Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Proverbs 1: 1-7 The Beginning of Wisdom

If you've ever watched The Sound of Music, you'll remember the moment when Maria is teaching the children how to sing. The song goes on about do a deer, a female deer (and so on). But before they get to that, they first hear these lines: 'Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi.' Before they start into intricate harmonies, they need to get the basics. By starting at the very beginning, they can then move on to everything else.

This Lent, we're going to learn from God's wisdom in the book of Proverbs. Over the course of the next few weeks, we'll see what God says about relationships, and work, and our use of the tongue, among other things. But before we get to those things, we need to start at the very beginning. Where does wisdom begin? What are the baby steps of being wise?

Most of the book of Proverbs are stand alone two-liners. They're collected together, and it's hard to see any rhyme or reason to their order. Some are by Solomon, some are by Lemuel, Agur, and others. It's a bit like a box of sweeties - you don't know what you'll get, the topics and themes vary, and you'll find something to catch your eye and chew over.

But the start of Proverbs is a sustained discussion. Chapters 1-9 are the words of instruction and teaching passed on from a father to his son. So, for example, in our second reading, we had the opening words 'My son, do not forget my teaching...' Solomon is teaching his son, training him for life, praising wisdom and warning against folly. But even before that, we get the purpose of the book of Proverbs. Here's what it's all about. It's all about wisdom, instruction, understanding, prudence, and guidance.

Everyone is in view. The simple in verse 4, and the youth. The wise are there as well in verse 5, so whatever you think of yourself; whatever others think of you; you are begin addressed. Here is wisdom to make you wiser, to grow in knowledge and insight. The school is open, if you will but listen. The Further Education Colleges are promoting life long learning, with courses to suit all tastes and personalities. Well here, Solomon is interested in lifelong learning. Whoever wants can come and listen and learn. But how are we going to do this? How can we start out in wisdom?

The whole introduction drives to its main point in verse 7: 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.' Knowledge begins with the fear of the Lord - and, as we heard at the start of the service 9:10 also says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Now when we hear those words, we maybe think of a shrinking back, fearful terror, the way some people are afraid of spiders or the dark or clowns (true story!). But when the Bible talks about 'the fear of the Lord' it's more an honouring, respecting, giving God his due place and glory.

Recently Stephen Fry has been making headlines for an interview he gave to Gay Byrne for an RTE programme broadcast a couple of weeks ago. In it he describes God as being 'an evil, capricious, monstrous maniac.' Fry is a celebrity intellectual, famous for his TV programme QI, in which he display his superior intelligence. Yet Solomon says that Stephen Fry hasn't even started in true wisdom, he hasn't got going with true knowledge. For all his brains, he actually despises wisdom and instruction from God.

As we launch into this time of Lent; as we listen in to God's wisdom, we're challenged straight away by the attitude of our heart. Will we bow before him in fear and awe? Or will we carry on, thinking we can become wise by ourselves, isolated from God?

The fear of the Lord is pictured in what may be the most famous verses from Proverbs. They were quoted to us at our wedding, and maybe even as yours as well. 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.' (Prov 3:5-6). Do you see how that fits with true wisdom? Bowing before the Lord, not leaning on your own understanding, acknowledging and depending on him displays this fear and respect.

Otherwise we're like the little child who wants to do everything for theirselves, only to realise after the mess has been made that they can't actually do it right. So often we can set out, we think we have all the answers, but then discover that things aren't as straightforward as they first appeared. When we get to that point, will we keep going, getting more and more tangled up, or will we confess our weakness, our folly, and turn to God for his wisdom?

Perhaps you're facing a situation at the moment. You're not sure where to turn or what to do. Solomon urges us to seek wisdom - not just any worldly wisdom, but God's wisdom. Turn to the creator, to the one who made us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Fear him, by bowing before him, and discover true wisdom - God's wisdom. That's the encouragement James, the brother of Jesus gives us in that last reading. If you lack wisdom, ask God, and he will generously give it.

Over the next few weeks, let's dive in to God's wisdom. There are 40 days in Lent, and 31 chapters of Proverbs, so even one chapter per day (with some days to catch up!) will get us through it this Lent. Let's bring ourselves to God, ask him to teach us, and discover his wisdom for life. Let's pray.

This sermon was preached at the Ash Wednesday Service in Aghavea Parish Church on 18th February 2015.

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