You Asked For A Sermon On WISDOM
Acts 7:22, Matthew 10:16, Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 111:10,
A zoo in modern-day Israel houses all the animals mentioned in the bible. One exhibit features a lamb and a wolf in the same pen. When my friend, Rabbi Larry Englander, visited this zoo he asked an attendant how this could be: a lamb and a wolf in the same pen! Without looking up or missing a broomstroke the attendant replied, "Every day, a new lamb." Lambs don't last long among the wolves.
When Jesus sent out his missioners he told them that their task would not be easy. "Behold, I send you out as sheep among wolves", he said. Then he added the caution, "So be wise as serpents and innocent as doves." You and I (together will everyone else) live in a wolfish world. Wisdom is needed merely to survive. Greater wisdom is needed if, beyond surviving, people and communities are to thrive. Greater wisdom still is needed if Jesus Christ is to be discerned and honoured and obeyed, and his kingdom pointed out.
I: -- Let's think first about the wisdom needed if people are to survive, even thrive. We must never assume that such wisdom is found among Christians only. Such wisdom is found among different peoples in every era. Luke tells us that "Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians." Two things stand out here. One, there was genuine wisdom in Egypt; two, the wisdom Moses acquired in Egypt was surely put to good use when he led the Israelite people (who were non-Egyptians) out of Egypt and then led them through the wilderness years.
Scripture maintains that wisdom is especially needed in any society in the arts of government and justice. Unless a society possesses wisdom with respect to governing, that society will collapse into chaos. Since social existence is impossible amidst chaos, people will rush to end the chaos by submitting to tyranny. Tyranny may be unpleasant, but at least it permits survival. In a word, unless some people in any society are wise in the art of governing, oppression will ensue.
In the same way the Hebrew bible insists on the necessity of justice. Unless the courts are seen to be just inasmuch as they in fact are just, individuals will attempt to redress injustices themselves, with the result that social existence is a desperate scramble where even the scramble is foreshortened for many.
But of course wisdom is needed -- and found -- in many areas besides government and justice throughout many different cultures. The Chinese, native Africans, Amerindians: they all possess a wisdom in areas of life where we white North Americans appear to lack it; we should be silly to discredit it or ignore it. John Wesley, having understood the importance of that Egyptian wisdom which Moses acquired, used to urge his 18th century Methodist followers to "plunder the Egyptians". By "plunder the Egyptians" Wesley meant that sensible Christians will be grateful for wisdom they come upon anywhere. To be sure, the wisdom we come upon anywhere at all we shall modify and adapt in light of the light which Jesus Christ is. Nonetheless, since wisdom, everywhere in scripture, has to do with how to live, we shall not disdain any help with living which we gain from any quarter. Remember: when Jesus urges us to be wise he prefaces his urging with the reminder that we live in a wolfish world. In other words, lack of wisdom is fatal.
II: -- As we think together about wisdom today we should understand that more focused than the wisdom which can be found among the "Egyptians" is that wisdom which is reflected in the discipleship of Christ's followers. This wisdom starts with the fear of God: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". "Fear" in the sense of awe, reverence, respect; acknowledgement that God is God and is not to be trifled with. God is creator; he has fashioned the creation in such a way that we can live in harmony with his plan and purpose and will, or we can try to live against it. But to try to live against it is to find ourselves rubbed raw, and rawer still, until life is gratingly painful, miserable, useless, and even abbreviated. In short, to try to live against the Creator's plan and purpose and will is to die.
We have no difficulty understanding all of this in the physical realm. The person who neglects nutrition, shortchanges herself on sleep, eats what is known to promote gastric distress, goes boating in icy waters without a lifejacket; when it all finally catches up to such a person and disaster overtakes him we shake our heads and say, "What did he expect? What else did he think was going to happen? Has he no wisdom?"
Yet as soon as we move to our total existence under God we seem uncomprehending with respect to wisdom. We pretend that concerning wisdom in our life under God there is a deep, dark mystery. Nonsense! Our Hebrew foreparents always knew that the Ten Commandments, for instance, so far from being arbitrary and confining, onerous and oppressive; the Ten Commandments mark out the boundaries inside which there is blessing and freedom and contentment, outside which there is curse and bondage and misery. The Sermon On The Mount is our Lord's characterization of his followers. This characterization is to imprint itself so deeply into us that its hidden presence within us will make us glow with it as surely as the electric current in a Christmas tree lightbulb renders the tree unmistakable. The weight and pressure of our risen Lord upon the apostles impelled them to speak his mind and heart; for this reason the apostolic injunctions on how to live bespeak the mind of Christ. The author of Hebrews, for instance, maintains that as soon as Christ's people find the rank weed of bitterness growing up within them they are to uproot it lest they (and others) become defiled.
