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.

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