Sunday, February 23, 2020

Wisdom's Call: Sermon on Proverbs 8-9

It was daybreak Daybreak not now, daybreak not last year, but daybreak one morning in the ninth century. In the populous, bustling city of Thessaloniki, a Byzantine melting pot, a loving couple was up to set the table for breakfast before Leo, the husband, had to go oversee his troops. Neither he nor his wife Maria expected any of their seven children to be up yet. But the youngest one surprised them. Little Constantine, age seven, came running through the house, calling out, “Mom! Dad! Mom! Dad!” Leo and Maria had known he was special – so special, they'd decided not to have any more children after him, not to risk it. But now what did he want?

“Mom, Dad, you'll never guess the dream I had last night!” And so Leo and Maria listened to little Constantine tell them about his dream. In his dream, Leo's boss – the military governor of the province – had given an order for all the girls in the entire city to gather together in the town square. And then the governor had knelt down next to Constantine and whispered, “It's time for you to choose who your wife will be. You can pick any of these girls, and she'll be your helper your entire life long. The choice is yours now, but you have to choose from the girls you see here.” Seven-year-old Constantine had hardly given a great deal of thought to marriage! But in his dream, he looked out over this dense crowd of girls, all the girls of Thessaloniki; he walked among them, looking for anyone who stood out. And suddenly, there she was. A girl he'd never seen before. And she was just so pretty and just so fancy – she looked like a little empress, with fine clothes and gold necklaces and pearls and a shining face. And even at seven years old, the dreaming Constantine felt butterflies in his tummy to look at her. He'd pointed her out to the governor, and asked for her name. And the great general knelt down and said to Constantine, “Her name, my boy, is Wisdom.” Constantine looked at her again, compared her to all the other girls, and said, without a shadow of a doubt, “I choose her! I choose Wisdom!” And then the dream began to dissipate into the night, as wedding bells chimed in the back of the boy's mind.

Maria embraced her son, and she exchanged an astonished glance with her husband Leo. They were Christians – and faithful ones, more than some of their neighbors. So they knew the scriptures, knew the tales of dreamers like Jacob, Joseph, Solomon. What could their little boy's dream mean, but a calling upon his life? So Leo sat Constantine down and reminded him of what the Book of Proverbs said. “My son, keep your father's commandment, and forsake not your mother's teaching” (Proverbs 6:20). Just as Leo and Maria had submitted to God's wisdom, so they would pass on their training in godliness to Constantine as long as they lived. “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are a way of life” (Proverbs 6:23), a gift to guard against the bewitching lasses. “Say to Wisdom, 'You are my sister,' and call Insight your intimate friend” (Proverbs 7:4). For Wisdom, Leo explained, is a lady who outshines the sun, and if Constantine really would pursue her – if that was God's call upon his life, to be fully wedded to Wisdom, to be so closely joined to Wisdom that all she has becomes his – then he'd be saved a lot of trouble. A good life.

Well, Constantine started school not long after that, and proved to be the brightest in the class – a real prodigy. During the course of his life – which ended due to a sickness in his forties, after he'd changed his name from Constantine to Cyril – he became many things. A priest. A monk. A librarian. A teacher. A Bible translator. An imperial ambassador. A missionary and evangelist. But those who loved him most dearly, who hung on his every word, called him 'the Philosopher.' The lover of Wisdom. And Constantine – St. Cyril – had a dazzling and remarkable career, as did his older brother Michael who became St. Methodius. All because the lady Cyril loved, the woman he wedded, was Wisdom herself.

As a boy, he was invited in a dream. But the same invitation is held out to all of us in the Book of Proverbs. In the past few weeks, we've explored a few different dimensions to wisdom. But until now, we haven't had much inkling that wisdom was anything more than a character trait or an abstract ideas. Yet now Wisdom steps forward as a person, Lady Wisdom, who presents us with her autobiography. She steps forward to tell her story. “Yahweh begot me at the beginning of his way, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was established, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths, I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields or the first of the dust of the world” (Proverbs 8:22-26).

In Isaiah, God declares that he was alone when he created the universe: “I am Yahweh who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns 'wise' men back and makes their knowledge foolish” (Isaiah 44:24-25). But Proverbs introduces us to someone who keeps God company when God is all alone, someone who has a hand in everything God does when God goes it alone. This someone is Wisdom, and she is on the inside of all God's alone time. Wisdom belongs eternally with God from the inside-out. She relates to him like a child to a father, because he begot her – not in time, but eternally, timelessly. In the far reaches of eternity before the world was ever made, Wisdom was there with her Father, was his constant companion, God's other self. No earth. No deeps. No hills or mountains or springs or fields. Not even the dust, nor even the stardust. Not a single solitary atom. No time. No space. No matter or energy. Only eternity. Only God. And when there was nothing but God alone... Wisdom was there, in God's mind, being timelessly born out of the “womb of [God's] heart.” And so when God commenced the sequence of time and stretched out the distances of space, Wisdom was there. When God separated the day from the night, Wisdom took note. And when God brought dry land out of the deeps and gave shape to the hills and valleys, the springs and rivers and fields, Wisdom watched.