Last September I preached a sermon, "Touched Again", in which I spoke of my deliverance from several things which had haunted me and twisted me for the last two or three years. One such matter was bitterness. The struggle which has claimed so much of my time and energy and anguish had subtly embittered me. And then by God's grace I was relieved as Maureen put her finger on the unsightly pus-point which I had managed not to see. Within a few weeks of that sermon half-a-dozen people here spoke to me quietly of how they had been victimized at some point in their lives, and how they too had struggled with deep-seated resentment and acidified heart until they too were delivered (or, in or two cases, now understand that they must seek deliverance.) To recognize the apostolic injunction concerning bitterness as the mind and will of Jesus Christ is near-wisdom, but only near-wisdom. Near-wisdom becomes wisdom as and only as we move from recognizing the mind and will of Christ to abandoning ourselves to it.
For years I have maintained that the Christian life is simple. I didn't say easy; I said simple. Simple in the sense of plain, transparent, unmistakable. For example, when Paul speaks of lurid immorality as unwise we instantly reply, "Of course"; yet when he says in the very same sentence that covetousness is unwise to the same degree and with the same effect we don't say anything! We find it far easier to avoid lurid immorality (who wants community-disgrace as well as an incurable S.T.D.?) than we do to avoid covetousness. I never said the Christian life is easy; I said simple, simple in the sense that we cannot pretend, we who are Christ's people, that we do not know what it is. We cannot pretend that we do not know what it is to be wise in a wolfish world. We become genuinely wise; that is, we do the truth, in John's splendid phrase, as we fear God. The starting point of wisdom, for God's people, is the fear of God himself.
III: -- Wisdom, in scripture, becomes even more narrowly focused. Now it is focused not on life in general, but on congregational life in particular. Wisdom, here, is not merely how to live, but how to live together; more to the point, how to live together as Christ's people.
Because we are fallen human beings we can always offend others deliberately, and to offend others deliberately is to be guilty of sin. But even if we do not offend others deliberately, we frequently offend them inadvertently. On numerous occasions people have been offended at something about me and told me (told me off) about it, even as I protested that intended no harm. To say I intended no harm, however, is not to say that I did no harm; not to say that I was harmless. Merely to intend no harm is not to be guiltless. One day a woman told me she was offended at my sarcastic speech. I told her I was not aware of it and told here as well that I meant no harm. "I never said that you meant not harm", she continued, "I'm telling you that did harm, and do it often, since sarcasm is the colour your speech assumes whenever you feel yourself criticized." I went to the floor with that one, and stayed on the floor for a while. The woman was right. The fact that I haven't intended harm does not mean that I haven't done harm. Offence has been given inadvertently, and I am as guilty of sin as much as if I had given offence deliberately.
And then beyond the matter of giving offence, genuinely giving offence, you and I also take offence where in fact no offence has been given at all, neither deliberately nor inadvertently. Some "offenses" are purely imaginary; still, imaginary offenses corrode our life together as much as actual offenses.
Unquestionably some people are more mature and more secure than others. Nevertheless, the most mature, most secure person still has an Achilles heel of immaturity and insecurity. Usually it comes to light accidentally. When it does, the 90% mature, 90% secure person will react exactly like the immature, insecure person. Of course! The Greek figure, Achilles, was vulnerable only through a very small part of his anatomy; yet through this very small part he was entirely vulnerable! To be vulnerable only through our individual Achilles heel is to be as vulnerable there as other people are in large areas of their personality. For this reason the person whom we are not expecting to take offence is prodded, one day, in a sensitive spot unknown to us; suddenly he ignites, or sulks, or retaliates with a counter-prod, or simply quits. At this point "we" -- whether those who constitute the "we" are the smallest subcommittee of the congregation or the entire congregation; "we" are on the road to fragmentation.
As a matter of fact the congregation in Corinth had already fragmented. Church-members were lining up behind their favourite leader, bickering among themselves as to which leader was the ablest. Some drank so much wine at the Lord's Supper that they became disorderly. Some maintained that their talents were superior to the talents of anyone else in the congregation. To be sure, all Christians, said Paul, all Christians are moving towards the unity of the faith, towards maturity, towards the measure of the full stature of Jesus Christ. We are moving towards this, but we aren't there yet. For this reason the apostle writes to the congregation in Corinth and asks with much anguish, "Isn't there someone among you who is wise enough to settle disputes?"
