's revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The path of wisdom next proceeds (Step 3) by displaying this trust in a way that especially honors him: with the firstfruits of what we earn or grow, thus relying on God to sustain us through the difference and to fill our barns and vats, as it were. It sounds paradoxical, but this wisdom is the wisdom of the cross: give, and you shall receive. And now we find (Step 4) that the path of wisdom may lead us into tighter and tighter places. This, we may like even less than the cost of God-generosity! We might be troubled, having expected wisdom to lead us into wider and wider spaces, not tighter and tighter corridors. But these are meant to correct and teach us. Instead of looking on hardships as evil, progress in wisdom is built as we look on them as opportunities, a fatherly gift of God for our ultimate benefit. And the teacher urges us not to get bitter over these hardships or to let them wear us down – they are, in fact, a reminder that God loves us as his children and wants us to mature into greater and greater wisdom. As the writer of Hebrews comments on these verses, God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10-11).  These tight corridors into which these first steps lead, lead into the spacious meadow where this fruit may grow in Wisdom's presence.

Now that we know the first four steps on the path of wisdom – now that we know it can be costly to become wise, demanding to become wise – the teacher here can tell that some of us might want to back away, might want to say we'd prefer to pay a lower price for some other prize. We might want to haggle.  (If wisdom will cost me an arm and a leg, what can I get for a pinky?) And so promptly the teacher gives us a vision of Wisdom – the Wisdom who is Jesus – holding out gifts that reveal wisdom's real worth. The wise life is eminently worthwhile after all, even when the challenges of discipline are factored in: “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding. For the gain from her is better than the gain from silver, and her profit better than gold; she is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Proverbs 3:13-15). Wisdom's value exceeds precious metal, exceeds precious gems, exceeds all the other things we might treasure (house, car, RV and TV...). Wisdom actually generates most of what we could truly want: “Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:16-17). Not only does wisdom yield a better life, but this wise life is the closest thing we can have to reclaiming the Eden we lost, for “she is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed” (Proverbs 3:18). A tree of life – the heart of what we lost, the heart of what we long for most deeply, and that's what wisdom is to those who manage to grab firmly onto her and embrace her tight – no wonder really wise people, people wise in Jesus Christ, are called blessed!

Like we said at the start: Deep truths can be revealed by the things we instinctively reach for. And if the author of Proverbs were standing next to me today, I believe the great teacher might invite us to spend the next week pondering this question: If all the things we might potentially desire were spread in front of us like on a child's first birthday, where would our fingers instinctively stretch?  Would they go right to wisdom, or would our gaze linger long on the other toys?  For now we know that wisdom will be a tree of life, we see her peace-paths and her ways of pleasantness, we glimpse the gifts in her left hand and her right.  Will we reach for Wisdom, or are we dismayed at the cost and tantalized by the consolation prizes?

Do we truly believe that gold and silver and jewels and desires pale next to Wisdom, next to Jesus? If so, then we'll have no objection to fearing God, recognizing him in the definition of everything, doing everything in awe of him. And we'll trust him as the Giver of every good gift. And we'll show that trust by honoring him with whatever's been entrusted to our stewardship, knowing that he won't leave the barn and vats empty of what we then need. And we'll also show that trust by accepting griefs and trials as opportunities sent by him as training meant to yield a peaceful fruit. And so we'll be well on our way into a wise life, a life lived to have Jesus, a life with arms outstretched to the tree of life that is his cross, a life that holds fast to his blessed resurrection. Let's live by the fear of the Lord, live by faith in the Lord, live in generosity to the Lord, live under discipline from the Lord – because that is wise living, and Jesus, as Wisdom's Treasure, is so much more precious than anything. I hope that all of us may say that we'd rather have Wisdom - that we'd rather have Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Wisdom's Weaver: Sermon on Proverbs 1 & 3

Every now and then, I'll run across amusing pictures of construction that clearly didn't proceed according to plan – or, if it did, then there was something badly wrong with the plan. There are a lot of mistakes that can be made while putting buildings together, you know. I've seen staircases that miss the doorway entirely, that lead to nothing but a blank wall. I've seen telephone poles in the middle of driveways. I've seen doors nowhere close to floor level. I've seen railings with no balcony, and balconies that can never be reached. I've seen fire extinguishers closed behind railings. And I look at that, and I think, “Did nobody really catch this? That was certainly... unwise.”

What does it mean to be wise? In the biblical sense, it basically means 'skill' or 'expertise.' Artists are 'wise' or 'skillful' when they make beautiful things (Exodus 28:3). Craftsmen are 'wise' or 'skillful' when they build their materials rightly (2 Chronicles 2:13). Farmers are wise or skillful when they plant their crops in the right rows, when they know when to plow and when to sow, and how to handle each thing once it grows (Isaiah 28:23-29). Wisdom is skill – but usually, when the Bible talks about it, and especially when Proverbs does, it's not talking about a particular profession but about general living. So we might say that the wisdom we're interested in is about skill at being human in the world around us – life-skill overall, you might say.

And the most important thing Proverbs says about wisdom is this: The wisest one is God. There's nobody wiser than God. Nobody else has understanding like God. Nobody else has knowledge like God. The original owner and operator of wisdom is God. He is the Source of Wisdom. Wisdom is an eternal reality, part and parcel of who God is. Proverbs insists we realize, first and foremost, that “Yahweh possessed [Wisdom] at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old..., before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23). Isaiah tells us that God is “excellent in wisdom” (Isaiah 28:19). Job announces that “with God are wisdom and might; he has counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13). Daniel describes God as the One “to whom belong wisdom and might” and who therefore is able to “change times and seasons” (Daniel 2:20-21). Paul boldly declares that the God he knows is “the only wise God” (Romans 16:27), and he marvels at “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God – how unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33).

So if wisdom is life-skill, and if that's connected to understanding and knowledge, what does it mean to talk about God's wisdom? It means that God is the ultimate expert. Nothing is ever too complicated for God. There is nothing that's outside of God's competency. If he'd wanted to, he could've explained quantum mechanics to a caveman. And he would've explained it exactly right, for as Proverbs reminds us, “Every word of God proves true” (Proverbs 30:5). It also means that God never makes the wrong decision. He never even makes a less-than-ideal decision. In every situation, God has already thought a trillion moves ahead, seen it all, figured it all out, balanced it all. God has perfect insight and perfect expertise.