Not only that, but Wisdom had her hands in it up to the elbows! She explains further, “When he established the heavens – I was there! When he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth – then I was beside him, like a master craftsman” (Proverbs 8:27-30a). Not just a passive observer. A master craftsman or workman. An architect, an artist, a builder, a designer. None of the Lord's work was done without Lady Wisdom's involvement: “Yahweh by Wisdom founded the earth” and “established the heavens” (Proverbs 3:19). “O Yahweh, how manifold are your works – in Wisdom you have made them all” (Psalm 104:24). Wisdom had her hand on everything, from within God's own mind and heart; and not for a moment did she waver from his side. Not for a moment did this Lady Wisdom take a leave of absence, take her eyes off the ball. No, she was there. She has stories to tell that are older than time. She has scenes to paint that make galaxies look small.

And then Wisdom tells us something else. She says, “And I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (Proverbs 8:30b). Wisdom delighted in her Father, and he delighted in her, like a proud papa watching his baby coo, like a laughing dad clapping as his little girl dances through the meadows, basking in the light of the sun. Such it was with God and his Wisdom. She danced for him every day, basking and celebrating in all he had made. And with every step Wisdom took through the fields and over the hills, across the waters and down to the fountains of the deeps, and as her dance raced across the skies fastened firmly overhead, her Father laughed and shouted, “Then I see it is good!”

And then came what Genesis calls that sixth day. Wisdom remembers. She remembers Adam and Eve and all they ever stood for. They were the playmates of her age-old youth. For as Wisdom tells us now in Proverbs, summing up her achievements of long ago, not only was she daily God's delight and rejoicing before him each day, but she was “rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man” (Proverbs 8:31). Like a little girl running around with her friends, Wisdom celebrated that the world wasn't made to be empty. This world of ours was made to be filled, filled with God's works, filled with God's creatures, and the crowning creatures, the finishing touches in this masterpiece, were us. And Wisdom delighted in us! Wisdom was happy every time she looked at us! All Wisdom ever wanted was to dance with us, and play the games of life with us, and run through everlasting fields with us! And although we left those garden fields behind, still Wisdom is determined to come find us, to seek and save her lost friends at last.

And by now, maybe you can guess what the early generations of Christians saw when they read this chapter. For they believed that, on the other side of Easter and Pentecost, a light shone backward that lit up the entire Old Testament, revealing in vivid color those things that had been murky before, and so now they could finally see in daylight what had been waiting there all along, the hidden meaning, the treasure buried in scripture's field – and when the light of the gospel hit this chapter, they saw who this Wisdom is. And a few of them, squinting, thought they recognized Wisdom as the Holy Spirit. But all the rest, with one voice, cried out, “Where Wisdom stood, there stands our Jesus!” For who else is begotten of the Father in the timeless halls of eternity? And who else stood by the Father and was the master craftsman of all creation? That's Jesus!

Which means that Jesus is eternal. Jesus is the divine craftsman. And Jesus, before ever he took flesh, was the daily delight in his Father's eyes, and the one who only ever wanted to dance with us through a world at peace. For Jesus is the Wisdom of God – “Christ, the Power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). He is the one whom the teacher in Proverbs see as Lady Wisdom. He is the One whose threads are woven so deep into creation's fabric. And even when we left those garden fields behind, still he was determined to come seek and save the lost friends he knew in a younger world. And when the Father declares that “Yahweh gives Wisdom” (Proverbs 2:6), we see that the Father gives Jesus; when we hear that “Wisdom will come into your heart” (Proverbs 2:10), we see that Jesus will enter our hearts. So “blessed is the one who finds [Jesus]” (Proverbs 3:13)! “[Jesus] is better than jewels: all you desire can't compare with [Jesus]” (Proverbs 8:11)!

The next chapter presents us with two women, vying for our attention, yearning to be our host. One is Wisdom. The other is Folly. “The woman Folly is loud – she's seductive and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, she takes a seat in the heights of the town, calling to those who pass by, who are going straight on their way, 'Whoever's simple, let him turn in here!' And to one who lacks sense, she says, 'Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant'” (Proverbs 9:13-17).

But then, on the other hand, there stands Wisdom. She said she'd come find us. And here she is. Wisdom has undertaken a long preparation for this. “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). And her house sits at the pinnacle of the heights of the city – in other words, her house is where the temple goes. And her house is a magnificent mansion. What does she do there? “She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the tops of the heights of the town” (Proverbs 9:2-3). The call she makes, whether by messengers or in person, is very public. We hear elsewhere, “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, at the entrance of the city gate she speaks” (Proverbs 1:20-21). “Does not Wisdom call? Doesn't Understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud” (Proverbs 8:1-3). To hear from Wisdom isn't a private affair. She's out in public. She's going to find people where they already are. The street, the market, the crossroads, the gates where city life meets countryside.