The wisdom needed to settle disputes is not a technique. Neither is it duplicity or manipulation. Nothing enrages people so much as feeling that they have been manipulated. They resent being taken advantage of. They resent feeling powerless. What's more, the person who is reduced to powerlessness quickly becomes the nastiest person around. Nastiness is the final coping-mechanism of the powerless. The wisdom needed in congregational life is not a technique; manipulation is only counter-productive; duplicity, when discovered, will only worsen fragmentation. The wisdom needed to move stand-offs past the impasse; the wisdom needed to get wounded church-members preoccupied not with their wounds but with the kingdom-work to which they have pledged themselves; this wisdom is a gift from God which must be found in several people within a congregation or else the congregation will soon be little more than a collection of people clamouring to have their wound bandaged.
I am aware that I have gifts, which, by God's grace, are useful in God's kingdom. I am also aware that there are gifts which other people in vastly greater supply. I am aware that there are people in this congregation who have the gift of wisdom, in the sense of that wisdom needed if a congregation is to thrive, in vastly greater supply than I. In fact, concerning this gift I have often felt like someone attempting watch-repair with a crow-bar; why not let the most skilful jewellers do the watch-repair?
It is the apostle James who has the most to say about that especial wisdom needed to keep a congregation moving ahead in its kingdom-work, not getting sidetracked or stalled by contentions and controversies. With his customary down-to-earth practicality James insists that there are two huge impediments to wisdom's effectiveness in a congregation: "bitter jealousy" and "selfish ambition". Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition create a spiritual vacuum which is filled with "disorder and wickedness of every kind".(NRSV)
Now some of you people have told me that you regard my vocabulary somewhat exaggerated, with the result that some of my pulpit-statements are overstated. "Disorder and wickedness of every kind": these are not my words. Then is the apostle's vocabulary exaggerated? I think not. Selfish ambition and bitter jealousy will negate the wisdom which any congregation must have if it is to thrive. It is a sign of wisdom that we recognize the truth of what James says and never doubt it.
IV: -- So far we have talked about wisdom from the standpoint of that wisdom which we must exercise, the wisdom needed to live godly lives amidst a wolfish world. Now it is time to talk about God's wisdom. Paul insists that God's wisdom is demonstrated in the cross. The cross is that outpouring of God himself by which God has reconciled the cosmos to himself and has pardoned our offenses. No one in the ancient world looked upon the gallows as an act of wisdom; no one in the modern world does either. People with a philosophical turn of mind, says Paul, assume that wisdom comes out of high-brow philosophy. People with a messianic expectation assume that a dramatic occurrence in world history will dazzlingly display eternal wisdom. Paul insists that the act of God's outpoured sacrifice, the humiliation which tops all of the humiliations he has endured, is alone that wisdom which is the world's only hope.
Then the apostle says one thing more. The opposite of being wise is being a fool. And we are Christ's people are most profoundly wise, with God's wisdom, precisely when we appear most stupidly foolish; namely, when we are fools for Christ's sake. We are fools for Christ's sake when we cling to his cross and shoulder our own.
The older I grow the more aware I am of how great a sacrifice congregational leadership exacts. I have been stunned at the self-outpouring and the humiliation which devoted congregational leaders have sustained one hundred times over and will yet.
Beyond congregational life as well, I am aware of weighty crossbearing which is done so very quietly, to be sure, and will prove to have been so very effective on the day of our Lord's appearing. My friend Bob Rumball, minister of the deaf congregation in Toronto for 35 years; his entire life has been given over to deaf people, especially deaf children who are multi-handicapped (that is, deaf children who are also blind or mute or brain-damaged). One day one of Bob's five children said to him, "Daddy, can't we have any friends who can hear?" Then I think of the people whom I meet through the Peel Mental Health Housing Coalition as it attempts to find accommodation for schizophrenic-sufferers. The people in the support networks are usually parents or relatives. The agony they have borne for years, and borne when they could have washed their hands of it all and moved to Vancouver; the burden of their crossbearing you and I will never know.
The wolfish world regards these people as fools. They are fools -- but precisely fools of him whose wisdom appears foolish but in fact is the guarantee of the creation's restoration.
It is as I cheerfully shoulder that cross which has been appointed to me, cheerfully giving up myself forgetfully and undergoing humiliation forgivingly, that I am going to be wise with the wisdom of him who was wise before me and whose foolishness is the world's only hope.
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