So there is nothing we cannot trust God to teach us rightly. There is nothing we cannot trust God to handle rightly. Although we may have difficulties in getting through life sometimes, we can have complete trust that God will indeed “work all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That's beyond my power or your power. You and I could try to work at least the local things together for good. We can try to arrange our lives so that the outcome is beneficial and pleasant. But our ability to balance everything is limited. There's no way any of us could ever know enough to orchestrate events so precisely, take into account every variable, control every detail. The system is just too complex – for us. But God has already taken into account and balanced even the smallest thing, even the slightest vibration of each molecule. He's seen how it fits into the bigger picture, and has devised a plan for how these events – painful though some may individually be – will all lead to an outcome that works for us, not against us.

That's a difficult thing to realize when tragedy strikes. Can everything really fit? Can everything really come together like that? We have real questions. Is it really possible that God can fit cancer into that picture? Can he somehow work dementia into the mix? Can he find a use for war and violence, for epidemic and genocide? None of those things are themselves good. But for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose, God can and does indeed find a way to fit those bad things into his plan and tame them, forcing them – against their tendency, as it were – to work to advance God's overall strategy, which is to bless us in the end. Yes, even things like that. And it's all because God is supremely wise. Cancer cannot outfox him – he's already skillfully outflanked cancer. Dementia cannot get ahead of God – he's already seen how to weave that into the story. Conflict and disease and heartbreak – God can get the drop on them, capture them, compel them to do his bidding and serve the ultimate good of those he loves. But because we do not have his insight, we often cannot see how these things fit together, except for little glimpses we can in retrospect. So we struggle – we struggle to put more stock in the pattern we don't see than in the little fragments we do. Close up, all we see are the rough stitches and the overwhelming dark colors. We're too close to the action to appreciate yet the beauty of the whole quilt. And there's no hue that life can throw our way which God can't find a place for.

Proverbs stresses this fact by making it clear that God used Wisdom in the process of creation. “Yahweh by Wisdom founded the earth; by Understanding, he established the heavens; by his Knowledge, the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20). Or as the psalmist says after reviewing the way creation's rhythms keep their balance: “O Yahweh, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all: the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24). As one second-century Christian wrote to an unbeliever friend about 1840 years ago:

The Pilot of the universe is God … Man, consider his works: The periodic alternation of the seasons and the changes of the winds, the orderly course of the stars, the orderly succession of days and nights and months and years, the diversified beauty of seeds and plants and fruits, the variegated offspring of quadrupeds and birds and reptiles and fishes in rivers and seas, or the instinct provided to animals themselves for generating and nourishing offspring..., and the providential care which God exercises in preparing nourishment for all flesh, or the subjection in which he decreed all things to be subject to humanity; the flow of fresh springs and ever-flowing rivers, the seasonal supply of dews and showers and rains, the complex movement of the heavenly bodies … It is this God alone who made light from darkness, who brought light out of his treasuries, the storehouses of the south wind and the treasuries of the abyss and the limits of the seas and the treasuries of snow and hail … It is he who sends the thunder to terrify and, through the lightning, announces the crash of thunder in advance so that the soul may not faint at the sudden tumult. It is he who limits the power of the lightning as it comes down from the heavens so that it will not burn up the earth. … This is my God, the Lord of the universe, who alone spread out the heaven and determined the breadth of what's under heaven, who stirs up the deep of the sea and makes its waves resound, who rules over its power and pacifies the movement of the waves, who established the earth upon the waters and gave a spirit to nourish it. His breath gives life to everything; if he held back his spirit by himself, everything would fail. You speak of him, man – you breathe his breath – but you don't know him! This happened to you because of the blindness of your soul and your heart; but if you will, you can be cured. Deliver yourself to the Physician... God, who heals and gives life through word and wisdom. … His Wisdom is most powerful: “God by wisdom founded the earth...”

Wow! What a wise Creator! But when Proverbs brings all this up, it aims to remind us that, if God can use wisdom to build a creation that stands the test of time, then we can use wisdom to build a life that stands the test of time, that is established on firm footing and that endures through the trials ahead. That's all true.

But Proverbs also wants us to realize that wisdom itself is like a thread that God wove all throughout the created order. Wisdom is the deep logic that God wove into the very fabric of creation. Wisdom ties things together. You can trace wisdom as you observe cause and effect, as you watch reality unfold all around you. Close your eyes in a spring breeze, and you can almost feel that wisdom is the way. God has buried it deep, for “it is the glory of God to conceal things,” to hide them beneath the surface of what we see (Proverbs 25:2). But wisdom is there, perpetually running in the background like the operating system on a computer.

And because it does, because wisdom is the stitching that binds creation together, wisdom is the undeniable way to walk through life. The choices we make, the things we do – sometimes we find that they run with the grain, they cooperate with wisdom; sometimes we find that they run against the grain, they work against wisdom. Life just goes better when we work with wisdom. Fighting wisdom, going against creation's grain, tends to make a bigger mess of things than they need to be. It's like trying to run up a wall. It's like trying to build on a tiny and feeble base. But working with wisdom, going with the grain, is naturally smoother, all other things being equal.

So if we're to go with creation's grain, we need wisdom ourselves. We need to become skilled at navigating the world we live in, skilled at getting through life. How do we get that? There are a number of ways we can work for it. Personal experience is one way to learn some wisdom: Put your hand on the stove too many times, you'll figure out it doesn't belong there when the heat's on. Observation is another way to learn some wisdom: Watch cause-and-effect as it impacts other people and other things, test your inductive reasoning from the case studies in your path. Tradition is yet another way to learn wisdom – instruction passed down from teacher to student, from parent to child – and that's what Proverbs itself is. Remember those early verses: “Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Proverbs 1:8-9). “Accept[ing] instruction” is, Proverbs says, one way to “gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20).