And she'll take anybody, she wants to teach anybody. There are no prerequisites for her class. “To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man,” any offspring of Adam (Proverbs 8:4). She welcomes those who already have some experience: “Give to a wise man, and he'll be even wiser; teach a righteous man, and he'll increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:9). But she hasn't come for just the already righteous, the already wise. She isn't here to select out the 'gifted,' she isn't looking for geniuses or the elite only, not those who can somehow prove their worth. She wants the naive to come to her, wants the uneducated to gather around: “O simple ones, learn prudence!” (Proverbs 8:5a). “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?” (Proverbs 1:22a). She wants them to come to her and be changed, come to her and learn what they need. She even wants fools, mockers, and scoffers in her class. “O fools, learn sense!” (Proverbs 8:5b). “How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” (Proverbs 1:22b). Scoffers and sinners can be transformed, if they'll “turn at [her] reproof” – because if they will, then she promises, “Behold, I will pour out my Spirit to you; I will make my words known to you!” (Proverbs 1:23). And that's an offer she makes to any humans, who come from any background, any education level, any sex or race or nation or age. It's an offer she makes to you.

Because you are who Wisdom has been looking for. You were on her mind when she sent out her messengers. Because she's extending an invite, just like that devilish rival Folly. Folly wants to seduce you into her flimsy den of flimflam, wants to feed you with stolen water and secret bread. But Wisdom has slaughtered the fatted calf for you and mixed spices and honey into her heady wine for you. Wisdom wants to offer you a much richer meal. And she says, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here! … Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:4-6). Wisdom has set a table for you; and, gathered 'round this table of banquet delights, she'll teach you what it means to really live. And she says to you, “Blessed is whoever listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from Yahweh; but whoever fails to find me injures himself – all who hate me love death” (Proverbs 8:34-36). Wisdom is serious – joyfully, joyfully serious. To find her is to find life and stand in God's smile. To run away from her, to throw her invitation in the trash, is to go home and cuddle up with the Grim Reaper. And Wisdom doesn't want that for any of us! Wisdom wants to show us delicacies beyond our palate, wants to nourish us in the light and make us new people. Wisdom is inviting me and inviting you. And as one third-century Christian said about it, “Wisdom's divine heavenly beauty invites the one who contemplates it to love.”

When early generations of Christians like that looked back on this chapter in Proverbs, they heard of Wisdom building a house and thought about the birth of Jesus – how his very own divine power knitted together a body of flesh and blood for himself in Mary's womb, a body he would later proclaim to be the temple, which would be torn down and raised in three days. And not only did he raise that body in three days, but he extended his body, including us in it. For now earth does have the Body of Christ, the Temple of God – and it's the Church. And just like Revelation uses seven local churches to represent the whole, so Proverbs uses seven pillars to hold up the temple, Wisdom's House. Blessed is whoever listens to Jesus, watching daily at his gates through the everyday spiritual disciplines and waiting beside his doors to enter this house of his. For whoever fails to find Jesus is hurting no one but him- or herself, and rejecting Jesus is choosing to love Death. But whoever finds Jesus, whoever learns from Jesus and receives his Spirit, has found life and stands in the favor of a smiling God and Father! For the meal Jesus offers, the table Wisdom spreads, is far more delightful than any quick pleasures Folly can muster. And even a scoffer and fool can come through this door to meet Jesus, the Wisdom of God.

Proverbs expresses these things under the image of two women, each inviting a man passing by to come into her house and have a meal. Of course, in Israelite culture, an invitation into a woman's house for a meal was often suggestive of intimacy. It hinted at courting, at seduction. Folly wants to seduce you. But Wisdom wants to be your lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold. Make Wisdom your most intimate friend! For Wisdom comes to us with a marriage proposal. She says that, if you'll marry her, marry Wisdom, she'll bless you with true life and true riches and true delights. And she's right. She wants to pick up where we all left off – dancing in the fields of all creation, singing in the heights of the heavens, feasting and playing and delighting and rejoicing in each other, intimately, for eternity ahead. That's Wisdom's wish. And this Wisdom is none other than Jesus, who laid down his life to spread a full table, and who rose again out of sheer joy for life.

Where Proverbs leaves us now is faced with two invitations: Folly's house or Wisdom's palace, the world's ways or Jesus' light, the stolen water of worldly pleasures or the sweet-and-spicy wine of Jesus' love. Whom do we want? Whom do we love? Will we fall for Jesus, gather 'round the table where he teaches, hang on his every word? Or will we pass right by, take another road from the crossroads, go about our business in the market, let the noise of the streets of the day-to-day drown out his call? If we want Wisdom, if we want Jesus, then the whole rest of Proverbs is filled with his touch and the echo of his voice. The beauty of a little boy's heaven-sent dream from long ago, the dream of Constantine who became St. Cyril, is a dream open to us as well. Wisdom stands before us, surrounded by the throng. Let us point to Wisdom and marvel at her majesty and shout out, “I choose her!” Let us see Jesus Christ on the cross, and marvel at his grace, and shout all the louder, “I choose him!” And may we hear him and love him and dance with him all the days eternity has to offer. Amen.

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.