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.

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