But all these are partial. They're best when they build on what's solid. And Proverbs also reminds us that, if the ultimate source of wisdom is God, then God is the best wisdom-teacher and wisdom-giver. God has the power and knowledge to bestow wisdom as a gift. Proverbs announces that “Yahweh gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the path of justice and watching over the way of his holy ones. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path, for wisdom will come into your heart and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul, discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you” (Proverbs 2:6-11). God is able to present wisdom as a gift. The Bible tells us that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore” (1 Kings 4:29). Daniel professes that God “gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him. To you, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, for you have given me wisdom and might” (Daniel 2:21-23). The only wise God is a Giver of wisdom, if we approach him first and foremost. Because he's the Source of Wisdom!

And because God is the Source of Wisdom, then participating in authentic wisdom has to start with him. Oh, there is such a thing as 'wisdom,' so-called, that neglects God. But that's only wisdom in a limited sense. The Egyptians had wisdom – “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22), we read, and “Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:30) – even though they were ignorant of the true God and didn't derive their wisdom from God. And today, we will run into all sorts of people who've figured out different things about life – some of them true things – even while building from a secular foundation. But if God is left out, then it can easily become a sort of earthly and unspiritual wisdom that only has a temporary validity 'under the sun,' as Ecclesiastes might say.

Proverbs wants us to have a different and better kind of wisdom – a wisdom that starts right. For, it says, “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7), “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10; cf. Psalm 111:10). Why would that be? If wisdom for us means skill at navigating the world, then unless we know what kind of world we're in, we'll never be able to live consistently and skillfully in light of the big picture. Go ahead and try to make your way around the hospital by following a map of the farmers' market – it just doesn't work too well! Without an accurate sense of what kind of place you're in, without the right sort of map, without the correct big picture, you'll blunder. And the most fundamental fact about this world is that it's God's creation. It doesn't stand alone. It's the creation of one and only one God, who therefore is the center and core of everything. He is supreme. He is definitional.

Without seeing that, we may build some things that are designed okay in themselves, but they'll be out of place. We might build doors into our life that open into thin air, or windows that stare only at walls, or railings around the things we ought to access – like our souls. And in the big picture, that's very unwise. As one Christian writer said seventeen hundred years ago, “The first step of wisdom is to know who our true Father is, to worship him alone with due piety, to obey him, and to serve him with utter devotion. … God deliberately created man with such a nature that a pair of things would be his great desire, and these are religion and wisdom. … One without the other cannot be sound. … No religion should be adopted without wisdom in it, and no wisdom should be accepted without religion in it. … Those who don't know God can be neither wise nor religious.”

Lactantius has a point there. Our lives are about something. This whole world is about something. And any kind of living that doesn't build on a true account of what that is, is unwise living when all's said and done. The 'something' our lives are about, the 'something' this whole world is about, is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. So whatever proficiency we might have through so-called 'common sense' and other ways of getting access to wisdom, the real life of wisdom only begins by recognizing God – recognizing him as the Creator of all things. We can't be truly wise farmers without knowing that God made the seeds, God made the soil, God sends the rain and provides the growth. We can't be truly wise truckers without knowing that God charts the way. We can't be truly wise bookkeepers without beholding God in the numbers. And we can't be truly wise humans without knowing that there is a God who is sovereign and who wants to be not just our Maker but our Father, in a way only Jesus can open. On that foundation, we can learn – be discipled in – a wise life. Without that foundation, we're building in the wrong place, and it will ultimately crash down, even if some of the parts look fine for now.

My invitation for you, as we begin this series in Proverbs, is to be ready to return to square one. Set aside your preconceptions, what you call 'common sense' about the world – because even though we like to say we fear the Lord and put him at the center, so often we gobble up ideas about life that aren't built firmly on him after all. So let's go back to the start, back to the beginning of wisdom. Let's commit to start again from the right big picture and go with the grain, as Proverbs will show us how – because Proverbs is, in its own way, a revelation of Jesus Christ. More on that another day. For now, as James tells us, “if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). As we embark on this journey, I pray with Paul “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you the Spirit of Wisdom” (Ephesians 1:17). Amen.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Dream of Grateful Hearts: Homily on 2 Chronicles 1:1-13

“The king is dead; long live the king!” It was a new and perplexing day for Israel, and certainly for Solomon. Officially, he had been placed on the throne while his father David was still living – a measure to ensure that the succession wouldn't be contested. But now David had gone the way of all flesh. And Solomon, about twenty years old, was left to rule. His father had viewed him as “young and soft” (1 Chronicles 22:5; 29:1). Yet David had charged Solomon with the task of ruling a people and building a house worthy to bear the name of Yahweh the Almighty, and had told Solomon to “set [his] mind and heart to seek Yahweh your God” and to “know the God of your father and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind” (1 Chronicles 22:19; 28:9). So when Solomon “established himself in his kingdom,” consolidating power (2 Chronicles 1:1), he knew it was only because he'd followed his father's instructions – Solomon confessed that it was God who “made me king in this place” (2 Chronicles 1:8), and that “Yahweh his God was with him” (2 Chronicles 1:1). God had blessed.

So Solomon's first act as the sole king of Israel, the twenty-year-old alone on the throne, was to call the leaders of the people together at a high place called Gibeon (2 Chronicles 1:2-3a). Why? Because of the artifacts that were there. The tent of meeting was there, although David had relocated the ark (2 Chronicles 1:3b-4). And the bronze altar built by Bezalel in the wilderness was still standing in front of the tent of meeting (2 Chronicles 1:5). Solomon could have gone to the new Davidic tent on Mount Zion, but instead he went to where the old things were – the tent made by Moses, the altar made by Bezalel – and trusted that God would still receive their worship there, even without the ark of the covenant inside the tent.

