The Way of Wisdom—Sunday 24, Year B (16 September 2012)

Readings
Proverbs 1.20-33
James 3.1-12
Mark 8.27-38

Wisdom is absolutely crucial in the Bible; in fact, Wisdom is part of the Bible’s very structure. There are three groupings of books that make up the Old Testament:

  1. the Law (the first five books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy);
  2. the Prophets (including what we think of as the historical books); and
  3. the Writings. The Writings contain the ‘Wisdom’ books, which include

Job;
Psalms;
Proverbs;
Ecclesiastes;
Song of Songs.

There are two further Wisdom books found in what people sometimes call ‘The Apocrypha’ or the ‘Deuterocanonical’ books: The Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. We don’t have these books within the pages of the Bibles we use, but they are important books, and they are significantly quoted in the New Testament.

You know, there is a Wisdom Book in the New Testament too. James is a book of wisdom. The wisdom of James teaches us the character of God. But we need to listen closely to hear Wisdom’s words.

It’s not so easy to hear the voice of Wisdom. Many different and conflicting voices clamour for our attention every day of the week.

Advertisers tell us what to buy so that we can be successful. So we wonder why we’re not the centre of attention now we use the right deodorant.

Celebrities remind us that our lives are achingly dull compared to theirs, so we buy magazine after glossy magazine to feel that we’re sharing their happiness too.

Airbrushed photos of skinny models imply that any woman can be like them, and eating disorders are on the rise—including among young men.

Politicians tell us that the other side is rubbish, and they alone have the answers we need. So we vote for them, and are once more disillusioned by the political process.

But there’s another voice too, the voice of Wisdom.

In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified. Wisdom is pictured as a woman, sometimes referred to as ‘Lady Wisdom’ or the ‘Wisdom Woman’. In Proverbs 8, the Wisdom Woman is with God at the creation itself. In fact, the Wisdom Woman is really an aspect of God. We can’t fully think of the God of the Old Testament without including the figure of Wisdom. God is not only wise—God is Wisdom herself.

And when we come to the New Testament, Jesus is Wisdom made flesh. The Wisdom Woman becomes a baby boy.

In the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom calls out to the foolish ones. People don’t hear what she says (just the same as today, really!). In our Proverbs reading today, Wisdom is pretty upset with those who won’t listen. She says:

…because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you…

Wisdom’s method is to let them make their own mistakes. Maybe they’ll come back before it’s too late.

We are accumulating knowledge at an increasingly rapid rate these days. But one of our mistakes is to confuse knowledge with wisdom. In our day, with the chitter chatter of mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds, we are information-rich. If we want to know something, we Google it or look it up on Wikipedia. We are rich in knowledge, but are we rich in wisdom? Do we listen to Wisdom’s voice? Do we listen to God’s Wisdom?

Just knowing about something doesn’t automatically bring a sense of responsibility for what we know. The ancient Hebrews were not at all interested in knowledge or information for its own sake. They valued wisdom. Wisdom entails responsibility, love and care. We can have knowledge without responsibility. But we cannot have wisdom without responsibility.

Isn’t that what the Book of James says in different ways over and over again? Right at the beginning of the book, James 1.5 says:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

Follow James, and you’ll find wisdom. And it’s practical: Put what you believe into practice. Care for widows and orphans. Faith without works is dead. Watch your tongue.

The Wisdom Woman calls out to the foolish ones. Those who seek, who listen, who pay attention and obey will find her. She doesn’t whisper in our personal and private spaces. She calls out in the public places, where everyone hears. What do we read in Proverbs 1.20-21?

Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks…

The voice of Wisdom is meant to be heard out in the world of commerce, of politics, of newscasting. Wisdom is not a private pastime for like-minded people. Wisdom’s words should be shouted from the rooftops.

I prayed for wisdom about where to take this sermon from this point on. I decided to go back to what I said at the very beginning:

Wisdom is absolutely crucial in the Bible; in fact, Wisdom is part of the Bible’s very structure.

But the Wisdom books are very different from one another. They are so different, that we can have no simple definition of ‘biblical wisdom’. You can find ‘biblical wisdom’ defined like this: it is the

ability to judge correctly and to follow the best course of action, based on knowledge and understanding.

But that simple definition really ignores something very important: there is a dialogue going on among these Wisdom Books. At times, this dialogue is more of an argument. Let’s look at just one of the questions: are wise people happy? Does life go well for them?

Books like Proverbs tend to say that the wise are rewarded and the foolish are punished.

Look at today’s reading for an example. The Wisdom Woman says:

waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools
destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease,
without dread of disaster.

Listen to me, she says, and live. Turn away from me, and die. Is that what all the Wisdom books say? Let’s remind ourselves of the Wisdom Book that thoroughly denies the words of Lady Wisdom: the Book of Job.

Job is a righteous and godly man. He is afflicted with calamity upon calamity—the deaths of his children, the loss of his possessions, and loathsome sores from head to foot.

His friends come to help him. They sit with him for seven days in silence. That shows wisdom! But they spoil it when they open their mouths.

They know why he has suffered: it’s because he has foolishly sinned. God in his wisdom is punishing him. Eliphaz, one of Job’s ‘comforters’, says:

…your iniquity teaches your mouth,
and you choose the tongue of the crafty.
Your own mouth condemns you, and not I;
your own lips testify against you.

…do you limit wisdom to yourself?

Job protests his innocence. Job says he is not foolish. But in the minds of his friends, his suffering absolutely proves his lack of wisdom and his sin.

When we look forward to Jesus, what do we see? Do we see that wise living is always rewarded? Peter thinks so. Peter rebukes Jesus when he speaks of rejection and death. A man like Jesus could never suffer—he is God’s Chosen One! The wise are always rewarded, that’s the message of much of the scriptures.

But Jesus is taken and killed. And what’s more, he requires his followers to die to many things. Remember those voices that seek to take us away from Wisdom—advertising, celebrity culture and the rest—Jesus requires us not to base our lives on their messages. Jesus is teaching God’s perfect Wisdom when he says (Mark 8.35-37):

…those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

We can have perfect looks, and dream home and money to burn. Jesus says, What will it profit you to do that? Friends, there is true wisdom! It may look like the way of death and misery to others. But it is the way of the cross, the way that leads to life.

The message of Proverbs works a lot of the time. Live wisely, and all will be well; be foolish, and suffer. If I eat rubbish all day I’ll get sick. If I drive too fast, one day I’ll have an accident.

But it doesn’t follow that those who get sick or have accidents are all foolish. Sometimes, things just happen. Sometimes, people are ‘collateral damage’. When we ascribe sin or foolishness to those who suffer, we do a great disservice to the name of God, to the Scriptures and to one another.

The Wisdom of the Bible also includes those who suffer, like Job. It includes them because when the Wisdom Woman became flesh, he also suffered—and he was vindicated by God on the third day. When we suffer, we have a Saviour who walked the path before us and who leads us into life! Amen.

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