So once Solomon got there, once the leaders of all Israel got there, they worshipped. And they worshipped by making sacrifices. Solomon entered the proximity of God's presence, and he sponsored the priests to make a thousand burnt offerings (2 Chronicles 1:6). It was a lavish gesture. Each one of those offerings was an animal – maybe an ox, maybe a sheep, maybe a goal, maybe a pigeon or turtledove – which had to be an unblemished male animal, slaughtered in the divine presence, with its blood and guts handled appropriately, then set entirely on fire until nothing was left. No mortal got to use any part; it was given entirely over to God as a gift. These could be used to make atonement for sin, but from Solomon's behavior, I'd surmise that his goal is just this: to show a lavish gratitude in answer to a lavish grace.

How long does it take to burn a thousand offerings on just one altar? At least all day. Beginning in the morning and continuing through the late hours, the entire day is devoted to this worship – perhaps some Levites are on hand to sing praises while the sacrifices go up. Night falls. And Solomon lays down, there in the dirt at Gibeon in front of the tent of meeting. He's young. He's tender. He wants to seek God and know God and serve God with a whole heart and a willing mind. God sees and responds.

And so during the night, Solomon's search finds its target. His grateful heart and mind dream a dream, and God appears to Solomon, speaking through the darkness, offering a blessing (2 Chronicles 1:7). And Solomon sees that God is handing him a blank check, an unrestricted wish. There are plenty of things Solomon could want, he could ask for any of them. He could ask for immense wealth – for mounds of gold and silver and jewels. He could ask for possessions, perhaps hold great estates. He could ask for honor, so that everyone would always respect him. He could ask God to strike down all his enemies, so that he would forever be unopposed. He could ask for long life, so that he would rule into his eighties or nineties. But he doesn't ask for any of those things (2 Chronicles 1:11a). Solomon has a different evaluation of what it means to be a success. For Solomon, being rich isn't a successful life, being respected isn't a successful life, and being alive longer isn't a successful life. What does it mean to be successful? Solomon's view is that it's being faithful to God over what he's been given stewardship over. He tells God, “You have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth” (2 Chronicles 1:9). That's a substantial stewardship! “Who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?” (2 Chronicles 1:10b). Even for a tried-and-tested administrative genius, it would be a formidable undertaking. And Solomon is a soft twenty-year-old, delicate from palace living.

So Solomon's humble request is just this: “Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people” (2 Chronicles 1:10a). Offered a blank check by God, he uses it not for any personal gain but only to be equipped for the job, so that he can be a faithful steward in God's sight. Even when God offers Solomon a blank-check blessing, Solomon wants to use it for God (2 Chronicles 1:11b)! And God is so pleased that he replies, “Wisdom and knowledge are granted to you; I will also give you riches, possessions, honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chronicles 1:12).

The dream ends. Dawn breaks. Solomon is roused from his sleep. But he gets up a changed man – a man in communion with God's Wisdom, with eyes of insight and a sharper mind than ever. And so he leaves the tent of meeting at Gibeon. He returns to Jerusalem, his capital city, from which he resumes his reign over all Israel (2 Chronicles 1:13). And he thoroughly prospers, just as the Lord had promised (2 Chronicles 1:14-17).

Over the next few months, we're going to explore God's gift to Solomon. Because Solomon didn't hoard this wisdom all to himself. The wisdom-sayings he collected or composed were later compiled, and they form the core of the book we know as Proverbs. As we glean from that book, topic by topic, we'll come to recognize how it not only gives us practical lessons, but how it points us to the King Greater Than Solomon: Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God (cf. Matthew 12:42; 1 Corinthians 1:24).

But before we get to all that, we pause here to see two things that Solomon knew before he even got this gift of wisdom and knowledge. First is this: Blessings are cause for costly expressions of gratitude. Solomon was established as king by God's faithfulness; Solomon therefore reacted to God's faithfulness by making sacrifices and devoting himself to worship. And God is still faithful – he establishes us, and if we're to be more like this Solomon at his best, our gratitude will express itself through sacrifice and worship. And the second lesson is this: God-centeredness and faithful stewardship are the metric of success. Solomon didn't define success in any of the self-serving ways he could have, when he was given a blank check for a blessing. He only wanted to get the wisdom and knowledge he needed to steward God's people well, and he kept himself focused on God. Just the same, every other metric we use to define church success pales. Our success as a church, and your success as people, is based on whether we're seeking God and are faithful and responsible stewards of the mission he has assigned to us. We chase nothing else for its own sake, but rejoice in it as an unsought bonus.

So in the coming months, we like Solomon will sit at the feet of Wisdom, learning how to live and how to live well. May we seek it with gratitude and with an eye to what truly matters most. But here we are now, gathered for our congregational meeting. God established Solomon's kingdom, and God gives us a new year of ministry in this community for the sake of his name – he has raised us up as a temple. And we now gather to ask God to give us the wisdom we'll need to carry out the ministry he's trusted to our care. That, and nothing else, is what this congregational meeting is all about. Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Highway to Holy: Sermon on Isaiah 34-35

It sits on our altar each Sunday, as one of the holy things. But have you ever taken a look at this? There's a special word for what this is, the form it's in. It's called a diptych. This folding hinge allows two separate panels to dwell side-by-side, featuring our confession of faith on one and the Author of our Faith on the other.

Not unlike this, over the course of two chapters, Isaiah paints his own diptych: two panels, contrasting two lives or two worlds or two destinations. On the left of Isaiah's diptych, we have the world-trusting life on display in chapter 34. Isaiah 34 portrays what happens to a world filled with self-trust, self-absorption, self-devotion. It's an unsettling picture. And perhaps it's so unsettling because Isaiah gives us the impression that when he points to this world, he's being very inclusive. Isaiah says that this panel is a picture of “all the nations” with “all their host” (Isaiah 34:2). He invites the entire earth, its whole population, to pay attention (Isaiah 34:1). This side of the diptych isn't a portrayal of what happens in very special, exceptional, rare circumstances. It's an analysis of the ordinary. This is Isaiah's portrait of how God feels about normal human life and normal human concerns – the activities, motivations, orientations of pretty much anybody, all the host from all those nations. This side of the diptych proceeds from the way basically everyone lives – our buying and selling, our giving and getting, our mating and breaking, our thoughts and preoccupations.

And what Isaiah says is, God is not impressed with the human normal! “For Yahweh is enraged against all the nations and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction” (Isaiah 34:2). And therefore, he fights it: “My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment” (Isaiah 34:5). If you read on, you'll find the language in these verses isn't pretty. It's full of blood and fat, death and butchery, sulfur and smoking asphalt (Isaiah 35:6-9). Isaiah is intensely graphic. The centerpiece of his left-panel scene is grotesque on purpose. It's multisensory – you almost smell the rot, almost hear the buzzing flies. Isaiah paints a portrait of a world falling to pieces: “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree” (Isaiah 34:4).

What Isaiah does is, he paints the universality of human sinfulness. As he'll say elsewhere, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Or as the psalmist says, “They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). Ever since our first steps east of Eden, the natural course of human life has been bound up with sin, our propensity to miss the mark, fall short of the point, sideline God and thus our very own reason for being. We tell ourselves it's okay, we convince ourselves we're good, and yet we're all turned inward on ourselves. And the new normal post-Eden, the idolatry of God-neglect and God-exclusion, is simply our commonplace. All the nations and all their host contribute to a world that ignores God – a world turned aside, a world adrift, a world hustling and bustling down eight billion different roads. A world scattered.

Isaiah wants us to be aware where this leads. He graphically shows us God's ultimate punishment of a world in rebellion. It's intense. In the end, that world becomes something worse than a wasteland. “Her streams shall be turned into asphalt and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning asphalt. Night and day, it won't be quenched. Its smoke will ascend forever! From generation to generation, it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever” (Isaiah 34:9-10). All that's there are “thorns” and “nettles and thistles,” making it “the haunt of jackals” (Isaiah 34:13) and infested with demons (Isaiah 34:14). God “shall stretch the line of formlessness over it, and the plumb line of emptiness” (Isaiah 34:11). Those are the same two words we find at the dawn of Genesis, when “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Isaiah gives us a picture of uncreation, of God undoing all his creative work, fully withdrawing his Spirit and letting it all collapse back in on itself, reduced to the inchoate muddle of mere materiality.

Left unattended and unaltered, normal life as all the nations live it, as all the people live it, will lead nowhere. And not just to the proverbial nowhere, but to the hellish Nowhere, the Great Undone, where the night-shadows haunt the Abyss. On this left side of the diptych, Isaiah shows us a world turning into a hell, with all its attendant sights and sounds and smells. It's an uncreation given over to howling subhumanity. Isaiah is telling us that if we settle for a normal life, if we're content to live like the nations and enjoy ourselves the way they do, this is the end of all those eight billion roads. They all drop to the Abyss. They all unravel to the Great Undone.

It's not pretty. I'd much rather us fix our eyes on the right side of Isaiah's diptych. Because Isaiah has chosen – has been inspired – to paint a study in contrasts. And as much as the left side showed a God-neglecting life's outcome, the right side shows us a God-revering life's outcome – what happens when God is our trust, when God is our hope. And whereas the left side took all the hustle and bustle of the world and brought it to an awful end, the right side takes the sterility of the desert and makes an Eden out of it. We begin with Isaiah's three words for a sterile place: “the wilderness,” “the dry land,” “the desert” (Isaiah 35:1). Those are all pretty ordinary. Isaiah knows those from experience. You can see places like that in the Middle East, after all. It's an ordinary geographic feature. But Isaiah later says that the transformation he's talking about can even begin from more extreme starting points. He uses phrases like “burning sand,” “thirsty ground,” and even “the haunt of jackals” (Isaiah 35:7). Isaiah's telling us that God can plant an Eden even in the worst wreckage of our human sin – that even after we've paved over and polluted life, even after we've driven ourselves out of the world, God can bring us back and make things new. Not even the haunt of jackals is too much for God to restore to us.

Whereas the left panel of Isaiah' diptych showed us God in his fury at the normality of our sin, the right panel gives him another motivation: “They shall see the glory of Yahweh, the majesty of our God” (Isaiah 35:2). Just where all hope looks most lost, there God is most motivated to put on the show and reveal who he really is: the Creator of New, the All-Things-Done-Well Doer. And with the same judgment by which he arrives to put an end to normal life, he arrives to “come and save you” if your life is outside that inclusive norm (Isaiah 35:4). When God steps onto the scene, things change! “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes” (Isaiah 35:5-7). So consider, then, how Jesus describes his own ministry: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). In other words, with the ministry of Jesus, God has stepped onto the scene, and things are changing wherever he goes! The touch of Jesus flips the panels. The touch of Jesus is the saving grace. The touch of Jesus is the healing and restoring presence of God. It's beautiful, what Jesus does!

And then there's this last key image, the way Isaiah finishes off the beautiful right panel. “A highway shall be there” (Isaiah 35:8). The myriad crisscrossing ways – each having a path of our own – give way to a single route, a highway. It really is the high road, a road built by mounding up the soil into an elevated path. What that means is that this path is unmistakable. It's well-marked, as a highway should be. It's clear and visible, as a highway should be. Which means there should be no confusion. In this life, we're prone to hearing people agonize about figuring out what's true, about discerning how to live. But once you know who the true God is, once you look to him, a lot of those convoluted back roads become unimportant. You can lift up your eyes and see this highway, raised up over the others. It isn't so hard to recognize, if we've got eyes to see.

So where does the highway lead? This highway has one destination in mind. It leads to Zion. It leads to God. It leads back to the home we lost. Isaiah describes taking this highway as an act of “return[ing] and com[ing] to Zion.” It's the way home from exile. It's the way together from the scattering. It's the way Edenward from the wastelands. It's the way to the party from the doldrums. For to approach Zion is to sing: “come to Zion with singing.” It has to be! Because in approaching Zion, “everlasting joy shall crown their heads: gladness and joy shall overtake them, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). This picture is just as vivid as anything on the left panel. To get near this destination is a promise that gladness will suddenly tackle you out of nowhere. Joy will hunt you down. And in the surprise, sadness will get spooked and hightail it out of there in shock. It's like the promise God would later give through another prophet, Jeremiah:

Hear the word of Yahweh, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away! … For Yahweh has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of Yahweh – over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd. Their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness (Jeremiah 31:10-14).

It's such a precious picture! A people living at peace, languishing no more. Singing with serene confidence on the heights. Being absolutely radiant over God's goodness in his provision. Enjoying life like a well-watered garden, like the Eden we lost. Merriment for those young in years and those older in years. Dancing. Comfort. An abundant feast, forever satisfied with the goodness of God. Can you picture yourself in it? Can you see it all around you if you close your eyes? This is home! This is where you belong! This is how you should be!

And that is where the highway is leading. It's the one clear path you can't miss, and it's the only road to where you belong and how everything should be in your life. Don't you want to get on that highway? Well, be alerted that it's like the Turnpike, and you need to pass through an entryway to embark. How do you get on? What's our E-ZPass for this highway? Isaiah explains, “The redeemed shall walk there” (Isaiah 35:9). In other words, those whom God has bought a ticket for, those whom God has bought back, those whom God calls family – for that's what redemption is all about. It's his controlled-access highway, and “the unclean shall not pass over it” (Isaiah 35:8). The name of the highway is this: The Way of Holiness.

As believers, we already have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all” (Hebrews 10:10), but we're not all the way there: Paul prays for God to still “sanctify you completely (1 Thessalonians 5:23). And as we walk the Way of Holiness, we are presently being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). And in part, that sanctification will produce purity and cleanliness: “God has not called us for impurity but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). “If anyone cleanses himself from what's dishonorable, he'll be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). These are things we should all know.

But almost every time Isaiah uses the word 'holy' in his book, he's referring to God as the “Holy One of Israel.” God is set apart as holy. God is set apart as uniquely the proper target of Israel's hope and trust. Holiness is uniqueness, special separation from what's ordinary. And for us to be holy means, in turn, to be exclusively and uniquely related to God, and thus distinguished from worldly norms. “Be holy in all your conduct,” we're told (1 Peter 1:15). And if we're ever to make it to Zion, to the New Jerusalem, then we need to “strive... for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). And that means to strive for something that isn't normal – it means to strive to have God as our exclusive Hope, God as our exclusive Trust, God as our unique focus. So often, as individuals and even as the church, we try to go about our business in ways that say nothing about God, that have little to do with God – ways that are not unique to God's people. And when that's what we do, when we refuse to be God-conscious and God-centered and God-powered in how we live or even profess to minister, then we're merely mundane. And that's falling short of the holiness Isaiah is calling us to.

And now Isaiah finishes his diptych. On the left panel, the normal life of a sin-tainted world graphically leads to the Great Undone. But on the right panel, God intervenes – as he has in Jesus Christ – and so those whom God has redeemed are called to walk the Way of Holiness and press onward to Zion with heavenly song. This is the only panel that promises to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” and offer assurance to the “hasty heart” (Isaiah 35:3-4). It's the only panel where flowers bloom by surprise, where beauty creeps up from the shadows, where parking lots become parks. It's the only panel where gladness is more eager to get to us than we are to get to it. But we have a choice as to which panel we'll paint ourselves in. And the right panel calls us to walk to Zion on the Way of Holiness. There is no other way. Normal doesn't cut it. If our minds and hearts are not focused on God's Spirit and on the spiritual qualities of all we do, we'll get sidetracked. Don't get sidetracked by the normal. March to Zion under Jesus' banner. For he is the Way of Holiness. Amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Salvation by Quietness: Sermon on Isaiah 30

A warm July day in Paris. The race begins. Runner 451 is twenty-two years old. Before the 400-meter dash, while so many of his competitors hyped themselves up, he felt at peace. He'd made a name for himself – and taken his share of flak – for a principled stance against running on Sundays. But this was a Friday. So as he ran and ran, he fixed his eyes, not on a competitor, not even on the finish line, but on the heavens above. He pushed and sprinted the whole length of the dash in 47.6 seconds. And with a quiet confidence, he felt the ribbon break across his chest – he'd won the gold. He'd set a record. He took a deep breath. And within a minute, as his competitors panted and moaned, he felt cool and collected again. His accomplishment was great. His place of peace was greater. Eric Liddell was the kind of man Isaiah might have liked to meet.

It's hard for us to imagine just how unnerving it was to Judah's leadership and population when the Assyrians invaded. We live, after all, in a big and powerful country which George Washington himself called a “rising empire” – we have our share of fears, but feeling small and powerless in the face of something that dwarfs us is seldom an American experience. Judah was a small country, faced down by a massive empire that ground up little nations by habit – just two decades earlier, Judah had been flooded with Israelite refugees fleeing from the Assyrian annihilation of that northern neighbor. And now the Assyrians were threatening the very existence of Judah, too. And for Hezekiah's advisors, it was all too much. There was only one other great world power that might be able to stand against the Assyrians – and that was Egypt. So the royal advisors sent diplomats to make a hasty trip to Egypt, in hopes of getting support – surely the Egyptians wouldn't want the Assyrians this close to their borders. The idea was that, through the effort of Judean diplomatic wiles and Egyptian military force, Hezekiah's kingdom could find salvation.

But as Isaiah makes clear, God wasn't thrilled with their decision to turn to Egypt. “Ah, stubborn children, who carry out a plan – but not mine! – and who weave a web – but not of my Spirit! – that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt” (Isaiah 30:1-2). In fact, Egypt was nowhere near capable of fending off the Assyrians. All of Egypt had recently been taken over by a foreign dynasty from Sudan, and although these new Nubian pharaohs were fascinated with restoring Egypt's heritage, they just weren't going to be up to the role Judah wanted them to play. It was no use. “Egypt's help is worthless and empty” (Isaiah 30:7), God announces. Egypt would “bring neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace” (Isaiah 30:5).

In fact, what God uses Isaiah to point out to Judah is that it's precisely their continued attempts to solve their own problem, their efforts to invest so much energy into the endeavor, that would dig them into ever-deeper holes, thus frittering away whatever resiliency and resources they yet retained. “Therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter's vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth or to dip up water out of the cistern” (Isaiah 30:13-14). All of Judah's activity was like thrashing around in quicksand. Their energetic efforts were making things so much worse than they ever needed to be.

So what God tells them is to stop. Stop moving. Stop thrashing. Stop trying. Stop working so hard. Stop all these programs and initiatives. Cancel them. Fall back. Retreat. Just hold still and let God work. God gives them a reminder of who he is: “the Lord Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel.” And then God reminds Judah of a message he'd apparently already given to them. Evidently, they'd ignored their prophet when he spoke these words before – they'd been too busy to listen, too consumed with activity to listen, too proud of themselves and their potential to listen – so now he repeats himself. And the message is this: “In returning and rest, you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Oh, there's the key! Isaiah tells them, “Yahweh waits to be gracious to you” (Isaiah 30:18). God is waiting! He waits to rescue them. He waits to protect them. He waits to accomplish for them. What's he waiting for? Just this – they have to return. That means both the diplomats being recalled from Egypt, and it means a general atmosphere of repentance, of confessing that they've sinned against God, of admitting their pride, of humbling themselves. And God is waiting for them to rest and be quiet – for them to quit their frenzy of activity, for them to just hold still – an action that I'm sure to them seems like a recipe for death. Which is why they need to trust, to be confident in God. God isn't looking here to reward the hard workers. Just the opposite. God is looking for them to call it quits! God is looking for them to throw in the towel! God wants them to settle down and admit that all this energy isn't getting them where they need to be. They've been running up the down escalator for too long. They've been struggling too much against this quicksand. They've worn themselves out. It's time to admit that they've not just been idolizing idols, they've also been idolizing their energy, their activity. They need to stop. They need to realize that all this energy and drive and initiative isn't what matters, isn't what's able to rescue them. They need to hold still, calm down, take five, and trust God to do everything that matters.

We're told that the first time Judah's leaders heard this message, they just flat-out rejected or ignored it. “For thus said the Lord..., but you were unwilling, and you said, 'No! We will flee upon horses..., we will ride upon swift steeds'” (Isaiah 30:15-16). They heard God's call to return and rest, to be quiet and trust, and they said that wasn't for them. No, they were going to get stronger, get faster! They were going to crank up the tempo, they were going to pick up the pace! They were going to show what they were made of, they were going to be achievers, they were going to set goals and accomplish them. Isaiah warns that their very efforts would become their downfall – that, in all this striving, they were planting the seeds of their decimation. They want to go fast on horses? Then they will – in the opposite direction. They want to get faster, faster? Then their pursuers will pick up the pace even more. “A thousand shall flee at the threat of one! At the threat of five you shall flee, 'til you're left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill” (Isaiah 30:17). Their undoing.

Just as Isaiah's preaching informed them, the Egyptians were no help... but, when Judah's leadership finally paid attention, when they at last listened to and heeded Isaiah's words, when they put them into practice by stopping the activity, cancelling the programs, returning and resting – well, then what happened? God broke the Assyrian onslaught. “The Angel of Yahweh went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians … then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh” (Isaiah 37:36-37). And Judah could then restfully recover: “The Assyrians will be terror-stricken at the voice of Yahweh, when he strikes with his rod” (Isaiah 30:31). “A people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more” (Isaiah 30:19). “And he will give rain for the seed which you sow in the ground, and bread, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. In that day your livestock will graze in large pastures, and the oxen and the donkeys that work the ground will eat seasoned fodder winnowed with shovel and fork. And on every lofty mountain and every high hill there will be brooks running with water in the day of great slaughter when the towers fall. And the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold as the light of seven days, in the day when Yahweh binds up the brokenness of his people and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow” (Isaiah 30:23-26). This deliverance would point to the ultimate one. All they need to do is be quiet.

And so it is with our souls. Not only are we prone to think we need to earn our way through life, but we can be tempted to apply the same logic to eternity. We're suspicious of a free lunch – no such thing, after all. And so we're tempted to ask what we have to do, what we have to achieve, to earn our way to heaven, to merit a place in the new creation. Do we have to climb the tall mountain? Do we have to swim the far sea? Do we have to go forth on a grand quest? Do we have to do twenty heroic deeds a day? What is it that will earn our way there, what will present us as worthy? We want to get a leg up on others – to be able to look at them and say that we qualify. We want that sort of upward mobility, that kind of promotion.

But if anyone knows how we can get there, it's God, and what he says is so different from what we may imagine – he says that it's precisely by faith that we can be saved! It's through a quiet trust, a restful repose, a stillness that turns focus back to God. Only in this way, and not by the achievements of our hands, can eternal hope be unleashed. For just as Judah against Assyria, so can all our schemes and all our efforts accomplish nothing to defeat the enemy of our souls. The only hope is to surrender to God. This yields the field to him, and he can accomplish more while we're resting than we can in the perspiration of our sternest struggle. God tells us by his prophet Paul that salvation is precisely for someone “who does not work, but believes” – restfully trusts – “in the One who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). We are saved by grace, and “if it is by grace, then it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). And this salvation is then “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). In our search for salvation, we will stumble if we chase it “as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:32). The great preacher C. H. Spurgeon said it this way when he preached on today's passage:

In order to be saved, you have simply to come to Jesus and to rest on him! Can you not do that? If you cannot, I will tell you why. It is not because you are too weak, but because you are too strong! It is strength that keeps a man from resting! It is weariness that makes him recline. The more faint and feeble he is, the more readily does he lean upon another. It is your strength that will destroy you – it is your supposed goodness that will ruin you – it is your own works that will be your destruction! Come now, and lean wholly and alone upon that almighty Savior whose heart was pierced for you, and then it shall be well with you!

In other words, return to the God who makes himself available in Jesus Christ. This Savior's heart was pierced for you. The accomplishments of his righteous life, the sufferings of his cross, the victories of his resurrection, the fruit of his ministry – they're more than enough. Trust Jesus. Quiet yourself to hear him. Humble yourself in his presence. Lean on him. Rest in him. Abide with him. Trying to earn your keep, you'll never attain, you'll just trip up your soul; but leaning on the everlasting arms of Jesus, you're supported by perfect strength. And if you'll still yourself, he whispers his love and mercy to you in the eye of the storm.

As the church, we should know all of this. We should understand that works-righteousness is a peril – that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, lest we should find room for boasting. But we're addicted to that boasting. And so even when we admit that works-righteousness is no measure of heavenly salvation, sometimes we wrongly think that we can make works-righteousness into the church's earthly salvation! And this especially is a pitfall of our evangelical subculture. Because for us low-church evangelicals, we've absorbed the American ethos of the corporate world, the can-do spirit of the pioneers and industrialists. We all want to be entrepreneurs – and we shape our churches accordingly. We want to do bigger. We want to do more. We're all about doing everything with passion, about doing everything with fire. We're all about being busy for God. Last year, a prominent Christian leader warned that “the evangelical movement in particular has made an idol of being busy for God, to the point that God himself has been increasingly eclipsed from our hearts and minds...”

As a consequence of that idolatry, we in the church are inclined to value people according to their contributions. In particular, we value people according to what works they do, what passion they exude, what level of energy they exhibit and lend. A passionate person is worthwhile; a calm and measured worker is less treasured. That's the mentality in many churches. The risk of this is that we put so much emphasis on what a person can do that we neglect who they are. We measure people by their skills over their sanctity, their contribution over their character, their heat more than their heart. It's not a new problem. But it is a skewed priority. Because God did not say that our strength was found in energy and passion. He said our strength would be in quietness and trust. And when the church forgets that in how we live together, then we will trust in our works – our programs, our initiatives – for 'salvation' from our decline. The church will collectively live by works-righteousness, turning away from the living God. All because we were so fixated on passion and activity that we missed true strength.

And much the same applies to our individual lives, whether in the church or out of the church. We are tempted to value ourselves by what we can outwardly do in the world. It's a common temptation – I know I feel it all the time, tempted to measure the value of a day by what I achieved, what tangible results I can show for it, what I can claim as accomplishments to justify myself. We take our value in what we do, day by day. And for a while, we maybe think we can live like that. But we can't. We can't live sustainably by tying our value to productivity. This bad habit is especially crippling as we age. For as we age, we find that our strength of body and mind will start failing. Our energy dries up. Our stamina lags. We can't put our thoughts together as clearly. We can't lift all the things we once did, or labor with the precision we used to. And if we've been building up a habit of tying our value to productivity, then as aging degrades certain abilities we used to use to produce, we'll struggle to see ourselves as retaining our value. If we see our worth as what we do, then once we can't do what we used to, we may wrestle with a waning sense of self-worth.

But your worth is not in what you can do! Your worth is not in how much energy you have. Frenzy and activity are unrelated, in the eyes of God, to your worth. They are unrelated to your importance. They are unrelated to your fruitfulness. Because the fruit of the Spirit has nothing to do with outward achievements. Passion is not a fruit of the Spirit! But patience is. Peace is. Goodness and gentleness are. The fruit of the Spirit is grown in your character, grown from your soul; not grown with your hands or your intellect. True strength is a quiet trust in the God we meet in Jesus Christ. If you want to be saved from insignificance, the path is not to go be mighty, the path is not to speed up, the path is not to buy and sell. If you want to be saved from insignificance, the path and key is just resting faithfully in the Lord.

Consider again the story of Eric Liddell. A record-making Olympic champion. Speed personified. But he lived for something else. As the son of Scottish missionaries who worked in China, he later returned to China as a missionary himself. He worked patiently and faithfully. And in 1943, when the Japanese invasion reached his mission station, he and his fellow missionaries, with others, were all thrown into an internment camp. Liddell spent his time playing chess, preaching, exuding joy. Even when he was malnourished. Even when he was confined. Even when he was ill. You see, it turned out that he had a brain tumor. Inoperable. It sapped many of his outward abilities. By February 1945, he certainly wasn't showing off his speed any more. But that was okay. He used his last strength to scribble, on paper, as best as his failing brain could recall, some lyrics from his favorite hymn, the hymn he'd often sung as he'd zipped around the country roads of China. And that hymn was “Be Still, My Soul.” For all the speed of his legs, for all the athletic efficiency of his body at its peak, he quested after stillness where it counted. And so when he became confined and sick, when he neared the doors of death, he knew that his fruitfulness had never been in his energy and accomplishments. God may have been pleased to watch him run, but God was much more pleased to watch him rest in Jesus, trust in Jesus, become quiet and still in the arms of Jesus. And that – not the musculature of his legs or the passion of his preaching – was his authentic strength. And the quiet quality of his soul, rather than the outcome of some race, is what makes him significant today, certainly significant in the eyes of God. So may it be for us.

Whether in this life or the next, whether individually or as a church, let's remember to simply abide. Jesus calls himself the Vine and tells us that we're his branches (John 15:5). A branch from a vine doesn't have to labor and struggle in order for the grapes to grow. All the branch has to do is stay connected to the vine, and receptive to the life and nourishment that flows from the vine into it. As branches of Jesus, our fruitfulness is never a product of our energy, never an accomplishment of our activity. Fruit is the product of non-resistant abiding – an enduring connection to Jesus that refuses to resist his Spirit's work in our hearts, all while submitting to the pruning work of those the Father hires. For as our vices are pruned away and a trellis of good formation is set for our healthy and directed growth, we can be healthy and fruitful branches. But that fruit is not grown in what we accomplish, but in who we become. The fruit God cares about most is not our work but our character.

So the hope of the church, the hope of the individual, is not to get energized. It's to get deep. It's to deeply abide, deeply connect to Christ. It's to be pruned and guided, yet let him produce the life that, through us, will yield the fruit. It's to be quiet and be still, yielding the field to him. And that's not something our programs can do. It's a matter of formation by the word of God, by song, by sacrament, by devotion and meditation. These are things that encourage us, not to spend and expend, but to quietly be open and be changed. We put ourselves through so much trouble, when the one necessary thing is quiet trust, a return to rest. What we need to relearn is that “the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him; it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:25-26). For “in returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). Returning. Rest. Quietness. Trust. May they be ours, that salvation and strength follow. May we all soon be able to pray with the psalmist: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I don't occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother – like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:1-3). Amen.